U of Illinois: Officials broke email rules to hide messages

Phyliis Wise
In this Aug. 3, 2015 photo, University of Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise, listens to athletic director Mike Thomas, during a news conference in Champaign, Ill. The university announced Friday, Aug. 7, 2015, that several administrators, including outgoing Chancellor Wise, violated school policy by using private emails to hide correspondence from public view. Those emails included discussions about controlling the damage from a controversy spurred by the revocation of a job offer to a professor who sent anti-Israel tweets. (John Dixon/ The News-Gazette via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

CHICAGO (AP) — The University of Illinois announced Friday that several administrators — including Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who resigned earlier this week — violated school policy by using private emails to hide sometimes sharply worded, disparaging correspondence from public view.

Hundreds of pages of emails released simultaneously include discussions about controlling the damage from a high-profile controversy spurred by the chancellor’s revocation of a job offer to a professor who sent anti-Israel Twitter messages.

Emails on three topics — professor Steven Salaita and his tweets, the hiring of 1970s-era radical James Kilgore and the opening of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine — should have been turned over in response to a Freedom of Information request, the university said in its statement.

Wise, whose salary was nearly $550,000 this year, also appears to appreciate that her emails could land her in trouble.

In an email dated Sept. 18, 2014, Wise wrote to one employee she was purposely not communicating on the university’s email system because of a litigation matter — one that was not related to the professor, Kilgore and the medical school.

“We are doing virtually nothing over our Illinois email addresses,” Wise wrote. “I am even being careful with this email address and deleting after sending.”

University spokesman Tom Hardy would not say if Wise was asked to step down before she resigned Thursday. In her resignation statement, Wise didn’t explain why she was stepping down, citing “external issues”.

Hardy on Friday also said any question of discipline for remaining employees who failed to disclose personal emails “would have to be determined by the president of the Board of Trustees.” There is no immediate plan to hold a special meeting to discuss the emails, he said.

In the statement Friday, University President Timothy Killeen says the University of Illinois “takes its commitment to FOIA compliance and integrity seriously.”

Both Wise’s office and the university spokesman said she was traveling and unavailable for comment. She did not immediately respond to a message left at a residential phone in Champaign. Her resignation is effective Aug. 12.

Some e-mails bemoan university operations as a whole.

In one, dated July 31 of last year, Wise wrote to Ilesanmi Adesida, the university’s provost, commiserating about complaints over the poor quality of a promotional video being used during a search for a new university president. Wise writes: “I think I still believe that a failed search is the best thing that could happen. Before signing off, she adds: “This place is so messed up.”

Adesida writes back later, saying, “I agree, this place is messed up. In my opinion, the University does not need for a President. … Well, we better get ready for the rain to fall. More controversy coming on.”

Wise’s decision to rescind a job offered to Salaita led to him filing a still-pending lawsuit against her and the school. It also prompted bad publicity in the academic world, where some questioned whether his right to free speech had been violated.

Salaita had written a series of tweets in 2014 complaining about Israeli military action in Gaza. Some university donors complained to Wise that the messages were anti-Semitic.

In others emails, administrators lamented that the school did not have better procedures in place to prevent hiring scandals.

“We have run into a buzz saw again!” Adesida wrote on July 24, 2014. “One thing that we would like to do is to figure out how we prevent this sort of highly charged and negative blow back like we have had on Kilgore and now Salaita in the future. … This is potentially a slippery territory!”

Kilgore served time for his role in a 1975 bank robbery committed by members of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army. He was eventually rehired in December months after the university told him it would no longer hire him.

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