Widespread use of private email revealed a day after Wise resigns

Widespread use of private email revealed a day after Wise resigns

University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise conducted extensive university business on a private email account and failed to provide key documents in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, documents released by the university show.

The UI disclosed Friday that an ethics investigation revealed that certain administrative officials used personal email to conduct UI business and failed to turn over those documents as requested, a violation of university policy.

The findings came one day after Wise announced that she would step down as chancellor next week.

The more than 1,100 personal emails released by the university included many from Wise, but a university spokesman declined to say whether the ethics investigation led to her departure.

The emails had been the subject of 10 separate FOIA requests by eight separate individuals. The topics covered in the requests were Steven Salaita, James Kilgore and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine.

In several emails, Wise indicated she was trying deliberately to avoid FOIA disclosure by using her personal account — even though the UI instructs employees that personal emails about university business have to be examined for FOIA requests under university policy.

After the university learned about the personal emails, an official ethics inquiry was launched in late April by the University Counsel, University Ethics and Compliance and the external legal firm Jones Day, which was used to investigate inflated student profile data at the College of Law. The university paid Jones Day about $175,000 for the inquiry, which covered 2014 and 2015.

"A desire to maintain confidentiality on certain sensitive University-related topics was one reason personal email accounts were used to communicate about these topics," the UI's release said. "Some emails suggested that individuals were encouraged to use personal email accounts for communicating on such topics."

Wise's 'shocking' behavior

In a March 19, 2014, email about the proposed College of Medicine, Wise wrote: "I may be getting paranoid, but since someone has FOIed all of the emails that (research park director) Laura Frerichs has exchanged between herself and the internal and external advisory board members with regards to the COM, I am using my personal email and sending it to (name redacted) personal email."

In a September 2014 email regarding the Steven Salaita lawsuit, Wise wrote that campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler "has warned me and others not to use email since we are now in litigation phase. We are doing virtually nothing over our Illinois email addresses. I am even being careful with this email address and deleting after sending."

"It is shocking that Chancellor Wise was not only using her private email to avoid transparency, but deleting emails subject to litigation," said Maria LaHood of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing Salaita in his federal lawsuit against the UI.

A Champaign County judge recently ordered the university to turn over thousands of documents on the case to Salaita. Besides Wise, the documents included emails from personal accounts held by Provost Ilesanmi Adesida and Board of Trustees Chairman Edward McMillan, as well as other administrators and professors.

But UI spokesman Thomas Hardy declined to say which individuals had been targeted in the FOIA requests and failed to turn over documents.

Hardy said administrators conducted other university business on their personal accounts as well, but the emails released Friday were the ones relevant to the FOIA requests. He also said some of the emails in the documents released have been made public through previous FOIA requests, as they'd been forwarded to other accounts.

What led to this

The problem came to light when officials came across an email for a FOIA request that referred to someone's "other email" account, Hardy said.

"We were told by somebody with information that it appeared that some individuals may be using personal emails and not making them available for consideration and FOIA responses," he said.

When investigators began their work, they found that "reliance on personal emails was becoming active or more prevalent" in January and February 2014 regarding plans for the new College of Medicine, so they included both 2014 and 2015 in their inquiry, Hardy said.

At that time, emails show, Wise was contacting business leaders and politicians to build support for the proposal, which was not yet public.

Employees are not prohibited from using personal emails to discuss university business, Kaler said. But a power-point used in FOIA training instructs them that "using a non-university email account or phone for university business doesn't necessarily protect that information from FOIA."

"It doesn't matter where the documents are. They can be electronic on your personal email, they can be in the trunk of your car. You have to produce them. That's the rule," she said.

In another email exchange with Kaler, Wise asked whether the UI's "box," or file-sharing server, would protect documents from FOIA disclosure. Kaler said it would not, though she noted that it "does reduce the number of electronic copies floating around campus." She also said the documents in question were protected from FOIA because they were drafts, but at some point the final versions would be subject to disclosure.

"Obviously, it probably would be best if people could limit their emails as they relate to university matters to their university email," Hardy said. "What people have to understand is that if we get a FOIA request on a particular topic or issue," the university has to be sure that it is providing all documents responsive to that request, whether on a personal or UI email account.

