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Why It Matters University Of Illinois Officials Used Private Emails For Work

Sun, 2015-08-09 11:14

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise's surprise resignation was followed closely by an announcement that she and others at the university's flagship campus had used private email accounts to avoid public scrutiny of their deliberations on key issues.

It is the latest in a series of controversies for the university, including allegations of mistreatment by athletes in three sports this year, a 2009 admissions scandal and faculty unrest in 2012 that both drove away top leaders.

Here are some things to know about the new developments:



The University of Illinois is, first and foremost, a public institution that depends on the state and federal governments for large portions of its funding. That means electronic and paper communications between its employees, up to the top administrators such as Wise, are subject to public disclosure and scrutiny.

"A desire to maintain confidentiality on certain sensitive University-related topics was one reason personal email accounts were used," the university said Friday as it released the more than 1,000 pages of the emails.

Some of the emails make clear that Wise and others were discussing matters subject in some cases to legal action, and in others saying things potentially embarrassing to the university.

"We are doing virtually nothing over our Illinois email addresses," Wise wrote in one of the emails.


The emails were primarily about the recently approved plan to open a new medical school at the Urbana-Champaign campus Wise was in charge of, the employment of a felon at the campus, and the decision to rescind a job offer to a professor.

The medical school, which Wise championed, will open in addition to the university's existing med school in Chicago, and the emails make clear that she had to overcome opposition to win its approval.

The professor, Steven Salaita, has since sued the university. And the decision to pull his job offer angered a vocal minority of faculty members.

And the felon, James Kilgore, served prison time for his part in a 1975 bank robbery committed by members of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army that led to a California woman's death. After his hiring came to light, he was told he could no longer work at the university, but late last year was rehired.


University spokesman Tom Hardy says someone who was aware of them - he declines to say who - pointed out their existence around the same time as employees combing through emails to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request found a reference in one university email account to checking "your other email."


In addition to noting why university email accounts weren't being used, Wise and others used their private emails to speak more freely than they generally do in public.

When in late July 2014 the university became aware of Salaita's anti-Israel Twitter messages, which some university donors called anti-Semitic in previously released correspondence, campus Provost Ilesanmi Adesida sounded an alarm.

"We have run into a buzz saw again!" Adesida wrote. "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."

And Wise says in one email to Adesida: "This place is so messed up."


Much of what comes next is unclear. What is certain is Wise's resignation is effective Wednesday. Timothy Killeen, president of the university system that includes the Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield campuses, plans to name an interim chancellor within days while beginning a search for a permanent replacement. That could take six to nine months.

University spokesman Tom Hardy says it isn't know yet whether other university employees could be disciplined and, if they are, if that information would ever be made public. Hardy says those decisions are Killeen's, and he has not yet commented in any detail.

Wise, under the terms of her contract, is expected to take a year off and then join the university's faculty in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology. Her salary will likely be something close to $300,000 a year, based on contract terms that say her pay will be comparable to the current highest paid employee in the department, Hardy said.

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