CARBONDALE — Weeks after unveiling his first budget proposal, Gov. J.B. Pritzker outlined several favorable moves for Southern Illinois University Carbondale and other state universities, in an interview with The Southern Illinoisan Editorial Board on Friday morning.
Under his budget plan, state universities would see a 5 percent increase in funding across the board over last year, he said, while funding for an additional 16,000 Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants should encourage eligible Illinois students to stay in the state for college.
Pritzker emphasized fiscal stability, something he said universities sorely lacked during the state budget impasse.
However, when asked whether he favors keeping SIU Carbondale and SIU Edwardsville together under one university system, Pritzker deflected.
Any decisions about the future of the system “should be made locally,” Pritzker said, by its board of trustees. His job, he said, is to make appointments that ensure the board gives equal say to each SIU campus.
“Getting representation from every campus in the SIU system and making sure it’s balanced is the right way to go,” he told The Southern on Friday. “We need stability at SIU.”
If he wishes, Pritzker can replace up to five members of the seven-member governing board of Southern Illinois University.
Three trustees — Joel Sambursky, Shirley Portwood and Randal Thomas — are at the end of their terms. Two more, Marsha Ryan and Tom Britton, were never formally confirmed by the Illinois Senate after former Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed them.
Pritzker has already removed Britton and Ryan, but has not announced their replacements.
Ultimately, sources indicate that Pritzker is planning further replacements and an adjusted balance on the board, with three Carbondale-affiliated trustees, three Edwardsville-affiliated trustees, and one trustee from Springfield, where the SIU School of Medicine has its headquarters.
Until Ryan's and Britton’s recent removals, the board was comprised of four Carbondale-area trustees, with ties to SIUC (Ryan, Britton, Phil Gilbert and Sambursky), and three Edwardsville-area trustees, with ties to SIUE (Amy Sholar, Thomas and Portwood). The Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses also have one student trustee each.
Campus divisions on the board loomed large last May, when the trustees voted on whether to punish then-SIU President Randy Dunn, after internal emails revealed he’d colluded with SIU Edwardsville Chancellor Randy Pembrook to advance a proposal that would have shifted $5.1 million from the SIUC to SIUE.
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All four SIUC-affiliated trustees voted to place Dunn on administrative leave, while all three SIUE affiliated trustees, joined by then-SIUE Student Trustee Luke Jansen, voted against the move.
Later reporting showed Dunn also helped Pembrook build political support for legislation introduced by State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, that would have split the SIU system into separate Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses.
Hoffman, with the backing of several fellow Metro East Democrats, proposed separate boards of trustees for SIUC and SIUE, and sought to transfer the SIU School of Medicine from SIU Carbondale to SIU Edwardsville, a move medical school leaders oppose.
In May, the board voted unanimously against the split legislation (two members, Sholar and Jansen, abstained). An ongoing funding study, commissioned by the board, is examining the distribution of state money between Carbondale and Edwardsville, to make sure each campus receives its fair share.
On Friday, Pritzker blamed the budget impasse and historical drawbacks in state funding for higher education for the enrollment loss plaguing SIUC and other Illinois public universities.
Currently, Illinois loses more students to out-of-state colleges than almost any other state.
“Decisions about the future of this great university should not be made based on a couple of years of a terrible crisis, but based on the stability we’re trying to bring back,” Pritzker said of SIU.
That should be the context, he explained, for any discussion about how best to organize the system.
State Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, who has discussed the board appointments with Pritzker, said she’s confident in his commitment to a balanced board at SIU.
“If he appoints a truly balanced board, they won’t want separation,” Bryant said, as Carbondale-based trustees will never agree to any proposal that strips the university of its affiliations to the SIU law or medical schools.
“If you have a balanced board you’re either moving in a direction of keeping things together, or a direction of stalemate on the issue, and that, too, means the system stays together,” Bryant said.