CARBONDALE — Love her or hate her, Professor Kathie Chwalisz is proof of the power of the pen.
This year, her pen, aided by almost 1,900 pages of internal SIU documents, brought down an SIU president.
“People have accused me of being paranoid,” Chwalisz said. “But then it turned out I wasn’t paranoid, I was paying attention.”
Chwalisz submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request, this April, to get a closer look at the decision making process behind a controversial proposal to transfer $5.1 million from SIU Carbondale to SIU Edwardsville.
“The reallocation proposal caught us all by surprise,” Chwalisz said. “Like, where did this come from?”
Dunn said the move would address a longstanding funding error. For the last 40 years, he said, the state’s contribution to SIU was divvied up 60/40 between SIUC and SIUE. Over time, SIUC had begun to receive more than its share.
But the documents Chwalisz received, including meeting notes and internal emails, revealed a disturbing backstory.
So Chwalisz penned an editorial that rocked the Carbondale community. Then, she released her documents to the press.
“Budget-related documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act show that SIU President Randy Dunn actively concealed from SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno his plan to transfer $5.125 million from the Carbondale to Edwardsville campus. He sought to use the fictitious 60/40 split formula to — in Dunn’s words in an email exchange ... ‘shut up the bitchers from Carbondale,’” Chwalisz wrote in a May 17 editorial, called “Dunn’s SIU agenda revealed.”
The $5.125 million wasn’t an evidence-based solution to a proven funding inequity, Chwalisz continued, it was “the groundwork for the system separation legislation” later announced by SIU Edwardsville Chancellor Randy Pembrook.
Chwalisz’s claims set off a rush of activity.
Dunn released a point-by-point rebuttal of Chwalisz’s accusations, calling them “misleading and frankly intentionally and grossly misrepresenting the situation.”
Further reporting in the Southern and other media outlets agreed with Chwalisz’s claims about the fabricated 60/40 figures, and revealed Dunn had been counseling Pembrook throughout the development and unveiling of legislation that sought to split SIUC and SIUE, all while publicly claiming a neutral stance on the issue. Amy Sholar, sitting chair of the Board of Trustees, and John Charles, SIU’s Executive Director for Governmental & Public Affairs, were also implicated in the behind-the-scenes work on the controversial bill.
Chwalisz, meanwhile, had begun to receive calls, emails and Facebook messages from people who had stories to tell about improprieties at SIU.
She began to see Dunn’s influence everywhere, as she heard more about alleged acts of manipulation and professional retaliation that went beyond what was reported in the news.
But much of it she couldn’t prove.
“The last year took a decent toll on me psychologically, having some sense of what was causing something and not being able to do anything about it because I couldn’t corroborate it,” Chwalisz said. “It takes a lot of energy, because you don’t want to dismiss what people want to tell you. People are telling you because they think you can do something about it.”
By the time she published her May editorial, Chwalisz was no stranger to that pressure. She’d already endured a year of controversy, as one of the most vocal supporters of Chancellor Carlo Montemagno’s plan to reorganize SIU Carbondale.
Montemagno believed that by rearranging the university’s structure of colleges and departments, he could spur faculty to collaborate in new ways, streamline administrative duties and help SIUC market its programs as distinctive, relevant and cutting-edge.
Critics have called his plan rushed, poorly designed and weakly supported by data or evidence.
“Faculty do not know when, or even whether we will find ourselves, voluntarily or involuntarily, in a new school, nor do we know what our college structure will look like,” said Professor Dave Johnson, one of the plan’s most vocal critics, in November.
But Chwalisz believes a reorganization is long overdue at SIUC.
She came to the university in 1992, just a year after enrollment hit its all-time high of 24,869 students. Carbondale was booming, and the counseling psychology program that Chwalisz was hired into, and which she now directs, was known as one of the best in the country.
“When I was on the market it was a no-brainer,” Chwalisz said. “I cancelled other interviews for this job.”
She had always paid attention to the administrators setting university policy, Chwalisz said. But as enrollment crumbled, Chwalisz decided to get more involved.
“Over the last decade, the whole university suffered from planning by attrition,” she said. “People would leave and, rather than replace them, those faculty positions would just go away to cover budget cuts.”
Her department — one of the larger ones on campus — began to feel the strain.
“When I first got here we had 31 faculty, 500 undergraduate majors, and 100 doctoral students,” Chwalisz said. “In 2017, we had 16 faculty, 400 majors and 100 doctoral students. We were half the faculty doing almost the same amount of work.”
