U. of I. officials used personal email to hide discussions – Chicago Tribune
University of Illinois senior administrators used personal email accounts to discuss sensitive and controversial issues, and then failed to disclose the records when they were requested by the public.
U. of I. released 1,100 pages of emails Friday on three hot-button issues, some of which would have been responsive to previous open records requests. The documents are related to Steven Salaita, the professor whose job offer was withdrawn last year; the hiring of felon James Kilgore; and the proposal to open a new engineering-based medical school on the Urbana-Champaign campus.
Many of the emails are from the personal account of U. of I. Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who abruptly resigned Thursday.
“A desire to maintain confidentiality on certain sensitive University-related topics was one reason personal email accounts were used to communicate about these topics,” according to a U. of I. news release. “Some emails suggested that individuals were encouraged to use personal email accounts for communicating on such topics.”
The employees’ use of personal email accounts to conduct university business raises questions about transparency and secrecy at the state’s flagship public institution. What’s more, U. of I. employees had been previously instructed that using private devices would not be a way to avoid public records laws and would be subject to disclosure, according to a 2012 employee newsletter from the university’s ethics office.
“If you are conducting University business (including teaching) through a personal email account (e.g., gmail, hotmail, yahoo), then the University-related communications are subject to (the Freedom of Information Act), regardless of whether they are generated on private equipment or in personal accounts,” the newsletter stated.
According to the U. of I., school officials learned in late April that campus administrators and faculty were using personal email accounts and that those emails had not been produced in response to 10 FOIA requests. The university launched an ethics inquiry with the help of outside legal counsel from Jones Day. The review covered 2014 and 2015.
On Friday, U. of I. said it was releasing the emails related to the three topics, some of which were not subject to FOIA but that the university was releasing nonetheless “in the interest of transparency and disclosure.”
“The University of Illinois takes its commitment to FOIA compliance and integrity seriously,” U. of I. President Timothy Killeen said in a statement.
Wise did not return calls from the Tribune.
Some of the emails will be embarrassing for the university. In one from late July 2014, Wise and Provost Ilesanmi Adesida discuss a video produced last year during the search for a new university president.
“The more boring and unprofessional this comes across, the harder it will be to get a president,” Wise wrote from her personal account. “I don’t know how I feel about that. … I think I still believe that a failed search is the best thing that can happen.”
In that same email, Wise predicts that Salaita will file a lawsuit against the university and shares a draft of a letter that she was asked to sign. The letter is redacted.
Wise ends the email with: “This place is so messed up.”
The release of Wise’s emails comes a day after she abruptly announced that she was stepping down as chancellor after four years. She cited “external issues” as the reason, saying they were distracting the university from achieving its goals.
U. of I. spokesman Thomas Hardy said Friday that the emails “would constitute an external issue,” but would not directly say whether they were related to her resignation.
“She has been aware of this situation and the investigation,” he said. She provided the emails when asked and was “cooperative,” Hardy said.
Hardy said it has not been determined whether any employees will be disciplined, and that decision will be made by the president and board of trustees.
The emails show that Wise sought the advice of top faculty leaders when deciding how to respond to the controversy over hiring Salaita, and used her personal email account when discussing strategy with faculty and other administrators.
The university withdrew a job offer to Salaita weeks before he was scheduled to start teaching. The job was rescinded after Salaita made a series of critical and sometimes profane comments on social media about Israel and its military policies.
In September 2014, Wise wrote that she had to be careful about what she wrote, noting that the university is “now in litigation phase.”
“We are doing virtually nothing over our Illinois email addresses,” she wrote to a law school faculty member and at least one other individual whose name was redacted. “I am even being careful with this email address and deleting after sending.”
To be sure, Wise is hardly the first public official to use a personal email account to conduct official business. Most notably, Hillary Clinton earlier this year was criticized for exclusively using a personal email account to conduct government business while she was secretary of state.
The Illinois FOIA law does not specify whether emails sent through personal accounts are subject to open records law. In 2013, however, a state appellate court upheld an attorney general opinion that found emails and text messages stored on public officials’ private computers and devices are subject to FOIA when the subject matter is official business.
Legal experts say the use of private email accounts for public business is widespread.
“It’s an endemic issue,” said Adam Marshall, a legal fellow for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “I think the public reaction often is that something is being deliberately withheld from them.
“It really can damage the public’s trust in that official and (institution).”
Wise, chancellor and vice president of the Urbana-Champaign campus since 2011, will step down Aug. 12 and will receive $400,000 as part of her resignation agreement. She would have been eligible for a $500,000 retention bonus if she had stayed through the length of her contract next year, or if the board of trustees had decided to end her contract sooner, according to her employment agreement.
Wise, 70, is expected to join the faculty after her resignation is effective next week — though, according to her contract, she is first eligible for a one-year sabbatical. Her salary is $549,069 this year, and her new faculty salary is expected to be about $300,000.