URBANA — University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise said Thursday that she is resigning, citing a range of “external issues” that she says have become a distraction for the school.
Wise leaves as she and the campus she runs face a lawsuit filed by a professor whose job offer she rescinded over his anti-Israel Twitter messages, a vote by a prominent academic group to censure the campus in response, and complaints and a pair of lawsuits alleging mistreatment of athletes in three sports. Her resignation is effective Aug. 12.
In a release emailed to the campus and the media, Wise said she was proud of the work she and others had done since she took the position in 2011. She cited in particular the engineering-based College of Medicine recently approved by university trustees.
“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.”
University President Timothy Killeen said he expects to name an interim chancellor within a week.
“I anticipate a smooth transition in leadership and dedicate myself to working closely with internal and external stakeholder groups,” Killeen said in the release. Killeen, who has been president of the three-campus university system only since May, was traveling and not available for further comment, spokesman Tom Hardy said.
Wise was paid $549,069 a year, university spokesman Tom Hardy said. She will now take a year’s sabbatical before returning to join the faculty at a salary to be determined.
Wise brought an extensive scientific and administrative background to Illinois when she was hired in 2011 from the University of Washington. She is a professor of physiology and biophysics, biology, and obstetrics and gynecology, and had been provost at Washington since 2005.
At Illinois she spearheaded plans for the new medical school in Urbana, scheduled to enroll its first class in 2017.
But over the past year, Wise and the university’s flagship campus have faced a string of problems.
Her decision to rescind a job offered to professor Steven Salaita led to his ongoing lawsuit against her and the school, as well as bad publicity in the academic world, where some questioned whether his right to free speech had been violated. A judge on Thursday denied most of the university’s request to dismiss the case.
That decision also led to boycotts by some academics, who refused to visit the campus for conferences and criticism from segments of the university’s own faculty. The American Association of University Professors voted earlier this year to censure the university.
Complaints about alleged poor treatment by three former football players, seven former women’s basketball players and a women’s soccer player have also landed at Wise’s door. The basketball and soccer complaints have led to pending lawsuits. Wise is athletic director Mike Thomas’ boss, and she is named as a defendant in the basketball lawsuit.
Thomas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The university also faces financial uncertainty due to the state’s budget crisis. The state has no spending plan for the current fiscal year, leaving public universities uncertain how much money they’ll receive. Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed cuts as steep as 31 percent. State funding covers about 11 percent of the university’s operating budget.
James Montgomery, one of the trustees who oversees the university system and would have a say in Wise’s replacement, called her resignation a loss for the university.
“It is an unfortunate state of affairs because I thought she was tremendous chancellor,” he said, crediting her with pushing the through plans for the “game-changer” medical school against opposition from some on other campuses.
A national search will be conducted for the next chancellor to run the Urbana-Champaign campus, Hardy said. That process usually takes six to nine months, he said.