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act defines public records, including electronic communications, as all documents "pertaining to the transaction of public business, regardless of physical form or characteristics, having been prepared by or for, or having been or being used by, received by, in the possession of, or under the control of any public body."

It does not address whether that includes personal emails, and case law is unclear on the issue.

'Transparency and trust'

Hardy said The News-Gazette's lawsuit in Madigan v. City of Champaign could apply, but it does not directly answer whether personal emails by UI employees are subject to FOIA. In that lawsuit, the city was forced to release text messages by council members during council meetings because the council was acting as a public body when the messages were sent.

However, Esther Seitz, a media law attorney at Donald M. Craven P.C., which represented The News-Gazette in that case, said the ruling made clear that any correspondence by a public official about public business is a public record.

Hardy said he doesn't know whether there will be any more resignations as a result of the inquiry.

"That would be something that would be determined by the president and Board of Trustees," he said.

Wise, who is traveling, could not be reached for comment Thursday or Friday. In her resignation announcement, she said that "external issues" over the last 12 months had become a distraction from her work as chancellor.

"She was aware that this inquiry was under way, because it involved her emails, and she cooperated with the inquiry," Hardy said. "Was this one of the issues she referred to? I don't know."

As a response to the inquiry, the university revised its FOIA policy to ensure more transparency in the future, officials said. While UI policy already tells employees that personal email accounts are subject to FOIA, the FOIA officer added clearer, more specific language on the issue.

The UI ethics office also held in-person training for 30 senior officials attending the May 7 Board of Trustees meeting, and will require senior officials to confirm compliance annually. Reminders and group training sessions will also become more available.

"Today, we have released documents to fulfill any incomplete FOIA requests," President Timothy Killeen said in a statement. "I am fully committed to a strong culture of transparency and trust, and I expect all U of I employees will be as well."

'A little embarrassing'

Professor Nicholas Burbules, whose personal emails to Wise about the Salaita case were included in the batch released Friday, said it's "a little embarrassing" that communications he considered personal were being made public, but "I stand by everything that I said."

Burbules said he supports the open records law, but says the situation raises larger questions about what constitutes university business.

"I fully support transparency and the need for public deliberations about public policy issues at a public university," he said. "But there's clearly a line, and I think it's a blurry line, between the conduct of university business and personal communication from Person A to Person B that is about a university matter but which is an expression of an individual opinion or a question or a half-baked thought that is a conversation. It's about a university matter but it doesn't seem to me that that is the conduct of university business."

He fears a "chilling effect" on communications between faculty members and administrators.

"I think people will become less willing to exchange frank, honest opinions ... if they're worrying that someday it's going to show up in the paper or on some blog site," he said, noting that it could push communication "even further into private channels that are no longer FOIA'ble. And that's not good either."

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tominmadison wrote on August 08, 2015 at 8:08 am

I have an idea: hire ethical people with sound values.

Consider the parade of a scandals now reaching back a decade. UIUC is now undeniably damaged. Rather than hiring branding consultants, try just once, doing the right thing. 



if it were a screenplay no one would believe it. The late Robert Altman would have loved this for a Mash like movie. Consider a professor who heads an ethics center being near the center of an ethics investigation. 


who needs ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK when you have good old Illinois?


Maybe Netflix or HBO will be interested.


Jake; it's Champaign (imagine Jack Nicholson)


ROB McCOLLEY wrote on August 08, 2015 at 1:08 pm
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Yeah, this changes the entire conversation.

Hiding from public scrutiny is exactly what you don't do at a public institution.

EdRyan wrote on August 08, 2015 at 8:08 am

So it looks like Chancellor Wise was set up to take the fall for the Salaita mess.  This is all going to get very, very interesting.

99characters wrote on August 08, 2015 at 8:08 am

If Hillary can get away with using private e-mails for Department of State matters, even classfied....why not Wise?

sweet caroline wrote on August 08, 2015 at 11:08 am

From Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:  

“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).

