Smile Politely

Good riddance, Phyllis

I am the type to always look for the good in other people, especially when their actions suggest more devious intentions. Supporters of Donald Trump probably aren’t malicious people, they’re just frustrated and maybe a little naive. Darth Vader turned out to still be a good guy at heart, even if his love for his family lead him to do some terrible things to those Sand People. Phyllis Wise may be a special case, though.

If you haven’t read SmilePolitely this week (or News-Gazette or Chicago Tribune or Inside Higher Ed or USA Today), you’re probably unaware that the University is making headlines once again. On Thursday, Chancellor Wise announced her resignation with a vaguely worded statement in which she explained that “external issues have arisen over the past year that have distracted us from the important tasks at hand.” Fewer than 24 hours later, the University released the findings of an internal investigation, revealing that Wise and other faculty members discussed University business over private emails in a deliberate attempt to sidestep FOIA requests. Classy stuff.

The ethics probe did turn up some of the emails Wise sent from her personal account. My favorite is the one where she sounds like every other web-challenged Boomer: “we are doing virtually nothing over our Illinois email addresses. I am even being careful with this email address and deleting after sending.”

While the released messages do not outline illegal behavior by Wise, they do expose a clear lack of transparency and manipulation that is inappropriate for a public figure.

In one email, Wise admits to holding private meetings with individual board members because “if [she] spoke with more than two at a time, it would fall under the Open Meetings Act requirement.”

In another, Wise and campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler coordinated the physical distribution of documents rather than by email, a maneuver they state is designed to avoid FOIA requests. Wise expresses resistance to the appointment of a new president because it would apparently diminish her authority as Chancellor, saying that “a failed search is the best thing that could happen.”

Yikes, right? All of the emails can be found here.

It isn’t like this is the first time Wise’s actions have embarrassed the University, either. Whether or not you agree with the content of the tweets that got Steven Salaita fired, it seems clear in retrospect that the Board of Trustees was wrong to rescind their job offer – especially after a judge dismissed the University’s motion to dismiss Salaita’s lawsuit Tuesday. The threat to academic freedom posed by Wise and the board compelled the American Association of University Professors to censure the school back in June. There’s also Wise’s membership on the board of directors of Nike, a position she has held on to tightly since being appointed chancellor four years ago.

Amidst all this, I can’t help but wonder: is the designation of the University of Illinois as a public university is still an accurate assessment? The lack of transparency among the administration, especially surrounding decisions made by Chancellor Wise, is indicative of a corporatized academic climate. Phyllis Wise will not be missed.

(Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois)

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