Text of Wise's essay after vitriol over decision to hold classes

Text of Wise's essay after vitriol over decision to hold classes

UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise's essay from today's Inside Higher Ed:

Making an unpopular decision and accepting the ensuing criticism is part of the job of a university leader. Whether the topic is research priorities, academic freedom, athletics, or, as it turns out, snow days, there is always a range of opinion on a college campus. And there should be, provided the campus nurtures an environment where everyone feels safe entering into the debate.

When those opinions move from civil and respectful discourse into vitriolic attacks on an individual it can be discouraging and damaging — personally and institutionally. On Monday, about a dozen students, upset that classes were not canceled because of cold weather, took to social media to criticize the decision and to attack me — in comments that were vulgar, crude and in some instances racist and sexist.

People have asked me whether the attacks disturbed me.


Not necessarily on a personal level, because many of the comments could be dismissed as juvenile, notwithstanding the offensive language.

Not because the comments reflect the university community. The outpouring of support from our students, my colleagues and others — including heartfelt apologies from several of those who posted comments — has shown our true nature.

What was most disturbing was witnessing social media drive a discussion quickly into the abyss of hateful comments and even threats of violence. I shudder to think what might happen if that type of vitriol were directed at a vulnerable member of our student body or university community.

The negative comments, as offensive as they were, are protected speech. But what is protected expression and what is the level of discourse we as educators expect from our students can be very different things. And the size of that gap — so evident this week — is what has been most disappointing. Racist, intimidating or culturally derogatory epithets have no place in any debate in any circumstance. Of all places, a university should be home to diverse ideas and differing perspectives, where robust — and even intense — debate and disagreement are welcomed.

How do we foster such an atmosphere? Only through an unwavering and unrelenting commitment to building truly diverse communities of students and scholars. One dinner with someone who doesn't look like you and doesn't sound like you can open new worlds of ideas. You can sit in a classroom and discuss situations in Egypt or in Syria based on academic readings. But, to hear these issues explained by a classmate from that country, from her or his personal experience, in his or her voice — this is when an academic exercise can become a moment of personal transformation. That is why we say diversity is the route to excellence.

And, in fact, we are a diverse campus at Illinois, with students, faculty and staff from every state and more than 100 nations. They are a key part of what makes our university special, a community of cultures and ideas that generate original thought, outstanding research and the excitement that comes with working with the top people in their fields. But this incident shows that we still have work to do.

On Monday, Jan. 27, we held classes, as usual, at the University of Illinois. And, I hope, we all learned something.

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Deputy Fife wrote on January 30, 2014 at 9:01 am

I thought getting rid of Chief Illiniwek was supposed to solve these types of problems on the Urbana campus?  After the display of racism and sexism this past week, I now understand why Native Americans wouldn't want to represent this university.

Illiniwek222 wrote on January 30, 2014 at 10:01 am

Unfortunately, her "unwavering and unrelenting commitment to building truly diverse communities" doesn't extend to the majority who would welcome the return of the former respected, dignified symbol of the University.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on January 30, 2014 at 3:01 pm
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I don't want a Chief debate. But I'm bored with reading comments about "majority rule." Majority rule has never been an important aspect of American civil liberties. 


Not the 1st Amendment


Not the 4th Amendment


Not the 5th Amendment


And just because I'm willing to make a guess about your likes & dislikes


Not the 2nd Amendment


Tell me about your religious persuasion, and I'll tell you whether it would be allowed in a strictly majority-rule jurisprudence.

Deputy Fife wrote on January 30, 2014 at 4:01 pm


I agree with you.  The Bill of Rights in general was created to guarantee not only the rights of everyone, but especially the rights of the minority against laws created by the majority.  That is the true beauty and genius of the Bill of Rights.

I don't want to start a Chief debate either, but I do think it is ironic how there seems to be more examples corruption (President White, Chancellor Herman, "Prez" Mike Hogan, law school scandal), sexism and racism (engineering Professor Louis Wozniak, the twitter commnets aimed at Chancellor Wise) since the Chief was removed.  For decades we were told how the Chief embarassed the University in the eyes of the world and yet, the debate was civil. Maybe all of that debate over the Chief distracted us from the real issues going on at the university.

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on January 31, 2014 at 12:01 am
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I'm underwhelmed by the case against Herman and White. I'm underwhelmed by the case against Hogan

I graduated from the law school in '98, and they were trying to inflate their numbers & prestige from the day I arrived (literally, in the meet n' greet) to the day I left (literally, asking me to claim "employed" on a survey for the summer job I was working while studying for the bar exam).


