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Thursday, May 25, 2017 04:31 pm

Divorce court

UIS, Lincoln papers parting ways

A longstanding partnership that has sustained the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project will end as the University of Illinois Springfield and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum can’t agree on which entity should control the effort to digitize every document ever read or written by the Great Emancipator.

The ALPLM’s charitable foundation through which grant money flows for the project has given notice that it is cutting off funds used to pay the salaries of UIS researchers who staff the project, according to David Racine, director of the Institute for Legal, Legislative and Policy Studies at UIS that provides researchers. Racine said that the Abraham Lincoln Library Foundation gave notice within the past two weeks that it will not be providing money to pay the project’s five researchers whose contracts expire on June 30.

Chris Wills, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency that oversees the ALPLM where the project is housed, confirmed that the partnership with UIS is ending.

“As we address numerous issues in completing the project, the ALPLM will not be renewing its agreement with the University of Illinois at Springfield,” Wills wrote in an email. “We thank UIS for its assistance in years past and look forward to finding other ways to partner in the future.”

The project’s future isn’t clear. Racine said that he doesn’t know what will happen, although he added that he believes that the ALPLM will continue the project in some form.

“You’d have to ask them what the future of the project is,” Racine said. “We don’t know. … I don’t think the papers will die.”

Wills gave no specifics in his email.

“Questions about the status of the UIS employees assigned to the Papers of Abraham Lincoln can only be answered by the university,” Wills wrote. “The ALPLM is actively taking steps to ensure the papers fulfills its vital mission of finding, organizing and sharing the words that Abraham Lincoln wrote and read. More details, including a staffing plan, will be announced soon.”

The ALPLM’s decision to not renew contracts with the university comes after a failed effort by UIS to take control of the project, which has been in turmoil since the fall of 2015, when the state slashed its share of the project’s budget, resulting in six of the project’s 12 employees being laid off. The project began in 1985 as an effort to collect and publish documents from Lincoln’s career as a lawyer. In 2000, researchers expanded their search to include every document written or read by Lincoln.

Daniel Stowell, the project’s director since 2000, was fired in January. In 2015, he was told by IHPA brass that the inspector general was launching an investigation, but the nature of that investigation has never been made clear. During a Wednesday civil service commission hearing, Stowell, an IHPA employee who is seeking reinstatement, acknowledged that he told state historian Samuel Wheeler last year that he might move the project to the University of Virginia, even though he could not move the papers without permission from the state of Illinois.

“I may have said something to the effect that if the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum didn’t want to support the project, maybe another institution would,” Stowell said. “It (moving the project to Virginia) was purely an example, it was not a threat.”

“Why would you say something like that?” asked Andrew Barris, an administrative law judge who is presiding over the case.

“I was frustrated, for one thing,” Stowell answered. “I felt like we weren’t being supported.”

Stowell’s tenure turned rocky in the fall of 2015, when staffing was cut and he was told to freeze spending. Stowell was placed on paid leave in the spring of 2016, then returned to work after less than two months. Why Stowell was placed on leave has never been made clear. Pressure on Stowell increased after ALPLM director Alan Lowe arrived in Springfield last summer.

Within a month of Lowe’s arrival, Stowell was facing questions about computer glitches that made it difficult for researchers to see online images of Lincoln’s legal papers. More recently, Lowe has criticized the project for not publishing any papers save those from Lincoln’s legal career since researchers started scanning non-legal documents more than 16 years ago. Lowe has also taken Stowell to task for not getting permission to publish privately owned documents, although transcripts can be put online.

A spat between UIS and the ALPLM over a top researcher is also in the mix. Lowe and Wheeler say that Stowell refused to order Stacy McDermott, the project’s assistant director, to work in Springfield instead of performing her duties from her home in St. Louis. However, according to testimony at the civil service commission hearing, neither Stowell nor Wheeler nor Lowe could compel McDermott to work in Springfield, given that she was, and still is, a UIS employee. Her access to the project was cut off last fall after she refused to report to work at the ALPLM.

Even as Lowe and Wheeler were stepping up pressure on Stowell last year, UIS was talking to the IHPA about taking over the papers project so that it would be run entirely by the university, according to Racine and a letter from a UIS lawyer to Lowe and Rene Brethorst, the foundation’s chief operating officer, written last October.

Negotiations to transfer the papers to UIS began shortly after Racine authorized McDermott to continue working from St. Louis despite contrary demands from Lowe and Wheeler, according to the letter from Rhonda Perry, UIS counsel. “We were disappointed to learn that despite the ongoing discussions and negotiations between the university and the museum regarding the transfer of the papers, the museum has issued a letter terminating Ms. McDermott effective Nov. 1,” Perry wrote.

During the civil service commission hearing, Racine on Wednesday testified that McDermott was an effective employee whose productivity seemed to increase after she began working from home in 2014. In an interview afterward, Racine said that UIS would still like to take over the papers project.

“We’ve never changed our position, that we were willing to take it on,” Racine said.  “We gave it our best shot. It’s sort of up to them to decide what to do. It seems this is all unnecessary. This is a very valuable endeavor for the state of Illinois.

“It just seems to me that this got out of hand.”

With multiple entities having a role in running the papers project, Racine said he realized that management of the project was potentially dicey when he took his current job at UIS a decade ago. The partnership between the university and the state goes back 30 years. “You have to kind of depend on goodwill from everyone to make it work,” he said. “If you get three different masters trying to direct the project, that can be a challenge.”

Spats and turmoil within the ALPLM and IHPA haven’t helped matters, said Racine, who pointed out that the institution, which opened in 2005, has had more than five directors, both permanent and interim. Eileen Mackevich, Lowe’s predecessor at the ALPLM, and Amy Martin, former IHPA chief, were infamous for quarreling before both were replaced by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

“It is a challenge to operate a presidential library and museum in the context of a state government,” Racine said. “You want continuity in this line of work.”

In the interests of efficiency and effectiveness, both Rauner and legislative leaders have said that the ALPLM should be separate from the IHPA. Rauner has issued an executive order making the ALPLM a standalone entity as of July 1, a move that’s been endorsed by the state House of Representatives via resolution. The House has also passed a bill to make the ALPLM independent from the IHPA. The bill awaits action in the Senate.

UIS, Racine said, offers a chance for stability for the papers project.  Personnel rules in state government, he said, often don’t work well for academics, who prefer working in university settings.

“Not very many Ph.D. historians are chomping at the bit to work in state government,” Racine said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

 

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