Former U. of I. chancellor Phyllis Wise Credit: Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

On August 6, the same day a federal judge refused to dismiss professor Steven Salaita’s high-profile lawsuit against the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, chancellor Phyllis Wise abruptly resigned.

The next day the university released 1,100 pages of correspondence about university business from Wise’s personal e-mail, and the public got a look at why the ostensibly powerful chancellor of Illinois’s flagship campus had to go.

Tapping away on her private account, Wise had blithely (if mistakenly) explained that she was evading the reach of freedom of information requests.

“I may be getting paranoid, but since someone has FOIed…I am using my personal email,” she wrote, cautioning others to do the same. “I want us to be really careful.”

Her departure was nearly as bizarre as the dismissal over tweets about Israel she’d handed Salaita a year earlier.

Within the space of a week, it was announced that Wise had quit and was getting a $400,000 departure bonus, then that she’d been appointed to an advisory job and was about to be fired by the university’s board of trustees, then that she’d quit again. In the end she lost the bonus after a protest from the governor’s office but stepped into a U. of I. faculty appointment that’ll reportedly pay close to $300,000 annually.

That’s a cushy landing considering that the Salaita fiasco was already closing in on a million dollars in legal fees for the university, and looks to cost a lot more before it’s over.

Wise blamed “external issues” in her official resignation, but she’d previously complained in an e-mail to provost Ilesanmi Adesida that “Things here are so messed up!” (Adesida agreed.) During the month of August alone, Adesida also resigned; head football coach Tim Beckman was fired amid a flurry of lawsuits charging mistreatment of athletes in various U. of I. sports; and the campus’s star researcher, engineering professor John Rogers, announced that he’ll be leaving next year for Northwestern. Before that, 16 U. of I. departments had passed no-confidence votes in Wise’s leadership, the Association of American University Professors had censured the school for its treatment of Salaita, and Wise had been forced to apologize for misleading aspects of a research paper she’d published nearly a decade earlier.

Did I mention that the Princeton Review‘s new rankings found the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to be the nation’s top party school?

Salaita’s case—which continues to inspire boycotts and protests—is working its way through the courts. His federal lawsuit cites violation of free speech rights, breach of contract, and destruction of evidence, and he’s suing in state court over FOIA violations. He’s taken a one-year teaching job in Lebanon, and has written a book, Uncivil Rites, about his travails at the U. of I. that’s due out next month. He’ll talk about it at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Student Services Building (1200 W. Harrison) on October 12 and at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center on October 13.

But the Salaita lawsuits won’t be Wise’s only legacy, or even her biggest. Illinois has also been left with her nascent pet project, the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, a technology-driven, engineering-based school that would be run independently of the existing U. of I. medical school as part of an ambitious public-private venture. It’s intended to be an economic development tool that’ll benefit Urbana businesses as well as the university.

It was while Wise was struggling to get approval for the medical college from reluctant board members, including then-chairman Christopher Kennedy, that the Salaita issue surfaced. Kennedy, a Democratic appointee who would leave the board when Bruce Rauner became governor, was opposed to the Salaita hire and was quick to defend Wise after she was criticized for withdrawing the offer. But he had been skeptical about an independent med school, advising Wise (as she retold it in a March 2014 e-mail) that if the new college was going to compete with the University of Illinois at Chicago, site of the main U. of I. medical campus, UIC “will try to kill it.”

Then-board chair Christopher Kennedy was skeptical about a new medical school, especially one that would encroach on UIC, the central campus of the U. of I. College of Medicine.
Then-board chair Christopher Kennedy was skeptical about a new medical school, especially one that would encroach on UIC, the central campus of the U. of I. College of Medicine.Credit: AP Photos

Officials at UIC were, in fact, taken aback by the proposal. With three regional campuses (Rockford, Peoria, and Urbana-Champaign) in addition to the central one at UIC, the University of Illinois College of Medicine is already the nation’s largest medical school, and the UIC campus is a research hub in one of the world’s most concentrated medical districts. Both the U. of I. College of Medicine and UIC’s faculty senate issued substantial reports arguing against the new venture.

They found something to like in its central premise, however. The Urbana plan called for a small, specialized institution that would produce scientist-physicians—and the health care innovations of the future—by partnering with the U. of I.’s top-rated engineering school.

That’s a good idea, the UIC faculty and medical school studies conceded, but it would work better within the structure of the existing College of Medicine. They pointed out that the U. of I. already has a model for physician-scientist education in its Medical Scholars Program, which produces MD/PhDs who train on the Urbana campus. They took issue with estimates of cost and economic impact (the latter pegged at $1.4 billion annually by 2035), and concluded that building on current relationships between the medical and engineering colleges by, for example, creating a bioengineering institute would be the most efficient way to achieve the same ends.

But the proposal was on a fast track. A subject of discussion in an economic development advisory group convened by Wise, it first surfaced publicly as an economic development option in a January 2014 report from a consultant tasked with considering it. The report was commissioned by the Research Park, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, itself a public-private venture between the school, which owns the land, and Fox/Atkins Development, LLC, which built the park.

With that study in hand, Carle Health System, a major health care provider in central Illinois, joined the U. of I. as its private-sector partner. Carle, which would serve as the new school’s hospital and clinic, ultimately committed to investing $10 million a year for ten years, and the U. of I. committed to raising $135 million from donors over eight years. Together they ordered up a second report, a feasibility study, to be conducted by the consulting firm Tripp Umbach.

Wise had worked with Tripp Umbach in her previous job as provost and interim president at the University of Washington. Her close relationship with the firm’s president, Paul Umbach, is one of the most striking revelations of the newly released e-mails. (Consultant to chancellor, for example, in June 2014: “Can’t wait to see you­—missing my Urbana friend.”)