I know we're all really touchy about eveyrthing these days. But it looks like this new generation is going to change that trend. They don't care about anything, and will tell you so, to your e-face.

In that sense (and only that sense) maybe we can all take some comfort from the #HOORAYPHYLLIS fiasco.

Bulldogmojo wrote on January 30, 2014 at 12:01 pm

When bigotry and ignorance erupts on twitter or the internet or in everyday life the appropriate reaction is to distance yourself from it and if need be make a personal statement against it. However the people who make these marginalizing statements own that junk. They walk around with it, it goes home with them when they do and it is truly their burden in their life. You don't have to let it go home with YOU.

Now let's get back to something more important like keeping an eye on Congressman who have to have the definition of rape re-explained to them over and over again.

wayward wrote on January 30, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Good essay.

Sid Saltfork wrote on January 30, 2014 at 2:01 pm

So the hateful comments of "about a dozen students" made it to an essay in today's Inside Higher Ed?  Those 9 to 12 students sure stirred up a hornet's nest.  Wow... look at all of the attention generated.  More than a dozen distinguished people have come to the rescue of Dr. Wise.  It appears that Dr. Wise did the wise thing about those dirty dozen.  Report them, write an essay for a national publication, have a multitude of distinguished citizens spout outrage, and ask for healing.  Sadly, the majority of people would have just shrugged it off as one in every 3000 not liking them based on ignorance.

chumberley wrote on January 30, 2014 at 9:01 pm

As a student on this campus, I can assure you that the negative attention was not Chancellor Wise's doing.  A Buzz Feed article regarding the twitter feed is what drew attention to the situation.  Chancellor Wise wrote the essay to address the national criticism the University was receiving.  Addressing the situation was the right thing to do to try to redeem the reputation of this campus.  Personally, I am ashamed and embarrassed by the actions of these students.  I applaud Chancellor Wise and other administrators for coming out with statements condemning such behavior.

Sid Saltfork wrote on January 31, 2014 at 11:01 am

"Try to redeem the reputation" of the flagship state university?  That ship has sailed.

Rather than keep the trashy comments of about a dozen students alive by hammering on, and on about it; it may have been better to shrug it off with one simple press statement.  The controversy just adds more attention to a nationally known, scandal ridden university.  The less that Illinois is in the headlines the better it has to slowly live down it's reputation.  The actions by the university so far seems to be over kill, and brings on more attention.  Although, some have benefited from the attention.

I am curious though about how many classes were cancelled by instructors; and if Dr. Wise made her presence on campus visable on that day.  Faced with a similar weather situation, Dick Herman had his picture taken helping push a car out of the snow.  To expect full compliance of the entire student population in polite discourse is unrealistic in this day of age.  If this was so terrible, people must have missed the 60's.   

femanvate wrote on January 30, 2014 at 9:01 pm

Not too many years ago, I remember we all went to ALL our classes on a day it hit 25 below zero. Sure we complained about the weather and the cold, but no one second guessed the schools administrators. I hope Phyllis doesn't let a bunch of priveleged misbehaved brats faze her. Karma will help them find their place in life, and I guarantee you that one of those places will not be with my firm.

Tom Napier wrote on February 02, 2014 at 12:02 am

I agree and disagree with your comments, Deputy Fife.

If the number "a dozen" offensive remark directed toward Chancellor Wise is reasonably accurate, that represents roughly 0.029% of the student population -- twenty-nine thousandths of one percent.

By charactizing the University of Illinois as racist and sexist based on 0.029% of the student body population, and dismissing the remaining 99.971%, you've just created a grossly misrepresentitive stereotype of the UI.  I thought Chief opponents were offended by stereotypes.  You can be offended, or you can create stereotypes to support your own opinin. Choose one; you can't have both. 

If some group, Native American or otherwise, distanced themselves from an organization because of 0.029% of its members, they're trying awfully hard -- needle in a haystack hard -- to be offended.  The qualities of the remaining 99.971%, many of whom came to Dr. Wise's defense, apparently don't count.  In addition to indulging in stereotypes, that's throwing the baby out with the bath water.

You conclude that getting rid of Chief Illiniwek didn't solve racism and sexism problems after all. To that statemen, I do agre.



Deputy Fife wrote on February 03, 2014 at 9:02 am

Tom Napier, long ago Chief opponents labeled the U of I as racist as long as the Chief was the symbol of the University. Getting rid of the Chief was supposed to end racism on the U of I campus. Unfortunately, the events of last week prove that the oversimplification and manifestation of racism in the form of the Chief by those who opposed the Chief did not solve the problem of racism on the U of I campus.