There’s no argument that the beginning of Carlo Montemagno’s tenure as chancellor of Southern Illinois University Carbondale has been rife with controversy — most of it of his own making.
He’s currently the subject of a state ethics inquiry into the hiring of his daughter and son-in-law at the university. He reimbursed the university for moving expenses after coming from Canada. He’s compared an education at SIUC to a Yugo, arguably the worst automobile ever made.
Simply put, the optics are terrible. It doesn’t look good on Montemagno, and it doesn’t look good on the university — and, yes, we realize that this was agreed upon in his contract. It’s still something that looks terrible from all sides of the spectrum.
“I will say, to the chancellor’s credit, he was very upfront about it. It was clear that this was going to be something that was part of the overall employment package to draw him to SIU Carbondale,” SIU president Randy Dunn said of the hiring of the chancellor’s family members in a story from earlier in February.
That’s fine, but it still looks bad.
In September, two months after Montemagno was hired as chancellor, he introduced his reorganization plan for the university, a plan that seeks to eliminate the university’s 42 departments and organize degree programs in newly formed colleges and schools. To say it’s been controversial is an understatement. The plan has been met with opposition at seemingly every turn.
The discord created by Montemagno’s apparent nepotism and financial issues regarding his physical move to the area have added complications that are detrimental to his cause. Good leaders understand optics. And creating positions for family members while eliminating jobs for long-term employees — it’s difficult to imagine defending that position.
It’s a bad look that can’t be hidden in a small town and a small community like Southern Illinois University. These things aren’t going to just get swept under the rug like they might at a larger school.
What makes it worse is the fact that Southern Illinois is in dire economic straits. Jobs — especially high-paying jobs — aren’t the easiest thing to find in the region. It’s going to rub a lot of people in the community the wrong way when it appears a position is created for the chancellor’s daughter and his son-in-law is hired in another handsomely paid post.
But, here’s the thing: We, meaning all Southern Illinoisans, need Southern Illinois University to heal itself. We need the chancellor to lead this university back to prosperity. SIUC is essential to the well-being of Southern Illinois.
Like it or not, Southern Illinois needs SIUC. And SIUC needs Southern Illinois. It goes both ways. It’s a simple fact of life.
And Chancellor Montemagno is a big part of that. He was brought here to lead SIUC, and help guide the university into a new era.
“I look at the infrastructure associated with it, I look at the town and the community that’s here, I look at how it’s positioned itself within the landscape of higher education, and I saw a distinct opportunity for advancing the institution, to dust off that jewel and make it a bright maroon jewel in the crown of higher education, not only in Illinois but the nation,” Montemagno said after he was hired.
That’s a great thing to say. But, let’s stop with controversy, focus on positive change for the university and put some action behind those words.
Look, the community has been through the ringer when it comes to bad leadership at SIUC. We all know that the chancellor position has been a revolving door for the past 20 years.
We cannot afford to have another one. Chancellor Montemagno is going to have to take some serious steps here to improve his standing as a leader. If not, he’s just going to be the next in line of failed administrators at SIUC.