CARBONDALE — Meera Komarraju’s 18 months as interim provost of Southern Illinois University Carbondale have thickened her skin, but they have not swayed her from her course.
She has reorganized programs, restructured recruitment efforts, and created and eliminated jobs. Her decisions have shaped the future of the university, and she has borne scrutiny for its continued enrollment struggles.
On Tuesday, she spoke before about 50 faculty, seeking their endorsement in her bid to shed her “interim” title and become the university’s permanent provost and chief academic officer.
“Any organization goes through difficult times. It’s what you do as an organization in the face of adversity,” she told them. “Do you give up? Or do you pull together, roll up your sleeves and get to work? And that is my plea to you ... to work with you to help SIU towards a positive future.”
The open competition to hire a permanent provost was initiated by Interim Chancellor John Dunn in September.
But the process has been criticized by some on campus.
Generally, the university conducts national searches for positions of high rank and importance.
In this case, Dunn has elected to conduct an exclusively internal search, considering only current SIU employees for a position widely regarded as the second-most powerful at the university.
The method was chosen to ensure a provost who understands SIUC’s needs and challenges is in place as the university hires a permanent system president and a new chancellor in the coming months, Dunn has said. Both of those executives will likely come from outside the institution.
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Critics say the provost hire is being rushed and unfairly advantages Komarraju. She is the only finalist for the job, and some faculty, like professor Dave Johnson, attribute the lack of applicants to widespread belief on campus that, as the incumbent, Komarraju was guaranteed to win.
“Were (Komarraju) not to get the job, the search would be a repudiation of her leadership and hence of Dunn’s leadership, as he has basically delegated everything of importance to her,” Johnson said. "This distinctly odd job search really boils down to a vote of confidence in her leadership."
Last week, the Faculty Senate, which represents professors, passed, in a divided vote, a resolution encouraging the university administration to postpone the search.
That resolution is a nonbinding recommendation, which Dunn can choose to follow or not, said Faculty Senate President Segun Ojewuyi.
While questions about the timing and structure of the search have merit, Ojewuyi said, he is confident that it will be a thorough and fair vetting of Komarraju's qualifications by a broad array of campus groups.
Ojewuyi was impressed by Komarraju’s speech to faculty on Tuesday.
“I think she outlined her role very clearly. I think at this time in the life of the university, with the reorganization that’s been going on, the enrollment challenges, the reduction in faculty, we have a lot of things kind of working against us that we have to deal with,” he said “She recognized the challenges very clearly, she identified them, then she said, ‘I’m not afraid to take on these tough decisions.’”
Ojewuyi expects his committee to deliver its assessment to Dunn “very soon,” he said, after compiling faculty feedback including evaluations of Komarraju’s Tuesday presentation.
So far, Dunn has expressed no intent to delay the search.
For her part, Komarraju said she would have welcomed competition from other applicants.
"If the process goes forward, my challenge would be to prove that I am worthy of the position,” she said. "I believe that I am."