The saga taking place at UIUC is getting curiouser and curiouser.  I'm wondering if the emails were written on Phyllis Wise's personal computer or work computer (if it even matters).  And wondering if Robin Kaler will be implicated as a party to the supposed cover-up.

sweet caroline wrote on August 08, 2015 at 11:08 am

I hate that stupid Captcha function.  


Bulldogmojo wrote on August 08, 2015 at 11:08 pm


Finally someone getting to the real issue on this website. Hey NG knock it off with Captcha!!!

Well said Caroline

Damn I just realized I will now have to use the captcha to tell you that UGH

Sid Saltfork wrote on August 08, 2015 at 2:08 pm

Burbules comments appear to show that he still does not understand "a university matter" from "university business".   He definitely needs a course in Ethics.  Is there a class on Ethics at the university?

Sideliner wrote on August 08, 2015 at 2:08 pm

The buck stops with the Chancellor, but there were many partners in crime. Perhaps the Provost, for example, deserves equal billing with equal consequence. 

wayward wrote on August 09, 2015 at 11:08 am

Read through the emails, and noticed that there seemed to be a sort of echo chamber involving Wise and a trusted inner circle of like-minded allies. I didn't notice any of them saying, "Hey, this might not be a good idea," even when Wise was encouraging use of personal email accounts to try to avoid FOIA.

Wise has done some good things as chancellor, and the others involved seem more like true believers than sycophants. But still, this kind of groupthink doesn't always lead to good decision-making.

Jam wrote on August 08, 2015 at 3:08 pm

It seems that all of this is surrounded with influence from Chris Kennedy.  He apparently led the way against the professor from W. Virginia and he was trying to undo the Medical School idea.  Chancellor Wise was apparently focused in on getting the Engineering-Med school through and was working the board and politicians to accomplish the goal for the UI.  Sadly, a real good person felt the need to break the rules to get the Eng-Med School project accomplished.  I think C. Kennedy forced this response.

ERE wrote on August 08, 2015 at 4:08 pm
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Of course, Burbules stands by everything he said in the emails...DUH!!! LOL


mjerryfuerst wrote on August 08, 2015 at 6:08 pm

My dispositon is to disagree with Burbules' remarks, but before judging, i am  curious about the now relased communications Burbules had with Wise and others that he found a little embarrassing.    

vcponsardin wrote on August 08, 2015 at 6:08 pm

A little lesson I learned years ago:  Never put anything in an email you wouldn't want published on the front page of the NY Daily News.  Anything.  Ultimately, there is no such thing as "private" email.

787 wrote on August 08, 2015 at 8:08 pm

Isn't this pretty much what Hillary Clinton did?

But when you're Hillary Clinton, you don't apologize, you don't change... you just keep on being Hillary.

Like must be easier when you're a liberal democrat.  You're never wrong, and you never apologize.


Sid Saltfork wrote on August 08, 2015 at 11:08 pm

The article is not about democrats versus republicans.  It is about a public employee, a state university administrator, who engaged in unethical behavior.  Who says that Wise is not a "liberal democrat"?  Your mixing apples with oranges.  Your views of Hillary are not that much different from mine.  The only difference is that I despise the leadership of both parties.

Bulldogmojo wrote on August 08, 2015 at 11:08 pm


No this story is not about Hillary Clinton. If Hillary violated her very different regulations let her hang for it.

Stay focused this is about Phyllis Wise's disregard for University Ethics and being handed her hat.

and no life is easier when you're a billionaire buying your way into a governor's office promising lower middle class rubes you will change their lives with tax breaks for the 1 % that will trickle down to them...


and again we're talking about the content and timelines of emails and evading the ethics office. It takes a little more effort on your part than typing but but but what about Hillary while you drool in your depends.

Put your gun down, stop praying and start reading and thinking.


wayward wrote on August 09, 2015 at 11:08 am

Food for thought ... it seems like UI has churned through a lot of top leadership in the last 15 years or so, with many of them being involved in some kind of controversy. Easter would be a notable exception, and it seemed like he was serving out of loyalty rather than ambition. Is there something about the nature of the jobs, or about the institution itself that contributes to this?

sweet caroline wrote on August 09, 2015 at 12:08 pm

Very funny, bulldogmojo.  :)

CAPTCHA routinely tells me it doesn't like my answer to the puzzle.  

