Salaita emails reveal possible donor influence in Wise’s decision

By Josh Winters

Emails between Chancellor Phyllis Wise and opponents of Steven Salaita’s appointment to the American Indian Studies program reveal that University donors, alumni and current students lobbied Wise to rescind what was said to be an “indefinite” tenure track offer of employment.

The Daily Illini received the emails under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

On Oct. 3, Salaita received an offer letter signed by interim LAS dean Brian Ross for a position as associate professor in AIS. The email clarified, however, that the position was still subject to the approval of the Board of Trustees.

In an email dated July 21, campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler responded to The News Gazette, acknowledging Salaita’s tweets with this statement: “Faculty have a wide range of scholarly and political views, and we recognize the freedom of speech rights of all of our employees.” In the same email, Kaler confirmed that Salaita would begin his position as scheduled on Aug. 16. 

Shortly after, dozens of emails began rolling in from donors, explicitly threatening the withdrawal of financial support if the University moved forward with Salaita’s appointment. Donor names are blacked out on the documents, however, to protect the senders’ personal information.

“We will now cease our annual contributions to the University and will let our fellow alumni know why we are doing so,” an alumnus said in an email, dated July 24. “We will encourage others to join us in this protest, as perhaps financial consequences will sway you even though morals, common sense and decency did not.”

Another University alumnus expressed dissatisfaction over Salaita’s hire, stating, “You also damage the reputation and standing of the University in the world, in the academic community, and will undoubtedly also affect the support of what is otherwise a fine institution from alumni, including myself.” 

However, on Aug. 1, Wise sent an email to Salaita stating his appointment would not be forwarded to the Board of Trustees because its approval was unlikely.

While a majority of the emails were forwarded to Board of Trustees Secretary Susan Kies and did not receive direct responses from Wise, one correspondence chain appeared to merit special attention directly from the chancellor.

In the email thread, one correspondent expressed their desire to talk with Wise over the phone or meet in person to discuss Salaita’s hire, and attached their schedule in the message.

“If I move a couple of meetings around, I could leave from Chicago,” Wise wrote. “If I do that, would you be free to meet around noon-1 p.m.?”

Buried in a several hundred page PDF packet are over a dozen identical emails sent to Wise between July 29 and July 30. The only unique feature about these emails were their subject lines, although there was little variation. Subject lines read, “Anti Israel Professor” and “Anti Semitism in Champaign Urbana.”

While the names of the senders were redacted, many of the emails were signed by “the Jewish Community of Champaign Urbana.”

Chancellor Wise  previously told The News Gazette that the decision to withdraw Salaita’s job offer was not influenced by pressure from donors.  

“On this, I have heard from people who supported me, as well as those who criticized me. In coming to a decision, I was not influenced by any of them,” Wise said. “My primary concern was for our students, the campus and the University.” 

Despite many attempts made by The Daily Illini, the Office of the Chancellor could not be reached for comment.

In a special meeting held on Sept. 1, Wise met with seven student protesters hoping to reinstate Salaita to a rescinded job offer. 

While the students initially called the meeting with Wise a success, University Spokesman Tom Hardy clarified Wednesday that as far as he knew, Salaita would not be on a list of faculty to be approved by the Board of Trustees at its next meeting on Sept. 11, contrary to what protesters said they were led to believe.

Following the meeting, Stephanie Skora, senior in LAS and one of the students in attendance at Monday’s meeting, expressed her satisfaction with the chancellor, who allegedly stressed that the Board of Trustees would determine Salaita’s future.

Hardy said he believes the Board of Trustees support Wise in her decision not to reconsider Steven Salaita.

In an interview with The Chicago Tribune on Saturday, Christopher Kennedy, board chair, said the board was open to a financial settlement with Salaita. 

However, Hardy denied to comment on any personal or legal matters when asked to confirm the information. 

Josh can be reached at [email protected]