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Playing defense isn’t exactly what Randy Dunn had in mind.

In the lead-up to May 1, 2014, when the former Southern Illinois University professor and department chairman returned to campus and took the helm as president of the SIU system. The goal, of course, was to push forward.

SIU would compete once again with its regional rivals, he said. It would grow deeper ties to Southern Illinois. It would pursue innovation and increase operational efficiency.

One year in, after saying farewell to one Carbondale chancellor and mourning another’s death, after taking on the chancellor role himself, after fighting against a proposed 31.5 percent state cut to public universities’ budgets, Dunn said “just getting through the year” feels like an accomplishment.

“I do take some satisfaction that we’ve been able to hold things together, keep moving forward in some areas without just descending into total chaos,” Dunn said a few days before his one-year anniversary in the president’s office. “In some ways, that’s kind of playing defense, isn’t it?”

Still, Dunn supporters as well as some outspoken critics of the previous administrative line-up said even though those broad goals haven’t been met, the university has changed in important ways under the new president’s leadership.

‘A Major Improvement’

The first change came quickly. About a month after Dunn’s tenure began, former Chancellor Rita Cheng was named the lone finalist in the hunt for Northern Arizona University’s next president. By July, she was gone.

Bret Seferian, an Illinois Education Association director who oversees several SIU employee unions, said Dunn and Paul Sarvela, who replaced Cheng, were game changers.

“I think it would be hard for us to find anyone on campus who would not say (Dunn's) been a major improvement,” he said.

The previous administration, Seferian said, created a “very, very toxic environment” in which trust and respect were lacking.

“There was no love lost between most people and the administration,” he added.

One frustration among union members was a series of unpaid furlough days forced upon staffers under Cheng and Past-President Glenn Poshard’s leadership. A judge ruled that officials had bargained in bad faith and forced the university to repay the lost wages.

When the full Educational Labor Relations Board upheld the judge’s decision in December, Dunn consulted with the Board of Trustees’ executive committee and decided to comply with the ruling.

The university will pay out $4 million to 3,500 current and former employees.

After Sarvela’s appointment, university staffers applauded changes to personnel policy and management structure. In his first two weeks on the job, the new head of the Carbondale campus returned some previously centralized control to department heads.

In Dunn, Seferian said he’s seen a cooperative, open leader who’s “had to ride out quite a storm.”

“I think he’s done a credible job,” he said. “In a lot of ways, the job has been defined by things really far outside of his control.”

‘A Triaging That Has to Take Place’

When Paul Sarvela died in November, Dunn took on the Carbondale chancellorship.

Board of Trustees Chairman Randal Thomas said it was a move born of necessity.

“I don’t mean to diminish people that were there, but we didn’t have another person that we wanted to elevate automatically to interim chancellor, and we didn’t want to do that to the campus again,” he said. “It was easier for Randy Dunn to keep moving campus goals forward.”

Then, in February, Gov. Bruce Rauner announced his proposal to slash 31.5 percent from higher-education budgets next year. If passed by the legislature, the funding reduction will mean a cut of $32 million for the Carbondale campus next year.

Since then, Dunn said he’s spent most of his time hoping – and lobbying – for the best but planning for the worst.

In the process, administrators have identified dozens of departments – most of them related to regional services – that will be the first to see smaller budgets next year.

Dunn, who long has championed being a “steward of place” and building ties between region and gown, said it’s a necessary, albeit awful, exercise.

“It does seem contradictory and probably is, but when you’re faced with such a potential severe cut, … there is a triaging that has to take place,” he said.

Still, he counts his handling of the budget situation among his top accomplishments of the year.

Thomas agreed.

“He’s done everything we need,” he said. “He’s preparing the campus community and the schools for all sorts of possibilities there.”

Forward Motion

Despite the unexpected distractions, Dunn said he’s started working toward some of his original goals.

On Friday, Tommy Bell was announced as SIU’s new athletic director, filling the spot left by Mario Moccia late this past year. Four finalists have been named in the chancellor search.

Dunn is exploring consolidating some administrative efforts on the Carbondale, Edwardsville and Springfield Medical School campuses. Information technology, human resources and Title IX compliance, he said, would run more efficiently if managed from a central spot.

The move would be done, not by “presidential fiat” but with the input of employees.

At his urging, the board also has started formulating a new strategic plan. It’s long overdue, he said.

“This was one of those responsibilities that are very important that boards here hadn’t, kind of, dived into for really about a dozen years,” he said. A draft of the new plan is on paper, but Dunn said it’s on the back burner for now.

In all, Dunn said he’s trying to strike a balance between putting out fires and making some progress toward meeting those early goals.

“It’s part of that art (of leadership) to figure out how you can adjust your mindscape for the landscape you inherit,” he said. “This is kind of what we’ve had this year, and my role is to deal with it. Hopefully people will look at it and make their assessment that it’s been about the right balance.”

sarah.graham@thesouthern.com

618-351-5076

@SHalaszGraham​

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Sarah Graham is a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan covering higher education and Union County.

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