I’ve written before about Steven Salaita, who was fired by Illinois University and its Chancellor Phyllis Wise for tweeting messages in support of the Palestinians in Gaza. His messages weren’t very civil and that was used as an excuse to terminate his contract.
Steven Salaita had given up a previous lectureship to take a position at Illinois but the University pretended that he hadn’t yet been hired. Well a judge last week held that was untenable.
And then Phyllis Wise resigned. She had been hiding e-mails on her own personal account and deleting them and advising others to hid emails. All of which is illegal under the Freedom of Information Act once litigation starts. She has possibly committed criminal acts, hence the resignation.
She agreed a $400,000 pay off and then resigned but the Trustees overturned the agreement refusing her resignation because it preferred to dismiss her. It has now agreed to accept a second resignation but there will be no pay off.
Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada has written extensively on what has been happening and the 2 articles below are by him.
|Chancellor Phyllis Wise during the University of Illinois Homecoming Parade, 24 October 2014. (via Facebook)|
Emails released last week raise serious questions about the university’s official story.
The university’s board of trustees is voting today on whether to approve a $400,000 bonus for Phyllis Wise who resigned on 6 August as chancellor, the top official of its flagship Urbana-Champaign campus.
Wise is a key figure in the firing of Salaita over his tweets critical of Israel.
What’s the story?The day after Wise announced her resignation, the university issued a press release which begins:
The University of Illinois became aware in late April that certain members of the Urbana-Champaign campus administration and other campus employees might have used personal email accounts for University-related communications, and that those emails may not have been made available to those at the University responsible for responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
The university then released more than 1,000 pages of the previously undisclosed emails about three controversial matters: Wise’s attempts to set up a college of medicine, the disqualification of James Kilgore from teaching contracts due to his criminal record and the employment of Steven Salaita.
But at least one of the emails (below) suggests that the university knew, or should have known, about the secret email ring months earlier.
The email, dated 16 December 2014, was sent from Chancellor Wise’s personal email account to Scott Rice, the university’s chief legal counsel.
In the email, Wise forwards talking points prepared by her son Andrew Wise, a Washington, DC, attorney, about the Salaita affair.
It is not clear whether Wise sent it to Rice’s official work email or to a private account.
What it suggests is that Rice, the university’s top lawyer, knew that Wise was using her personal email account.
Wise’s sonMoreover, as Andrew Scheinman points out at his Samizdat-Startup blog, the email Phyllis Wise sent to Scott Rice from her personal account “is clearly about university business – in fact, sensitive business that should NEVER have been shared by Wise with her son, Andrew.”
Scheinman adds that Rice, as university counsel, “should have immediately flagged [this] for discussion with Wise.”
According to Scheinman, who is himself an attorney, Phyllis Wise’s email ought to have raised alarms for Rice because “disclosure of information that may be otherwise claimed as exempt from discovery because it is shared internally LOSES that claim if sent to third parties, as Andrew Wise clearly was.”
What this means is that by sharing internal discussions about the Salaita case with her son, Wise could inadvertently end up helping Salaita make his case in court.
QuestionsI have put these questions to the university spokesperson’s office:
· Why is there a discrepancy between the university’s statement that it only learned of the use of private emails in April 2015 and the fact that university counsel Scott Rice apparently knew, or should have known, the previous December?
· Did Scott Rice use a personal email address to conduct university business?
· Was Scott Rice a subject of the “ethics inquiry” the university says it conducted into the use of personal emails?
The university does not have a good record of responding to my inquiries, but if they do on this occasion I will update this post.
ScapegoatThe bigger picture is this: while Wise certainly deserves all the blame she is getting for her handling of Salaita and other matters, she is not the only person responsible.
Indeed the talking points prepared by Andrew Wise seem aimed at protecting his mother from sole blame for Salaita’s firing and casting the primary responsibility on then board of trustees chair Christopher Kennedy.
In the pungent view of Scheinman, Wise is being “thrown under the bus as a way of preventing the flipping over of the rock on the rats-nest of enablement that surrounded her.”
The university must not be allowed to just shuffle her out of the door – with or without her outrageous bonus – and carry on business as usual.
UpdateThe executive committee of the University of Illinois’ board of trustees voted unanimously to reject Wise’s resignation along with the $400,000 bonus. Instead, the university will initiate dismissal proceedings against her. Barbara Wilson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has been named as her temporary successor.
Steven Salaita case, The Electronic Intifada can reveal.
Last week, the university acknowledged that senior officials, including Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise, had over the past year used private email addresses in an attempt to conceal their communications about the August 2014 decision to fire Salaita after he posted tweets critical of Israel.
Wise resigned suddenly on 6 August under a growing cloud over her conduct. The next day, the university released more than 1,000 pages of the previously hidden emails concerning the Salaita matter and other controversial university business.
As The Electronic Intifada reported, the emails indicate that Wise and others believed that using private addresses and other practices would allow their communications to evade disclosure.