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In 2015, Chwalisz joined the Faculty Senate, which represents professors in the university’s internal government. Her quick ascent to a leadership role, was “happenstance,” she says.
Seeking a level-headed leader to guide the Faculty Senate through the impending search for a new chancellor, the 2016-2017 President Judy Davie asked Chwalisz to consider running.
“I agreed to be on the slate,” Chwalisz said, “I just didn’t realize there wasn’t going to be anyone else on the slate. The next thing I knew, I was Faculty Senate president.”
After SIU hired Montemagno, Chwalisz began networking all across campus to advance his reorganization plan. She felt drastic change was necessary at SIUC, and she believed that Montemagno would adjust his vision according to faculty feedback.
She polled professors and deans on the plan, and reported her findings to the Board of Trustees. She encouraged faculty to propose their own solutions to the challenge of restructuring, and enter the dialogue. She prepared a report on positive developments at SIUC to counter negative media coverage, highlighting new research and recognition for top faculty.
She also clashed with her biggest opponents in the reorganization debate: the Faculty Association, an SIUC union for tenure-track and tenured faculty.
“I believe in unions,” Chwalisz said. “I grew up in a family where people worked in blue collar jobs. When we had our strike here, I honored it. But I am not happy about this union at all.”
The FA represents all tenure-track and tenured faculty, including Chwalisz, in contract and salary negotiations, and tenure and workplace issues.
“The union has gotten us some raises over the years,” Chwalisz acknowledged, and she continues to respect its leader, Dave Johnson, who is her neighbor, as well as her frequent debate opponent.
But she sees Johnson and the FA leadership as holding SIUC back by refusing to relinquish control and allow for real change, which she says the majority of faculty desire.
Johnson sees things differently. Much of what has been approved so far, he says, are basically the same old departments, with new names. The changes that faculty may truly oppose have not even been brought up yet, and the reorganization is already set to take much longer than it was projected to.
"Our consistent position has been that where changes are supported by students and faculty, they should go forward, and that has begun to happen," Johnson said of the FA. "What we've opposed are moves the administration has made that may violate our contract. We also continue to support those faculty who believe that some changes aren't in their best interest, or that of their students."
In March, just before she took on Dunn, Chwalisz stepped down from her role as Faculty Senate president a month early. She felt that her disagreements with critics had begun to obstruct the progress of the reorganization, and that controversy over her leadership was becoming a distraction, as some alleged she was using her platform to push her own views.
After resigning, Chwalisz published an April 11 editorial, denouncing the "small group of faculty and students," that "has been purposefully disrupting badly needed renovations to the SIUC organization,” including the reorganization.
Just a month later, the $5.125 million reallocation proposal came to the Board of Trustees, and Chwalisz responded with her now-famous “Carbondale bitchers” editorial. Slightly over a month later, a member of the Board of Trustees called for Dunn’s resignation. Two weeks after that, Dunn stepped down.
Then on October 11, Chancellor Montemagno died suddenly, after battling cancer.
Chwalisz vowed to Montemagno’s wife, Pamela, that she would continue Carlo’s legacy, and the reorganization.
Chwalisz was never Montemagno’s "buddy," she said, but from the first time she met him, she believed he could transform the university.
“My interest is in the survival and thriving of SIU Carbondale,” she said. “I think he could imagine statues of himself here down the road, after turning things around.”
These days, Chwalisz is back to relative anonymity on the Faculty Senate, serving out her last year on the budget committee. At work, she’s focused on training her psychology students, and mentoring them in their research.
She’s still in the habit of reserving a turn to speak at every Board meeting, even if she doesn’t plan on saying anything. It’s a holdover from her days as president, when contentious meetings over Dunn’s funding reallocation brought dozens of speakers from both Carbondale and Edwardsville.
“I even made a comment last week, when I didn’t plan to,” Chwalisz said, again defending progress on the reorganization, and calling out the “naysayers.”
Dave Johnson gave his own critiques at the two-day meeting, raising issues with dangerously vague elements of the plan, and defending the rights of faculty and students to review all changes as they're made.
Even as she’s been accused of manipulating information in favor of the reorganization, and against Randy Dunn, Chwalisz remains optimistic about the potential of SIUC and the importance of sticking together with Edwardsville.
“One thing I’ve appreciated about being in this position, is that I’ve learned a lot about our sister schools, how we work together, and how we could work together, if people weren't pitting us against each other,” Chwalisz said.
She’s happy to no longer be in the middle of a storm of rumors and controversy, she said, but Chwalisz assures she's “still watching the weather.”