Leadership & Governance

Chancellor’s Surprise Resignation May Not Quell Controversy at Illinois

Brian Stauffer

Phyllis M. Wise cited “external issues” in announcing her decision on Thursday to step down as chancellor of the U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. University officials said her move was unrelated to a federal judge’s ruling that the university could not deny its contractual obligations to Steven G. Salaita, whose job offer Ms. Wise effectively rescinded last summer.
August 07, 2015

Phyllis M. Wise, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said on Thursday that she would resign her post next week following a controversial year at the state’s flagship institution.

The timing of the move surprised some senior administrators and faculty members, even though it followed a tumultuous period in which the university has faced widespread criticism over the chancellor’s decision to effectively rescind a job offer to a controversial scholar. The university also has recently come under fire for its treatment of athletes.

Hours before Ms. Wise announced she was stepping down, a federal judge ruled that the university could not deny its contractual obligations to the scholar, Steven G. Salaita, whose written offer Ms. Wise refused to submit to the Board of Trustees last summer after he posted a series of inflammatory comments about Israel on Twitter. A university spokesman said on Thursday that the court ruling had no bearing on the chancellor’s decision to leave.

In a statement released on Thursday, Ms. Wise cited "external issues" in her decision to step down as chancellor and return to the faculty.

"During the last four years, I have worked with an extraordinary team to realize our vision to be ‘the pre-eminent public research university with a land-grant mission and global impact,’" Ms. Wise said in the statement. "We have accomplished a great deal."

"Yet, external issues have arisen over the past year that have distracted us from the important tasks at hand," she said. "I have concluded that these issues are diverting much-needed energy and attention from our goals. I therefore believe the time is right for me to step aside."

'In Open Revolt'

Robert Warrior, director of the program in American Indian studies, where Mr. Salaita was to have been appointed, said that the controversy over rescinding the job offer had greatly undermined Ms. Wise’s leadership and that she had never regained credibility with the professors who opposed her.

"When you have large parts of the campus in open revolt or a cold war with the campus leadership, it really does have an impact that catches up to somebody," Mr. Warrior said.

As the controversy unfolded, Ms. Wise issued statements and met with numerous groups, but Mr. Warrior said she never mended fences with faculty members in his program.

"I really have to think that this is a reflection of her inability to recognize the magnitude of her own mistakes," he said. "She has been able to see mistakes and say she’s made them, and then not really see that she needs to take steps to correct them, to make things right.

"We are still sitting here over in American Indian studies," he continued, "and she’s never come over to explain to faculty why she did what she did with Steven Salaita."

Mr. Warrior served on the search committee that recommended the hiring of Ms. Wise, in 2011. She had previously held posts as provost and interim president at the University of Washington. Mr. Warrior said he "couldn’t recommend her" now for a leadership position at another university.

Cary Nelson, an English professor at Illinois, did not believe that there was momentum from the faculty calling for Ms. Wise to step down. He said the faculty was divided: A majority of professors supported her decision about Mr. Salaita, he said, while some 40 percent "strongly objected" to it. (Mr. Nelson does not think Mr. Salaita's academic freedom was violated because he was not yet employed by the university.)

The chancellor’s resignation will be "taken by some as an admission that she was wrong" about Mr. Salaita, said Mr. Nelson, immediate past president of the American Association of University Professors, which has placed Illinois on its censure list over the controversy. "I don’t think that’s what it is."

He and others said they believe the chancellor’s decision to resign had more to do with the legacy of the Salaita affair.

"She’s identified with the controversy," Mr. Nelson said, "and it’s a way of moving beyond the controversy."

Impossible Jobs?

Ms. Wise’s resignation marks the unceremonious end of yet another chancellorship at the University of Illinois. In 2009, Richard Herman resigned in the wake of an admissions scandal that involved special treatment for well-connected applicants. B. Joseph White, the system’s president, also stepped down amid the controversy.

Michael J. Hogan, who was system president during Ms. Wise’s tenure, had a contentious power struggle with her. Mr. Hogan, who was perceived to be undermining the autonomy of the flagship campus, resigned under pressure in 2012.

Douglas H. Beck, a physics professor at Illinois, said he was "surprised and really quite sad for the institution" when he learned of Ms. Wise’s decision. The pressures on the leaders of major research universities have grown so intense, he said, that it seems very few people can expect to succeed in the long term.

"I do wonder whether these jobs are becoming impossible," said Mr. Beck, who was a member of the search committee that recommended Ms. Wise be hired.

Mr. Beck lamented that the university had lost one of its "special people."

"She was somebody who brought a lot of experience and vision to the job," he said. "I think she was fair and listened to different points of view. She was, at the same time, tough."

Beyond the Salaita controversy, Ms. Wise also has been responding to alleged problems in the university’s athletics department. In recent months, many former Illinois athletes have alleged that they were mistreated by coaches. Former football players say that the university’s head coach, Tim Beckman, verbally abused them and mishandled their injuries. Seven former women’s basketball players sued the university, asserting that coaches had created a racially hostile environment. A former women’s soccer player has also filed a lawsuit, saying that the university mishandled her concussion.

Ms. Wise called for independent investigations into the football and basketball claims. This week the university announced that it had found no wrongdoing in women’s basketball.

A source with knowledge of the football investigation told The Chronicle that there was no indication that its report would contain information damaging to Ms. Wise or her leadership, or that its release was imminent.

‘Don’t Rely on It’

Meanwhile, in his ruling on Thursday, Judge Harry D. Leinenweber of the U.S. District Court in Chicago rejected the university’s argument that it had not entered into a binding contract with Mr. Salaita because its offer remained subject to approval by the university’s Board of Trustees.

Michael C. Dorf, a law professor at Cornell University, said he was concerned that the ruling might tempt colleges to start including language in their job offers suggesting that "this is not a contract, don’t rely on it in making future decisions." But colleges aren’t likely to adopt such warnings, he said, because people won’t accept offers under those circumstances.

"My hope and expectation," he said, "is that things will go back to where they have been, where these board approvals are a rubber stamp."

In a statement released on Thursday by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has helped represent him, Mr. Salaita said he was "happy to move forward with this suit in the hope that restrictions on academic freedom, free speech, and shared governance will not become further entrenched" because of the University of Illinois’s actions.

But the chancellor’s resignation does nothing to make Mr. Salaita whole, said Maria C. LaHood, a lawyer for the professor.

"If the university sincerely wants to move beyond this dark chapter," she said, "there is a simple way forward — it should reinstate Professor Salaita."

The American Association for University Professors is pushing for more. Henry F. (Hank) Reichman, chairman of the group’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said in an email that Illinois should work to improve its policies and procedures to ensure that another professor’s rights cannot be violated in the way the group says Mr. Salaita’s were.

"Should a new administration do so," said Mr. Reichman, "the AAUP stands ready to work with that administration to facilitate UIUC’s removal from the censure list and strengthen its commitment to the principles of academic freedom."

Brad Wolverton is a senior writer who covers college sports. Follow him on Twitter @bradwolverton and on Facebook

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.

Peter Schmidt contributed to this article.