Legal holdIn an 18 September 2014 email related to Salaita, Chancellor Wise wrote from her private account that university spokesperson Robin Kaler “has warned me and others not to use email since we are now in litigation phase. We are doing virtually nothing over our Illinois email addresses. I am even being careful with this email address and deleting after sending.”
The very next day, university employees connected with the Salaita matter, undoubtedly including Wise and others participating in the secret email exchanges, received a warning called a legal hold from the university’s external law firm Perkins Coie.
The Electronic Intifada has obtained a copy of the document, which is published in full below.
A legal hold is standard practice any time litigation is expected and its existence indicates that the outside counsel were being diligent.
Headlined in capitals, “Important legal notice for your immediate attention,” it warns that “Failure to comply with this Notice could subject you and the University to civil and criminal penalties.”
The document reveals that Salaita’s lawyers informed the university’s counsel on 16 September 2014 of their intention to file a lawsuit.
The detailed four-page memo warns emphatically: “Under no circumstances should you delete potentially relevant emails from your computer or from the network server.”
The hold applies to “any documents you create or receive at any time prior to receiving notice that the legal hold has been terminated.”
It includes among other things:
- Documents related to or in any manner discussing Steven G. Salaita;
- Documents related to statements on social media by Dr. Salaita in 2014, including any materials provided to the University by any third party commenting on any such statements by Dr. Salaita;
- Documents relating to the decision not to recommend Dr. Salaita to the Board of Trustees for approval.
When did Wise know?Wise’s email apparently admitting that she had deleted messages related to Salaita was sent one day before the hold notice went out, but after the university had been formally notified by Salaita’s lawyers of possible litigation.
The same email indicates that Wise herself had already been informed that “we are now in litigation phase.”
But it would be bizarre if Wise, the Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) campus’ top executive, only learned of the imminent litigation from the university’s spokesperson rather than being told directly by the lawyers as soon as they knew.
Wise’s official schedule, obtained by Urbana attorney Andrew Scheinman under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), shows that Wise was in Urbana-Champaign all day on 16 September 2014. (On 17 September she traveled to Chicago to catch a flight to Portland, Oregon, for a meeting of the board of Nike Corporation. In 2011, Wise was paid $237,000 for sitting on Nike’s board.)
Moreover, Wise would surely have been aware that a week earlier, on 9 September 2014, Salaita held a widely covered press conference at the University YMCA in Champaign where his attorneys announced his intention to sue.
There is no doubt that if Wise, or others, continued to conceal or destroy evidence after the hold was officially imposed, it could have serious adverse consequences for the university’s legal defense against Salaita’s ongoing lawsuit over his firing.
But according to Scheinman, who runs the investigative online publication Samizdat-Startups, Wise was likely advised of her duty to preserve evidence even earlier.
He notes that soon after a 24 July 2014 board meeting at which Salaita was discussed, the name of Scott Rice, the university’s in-house counsel, begins appearing in Salaita-related emails previously released to him under FOIA. Everything in the emails is redacted except for Rice’s name.
“This kind of redaction – nothing but the attorney’s name – indicates UIUC is likely claiming attorney client privilege, which it would only do if they were discussing, e.g., a litigation matter such as likely litigation by Salaita,” Scheinman told The Electronic Intifada.
The fact that Wise and other officials expected, or should have expected, litigation long before the formal legal hold was sent out suggests they already had a legal duty to preserve evidence during a period when Wise admitted to deleting emails.
“I would think Rice would have taken great pains to point out to Wise early on his – Rice’s – duty to UIUC – his client – to prevent any UIUC employees including Wise from destroying documents,” Scheinman said.
“My conclusion is that Wise was likely advised of possible or likely litigation as early as 25 July 2014,” Scheinman added.
Indeed Wise herself admits to anticipating a lawsuit as early as 31 July 2014, the day before she sent a letter to Salaita telling him that his job had been rescinded.
“It will be the beginning of a lawsuit, I am sure I will be deposed no matter who sends the letter,”
Wise predicted in an email to Provost Ilesanmi Adesida. “You may need to get ready as well.”
Windfall for WiseOn Wednesday, the board of trustees of the University of Illinois will vote on whether to approve Wise’s golden parachute, a “negotiated” windfall of $400,000.
Though she will give up her $549,000 chancellor’s salary, Wise will also get a faculty appointment that will still pay her $300,000 a year.
In an editorial, The Chicago Tribune criticized the massive sum promised to Wise, coming as it does after a “parade of scandals and the attempts to evade not only public scrutiny but state law through unsavory secrecy.”
In a twist of irony, former board chair Christopher Kennedy, another key figure in Salaita’s firing, also slammed the payment to Wise.
“I wouldn’t give someone $400,000 to leave peaceably if they [did what she did],” Kennedy told the Tribune.
On Tuesday afternoon, the administration of Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner called on the university to reject the $400,000 payment to Wise.
According to the Tribune, the board’s three-member executive committee – Chair Edward McMillan and members James Montgomery and Karen Hasara – will take the decision on behalf of the board.
It should be recalled that Montgomery was the only trustee to vote in favor of Salaita’s appointment in September last year.