U. of Ill. trustees reject chancellor's golden parachute

Despite resigning amidst a scandal concerning her use of a private email account to conduct official business, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s chancellor nearly came away with a $400,000 bonus.

Phyllis Wise announced last week that she will resign effective August 12, citing “external issues … that have distracted us from the important tasks at hand,” and saying that she would return to a teaching role on the school’s faculty after serving as chancellor of the University of Illinois’ main campus in Urbana-Champaign since 2011.

Although Wise is stepping down with roughly one year left in her five-year contract, making her ineligible for a $500,000 retention bonus she would have received for serving out the full term, university officials tentatively agreed to pay her a $400,000 bonus as a condition of her resignation, according to The Chicago Tribune.

However, the university put out a press release revealing that certain administrators and campus employees, including Wise, may have used personal email accounts to conduct official business without making those records available to the University.

Although the school says that Illinois law is unclear as to whether emails sent from personal accounts are necessarily subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), U of I policy treats all communications covering university business as being subject to FOIA, prompting administrators to launch an official ethics inquiry upon learning of the email exchanges.

Wise’s name surfaces repeatedly in the email transcripts, which touch on topics including a new medical school that she spearheaded and public outrage over the controversial hiring practices for two professors, Steven Salaita and James Kilgore.

“A desire to maintain confidentiality on certain sensitive University-related topics was one reason personal email accounts were used,” investigators determined, pointing out that, “Some emails suggested that individuals were encouraged to use personal email accounts for communicating on such topics.”

A three-member committee of university trustees met Wednesday afternoon to decide whether to confirm Wise’s $400,000 bonus in light of the email scandal. After spending nearly two hours in executive session to keep the deliberations private, the trustees voted unanimously against accepting her resignation, thereby negating the bonus.

Although many had expected the committee to rubber stamp the resignation agreement, which had been tentatively approved by University President Timothy Killeen, opposition to the payout from Gov. Bruce Rauner’s (R) administration may have complicated their decision, according to The Associated Press.

In a letter sent Tuesday to board chairman Ed McMillan, who also served on the special committee, Deputy Gov. Trey Childress spoke of the administration’s “deep reservations” about the deal and urged the trustees to refuse any payments to Wise that the university is not obligated to make under her employment contract.

“The university is facing many challenges and needs to begin charting a new path,” Childress states in the letter, adding, “Our administration believes the proposed resignation agreement would be a major step in the wrong direction.”

Despite missing out on her golden parachute, Wise will not be walking away empty-handed. In fact, she will not be walking away at all. Rather, Wise will return to U of I as a special assistant to the president (that is to say, Killeen) at the same salary she received as chancellor.

Because the committee was unable to name a replacement after rejecting Wise’s resignation, Killeen also appointed Barbara Wilson, currently the dean of U of I’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, as Wise’s interim replacement on his own authority.

For twelve months’ service as chancellor at 90 percent time, Wilson will receive an annual salary of $297,500 plus an administrative increment of $72,500. She will simultaneously continue to perform her duties as dean at 10 percent time for an annual salary of $27,500, bringing her total compensation for the year to $397,500.

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