CARBONDALE — A sizeable public institution like Southern Illinois University Carbondale contains many influential administrators, but none wields as much power in steering the course of the university as those on its governing board of trustees.
Intended as public servants, members of the SIU Board of Trustees do not receive compensation other than for expenses. They are appointed for six-year terms by the governor — with the exception of the board’s two student trustees, whom students elect to represent the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses for one-year terms.
The scope of the board’s authority is broad. In Illinois, governing boards are responsible for adopting budgets and setting institutional policies; they have the final say on tuition and fees, on personnel and on courses of study.
“Boards of trustees are actually very powerful,” said Jennifer Delaney, associate professor of higher education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “They ultimately have fiduciary responsibility for the institution. Most senior administrators, particularly presidents and chancellors, actually serve at the pleasure of boards, so they’re sort of the boss of the campus leaders.”
Such is the case with SIU: President Randy Dunn has reported to the Board of Trustees since it selected him for the presidency in 2014. The chancellors of SIUC and SIUE report to both Dunn and the board.
Recent events betray dissonance between trustees — and between the board and SIU’s senior administrators.
Two weeks ago, the board voted down a shift of $5.1 million in state appropriations funding to Edwardsville, a move that, by all appearances, sparked a legislative effort to formally sever Edwardsville from Carbondale. The funding shift proposal failed to pass, 3-4, with one abstention.
That separation bill, introduced by Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, would create two separate boards of trustees for SIUC and SIUE. It would also put the School of Medicine, traditionally affiliated with Carbondale, under the Edwardsville umbrella.
Although this isn’t the first time such legislation has been introduced, if it were successful, it would further fragment Illinois’ network of public universities.
“Illinois used to have what was called a ‘system of systems,’” Delaney said. “At that time, every four-year, public campus in the state was part of a system, and each system had one governing board. That’s essentially broken apart, but we see vestiges of that today in the Southern system and the U. of I. system.”
Two other SIU-related bills were introduced as part of the same package: one to make state appropriations funding equal between the two campuses, and another to reconstitute the Board of Trustees so that there are equal numbers of alumni between SIUC and SIUE.
In an April 24 meeting with The Southern’s editorial board, Board of Trustees Vice Chair Phil Gilbert admitted that SIU has a leadership problem.
Gilbert criticized Dunn for approving the hires of SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno’s daughter and son-in-law, saying the board had no knowledge of the agreement when the chancellor was brought on last summer.
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Gilbert said he believes the investigation into those hires, which has been passed to the state’s Office of Executive Inspector General for review, will “point the finger directly at (Dunn), because he didn’t have the express or implied authority to hire those family members.”
He alluded to tensions between Dunn and Montemagno.
“It’s obvious that the chancellor and our president did not get along. I don’t know if it’s because we didn’t hire his man to be chancellor,” Gilbert said, referring to former SIUC Interim Chancellor Brad Colwell. “But when his man was chancellor, nothing was getting done.
“But we do have a leadership problem,” he continued. “I’ll agree with that, we have a leadership problem at the university. And until we all get on the same page, people outside, they’re not going to send their kids here.”
Gilbert also condemned Dunn’s decision to remain neutral on the possible dissolution of the system.
“I’m very disappointed in President Dunn’s hands-off and neutral position regarding the separation legislation. As head of the system, he should be advocating to preserve the system. … To me, reading between the lines, his neutral position is not that neutral, and I believe he favors splitting the system, including sending the medical school to Edwardsville,” Gilbert said.
Dunn originally said he would hold no official position on the legislation in a joint statement with board chair Amy Sholar, who was among those who voted in favor of the $5.1 million funding shift from Carbondale to Edwardsville.
‘Representing the public’
Although trustees clearly have their alma mater campuses in mind when they take their votes, there is no requirement that trustees be affiliated with either SIUC or SIUE. The only proviso in the law is that no more than four of the governor-appointed members can be from the same political party.
Board member appointees also must be confirmed by the Senate. For trustees Marsha Ryan and Tom Britton, that confirmation is still pending, but they have full voting privileges.
The trustees’ administrative experience in higher education varies. Britton, who was appointed just three days before the funding shift vote, previously served as administrative counsel to the SIU Board of Trustees and spent 17 years in SIU’s central administration.
Historically, governing boards grew up around the notion of “lay” boards, or boards comprised of nonexperts, Delaney said.
“It really is sort of speaking to the notion of these institutions as being public institutions, public good, and we want governance of representing the public in the governance of these organizations. In that way, the logic of it isn’t necessarily drawing on having educational expertise, but rather some sort of election or appointment process where you’re representing the state’s interest in the functioning and management of these public institutions that serve to educate the workforce of the state,” Delaney said.
Delaney said the notion of laypeople serving on boards is a controversial one in the world of higher education administration.
“There are lots of really interesting debates on both sides, like should we have experts in sort of more a peer-review format on our boards, or should we have these lay boards?” Delaney said.