Reykjavik wrote on August 09, 2015 at 3:08 pm

OK, the chancellor used a non-UIUC email account to discuss pretty boring stuff. I didnt see any zingers, just handwringing.  

If the worst that we have to worry about is administrators whining on a nonUIUC email account, things are in pretty good shape!  

What nefarious business did she engage in? 

EdRyan wrote on August 09, 2015 at 3:08 pm

The nefarious business is the intent to hide discussion of public business by public employees so as to avoid disclosure in response to legal discovery or an FOIA request.  

wayward wrote on August 09, 2015 at 5:08 pm

Yeah, the ironic thing is that she really didn't say anything particularly scandalous in the emails. She didn't seem to have the highest opinion of some people, e.g., Chris Kennedy and Laurel Prussing, but she was pretty restrained (and probably wasn't the only one who felt that way).

IlliniwekMerica wrote on August 10, 2015 at 8:08 am

It really does seem like she was being harassed with FOIA requests over the Carle/ U of I partnership, which is absolutely no excuse to skirt the rules, but understandable. 

It's not like Laurel Prussing was her best friend over that issue; I think most rational people share Ms. Wise's opinion on Queen Laurel.

wayward wrote on August 10, 2015 at 11:08 am

Prussing's done some positive things as mayor, but expecting Wise to get UI involved in the fight over Carle and property taxes was kind of tone-deaf.

EdRyan wrote on August 09, 2015 at 3:08 pm

I don't believe that the rate of  turnover is necessarily higher, but the drama associated with the turnover has certainly reached record levels.

wayward wrote on August 09, 2015 at 5:08 pm

It does seem like the turnover post 2000 has been a little higher. Cantor, Hermann, White, and Wise lasted a few years, and Hogan about two. But yeah, I agree there's been a fair amount of drama. It's hard to believe that no administrators in the 80s and earlier ever did anything stupid. But it wouldn't have spread as far or as fast.

Rocky7 wrote on August 09, 2015 at 4:08 pm

Here's a question about this.  Will all the other administrators who used private emails for university business be required to resign their administrative posts? Looks like a lot of them would be walking the plank.

Reykjavik wrote on August 09, 2015 at 9:08 pm

Let's hope that other administrators and staff etc do have private email accounts for such tedious messaging and soap-operatic handwringing.  Let's spare the UIUC servers of a few kilobits.

Reykjavik wrote on August 09, 2015 at 9:08 pm

Response to my question about what nefarious acts the chancellor had committed, I got this response:

"The nefarious business is the intent to hide discussion of public business by public employees so as to avoid disclosure in response to legal discovery or an FOIA request."

That's it????  

If that (second email account) is the worst that is going on, then UIUC is in great shape, ethically and otherwise. 


IlliniwekMerica wrote on August 10, 2015 at 8:08 am

At least it wasn't State Secrets!

Sid Saltfork wrote on August 10, 2015 at 12:08 pm

Both of you are missing the point by comparing apples to oranges.  Wise, and her cronies violated the State of Illinois laws.  They committed a felony under the law.  I doubt that any of them familarized themselves with the laws that any rookie state employee is required to do.  This "for the good of the university" theory is absurd.  What is even more absurd is the university rewarding Wise for committing a felony.  The felony is prison time if convicted.  Yet, Wise gets a huge payoff, a job, and a sabbatical of one year.

Any academic who defends Wise, and her cronies, is not worthy to stay employed by the State of Illinois. All the university has to do is stop covering up crimes by being transparent in "university matters", and "university business".

I am still waiting for ALL of the emails including those from the "donors" which Wise indicated in past interviews, and those from foriegn country supporters. 

How long before another "flagship" scandal created by overly paid, moronic university administrators happens?  I am betting that there will be another "flagship" scandal within the next two years.

"Don't know much about History, or .....", but I do know this.  The "flagship" uses the "Jolly Roger" as it's flag.