By Alan Scher Zagier
The University of Illinois has reached a new deal with departing Chancellor Phyllis Wise that provides her a tenured faculty position paying nearly $300,000 a year — just two days after seeking to fire the molecular biologist amid a series of controversies, including her use of private email to avoid public exposure.
The university changed course after Wise on Aug. 13 had suggested the possibility of legal action over the earlier actions against her.
The university on Aug. 14 released a pair of letters from system President Timothy Killeen and Board of Trustees Chairman Edward McMillan thanking Wise, 70, for her service while advising that the administrative dismissal proceedings agreed to “will not be initiated.” Killeen’s letter additionally welcomes her to the university’s School of Molecular and Cellular Biology on the Urbana-Champaign campus she led for nearly four years.
Wise is expected to first take a one-year sabbatical before returning to campus in a job that pay $298,926, said university spokesman Thomas Hardy. Wise was paid $549,069 a year as chancellor and vice president.
She first announced her resignation on Aug. 6, citing a range of “external issues” that included a lawsuit filed by a professor whose job offer she rescinded over his anti-Israel Twitter messages, a prominent academic group’s vote to censure the campus in response and complaints and a pair of lawsuits alleging mistreatment of athletes in football, women’s basketball and women’s soccer.
The next day, the university released more than 1,000 pages of emails showing that Wise and others at the flagship campus had used private accounts to avoid public scrutiny of campus business. That led to the move by Killeen and the governing board earlier this week to reject Wise’s resignation and the severance payment and instead begin the lengthy — and possible litigious — process to fire her.
Wise responded Thursday with a second resignation letter, her own rejection of a job offer as an adviser to Killeen and suggestions of a possible lawsuit. She called the university’s reversal a politicized response that was “unprecedented, unwarranted, and completely contrary to the spirit of our negotiations last week.”
Wise and her attorney did not immediately respond Friday to interview requests. Nor did McMillan or Trustee Karen Hasara, one of three members of the board’s executive committee who voted to dismiss the campus leader after a lengthy closed-door meeting. Hardy, the spokesman, said that Killeen and McMillan were not available for further comment.
Gov. Bruce Rauner was among those critical of the decision to pay Wise a bonus that represented a prorated portion of the $500,000 retention payment she was due if she kept the job five years. State funding covers about 11 percent of the university’s operating budget, and the first-term Republican governor has proposed cuts as steep as 31 percent as a state budget crisis persists in the absence of a spending plan for the fiscal year that began July 1. His office also did not respond to a request for comment.
State Sen. Tom Cullerton, a Villa Park Democrat, called the trustees’ turnaround troubling.
“They should have stuck to their guns,” he said. “This is a huge mistake.”
Barbara J. Wilson, dean of the school’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, has been named as Wise’s interim replacement. (end)