The Tripp Umbach report, which came out in April 2014, concluded that Wise’s proposal for an Urbana-based public-private University of Illinois medical school with Carle Health System as a partner was a great idea and should be pursued with urgency. In an e-mail written shortly before its release, Wise referred to it as an “advocacy report.”

In another e-mail she made this strategic suggestion: “If pointing out the good things about the current structure compromises our ability to demonstrate the critical need to establish our own COM [college of medicine]…I am not for pointing out the positives too much.”

She was facing plenty of opposition. The UIC faculty senate report found the proposal to be “detrimental to the University of Illinois.” The College of Medicine study warned of “unintended consequences” including “an inherent weakening of UI.” And on her personal e-mail Wise confided to a colleague: “I heard that Larry Schook [the U. of I.’s vice president of research] told Kennedy that the COM is not necessary, it is just a toy of Phyllis, who wants to have the same toys as the other AAUs [members of the Association of American Universities].”

Even among the citizens of Urbana, where new jobs and investment would be welcome, there was skepticism. That’s because Carle, the biggest business in town after the university, currently isn’t all that popular there. Carle and the city of Urbana are in a standoff in court over the health care company’s refusal to bear what the mayor and others say is its fair share of civic expenses.

Concerned Citizens of Urbana spokesman Dannie Otto explains it this way: In 2012, after lobbying by the Illinois Hospital Association, a new law was passed in Springfield that would allow hospitals to escape real estate taxes by providing charitable care of equal value. (Dr. James Leonard, Carle CEO and Wise’s major collaborator on the new medical school plan, became chairman-elect of the IHA that year.)

As a result, taxes on Urbana home owners have gone up about 11 percent, the amount of the city’s assessed valuation that Carle used to pay. Meanwhile the charitable care covers patients from a much larger geographic area, with the result that Urbana, with a population of 41,000, is supporting care for many more people, Otto says. (According to Carle, it serves 1.4 million people, but provides charity services to Urbana residents that exceed the value of its tax exemption.)

Most of the university’s buildings are also in Urbana, Otto adds, and they don’t pay taxes either: “The city, school system, and parks are really strapped, because such a high percentage of our property is not on the tax rolls.”

Meanwhile, Otto says, “Carle says it can’t pay its real estate taxes, but doesn’t have any problem investing $100 million in this venture. As concerned citizens, we’re not opposed to the medical school at all. But this public-private partnership is a problem. A lot was done behind the scenes, while the primary infrastructure for this will come from the public university.”

Everything we know about those behind-the-scenes machinations came to light because of the pesky guy behind the FOIA requests that Wise was trying to avoid by using her personal e-mail.

Andrew Scheinman, a U. of I. grad, patent attorney, and start-up consultant, initiated the FOIA request that resulted in the release of 1,100 e-mails from Phyllis Wise's personal account.
Andrew Scheinman, a U. of I. grad, patent attorney, and start-up consultant, initiated the FOIA request that resulted in the release of 1,100 e-mails from Phyllis Wise’s personal account.Credit: Andrew Scheinman

He’s Andrew Scheinman, an Urbana native who splits his time between Illinois and New York and has been posting the results of his FOIA quest on his website As gadflies go, he’s formidable: a U. of I. graduate, patent attorney, PhD, and adviser to start-up companies who readily admits he has an ax to grind—he started seriously delving into the research park’s activities after its director rebuffed his efforts to get involved.

That deep dive into university-related business made Scheinman the chancellor’s nemesis as well. “Clearly crazy and with no work to do,” is how Wise described him in her now-public e-mails. He’s adopted the description as his slogan.

Scheinman says the studies should have seriously examined whether the U. of I. needs a separate medical school, and whether having local patient access would really make a difference for its medical research. The U. of I. gets more funding from the National Science Foundation than any other public university in the country, and there could be all sorts of economic benefits to leveraging that into spinouts, he says. “But if you’re starting biomedical companies, they take real executive talent, and real money, and we don’t have either here, because it’s not a big city. In my opinion, the best way to benefit Illinois would be to build strong partnerships with Chicago, with a lot of the research done here.”

But by last spring, both UIC and the U. of I. College of Medicine administrators had capitulated. Although Chicago faculty will say anonymously that they’re appalled by this, the official stance at UIC is now supportive of the proposal it had previously argued should be nixed. In March the University of Illinois board of trustees, under Rauner’s newly appointed chairman, Edward McMillan, approved the new school. In July, Carle and the U. of I. signed a joint venture agreement that also got the trustees’ blessing.

The deal isn’t entirely sealed yet, however. According to an executive summary, the joint venture agreement won’t be final until the end of October, and if any loose ends are still hanging by then, either party can back out. Those loose ends apparently include agreements on how they’ll divide the prize at the heart of the venture: the anticipated financial bounty from commercial applications of the collaborative medical-engineering research. Given what’s transpired so far, Scheinman says, “you’d think they’d want to be as transparent as possible about this.”

According to U. of I. spokesperson Robin Kaler, however, no further information about those details is available, though they’ll “all be worked out by the deadline.”

U. of I. president Timothy Killeen, who’s had a rocky few months since he took the job in May, sent this statement through a spokesman: “The new College of Medicine is a vision whose time has come. Many people are involved, not just former Chancellor Wise, and I am certainly a proponent of it. So we are moving forward dynamically and we’re not going to miss a beat.”

David Prochaska, an emeritus U. of I. history professor who’s been observing developments on the Urbana citizen-journalist website Public I, sees it this way: “The key question is whether after Wise’s departure, her College of Medicine initiative will survive. President Killeen and interim chancellor Barbara Wilson are putting a brave face on it, but for the local community, it seems, the whole enterprise is up in the air.”  v