EDWARDSVILLE — From now on, Southern Illinois University students will have a stronger voice in the governance of their school than students at nearly any other major university system.
Flanked by SIU leaders and metro east lawmakers, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation Tuesday that gives a vote to both student members on the SIU Board of Trustees — one from the Carbondale campus, and one from SIU Edwardsville.
That gives students two of the nine votes on the SIU board, compared to one out of 11 votes at the University of Illinois, one out of 10 at the University of Missouri, and one out of 16 at the University of Kentucky.
Previously at SIU, each campus sent a student representative to the board, and the governor chose one to be the voting member each year, typically on an alternating basis, while the other student got an advisory seat.
“Student voices matter,” Pritzker said Tuesday. “That is why we’re amplifying the student voice on the board of trustees offering each major campus an equal say in board affairs no matter the date or the time of year.”
The measure was introduced by Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, and co-sponsored by other Metro East St. Louis lawmakers and Southern Illinois State Rep. Terri Bryant. It also received endorsements from J. Phil Gilbert, chairman of the SIU Board, SIU Interim President J. Kevin Dorsey, and the student trustees on both campuses.
“Not only are (SIUC Student Trustee) Brione (Lockett) and I appreciative of this movement, but I know that student trustees in the future and in years to come will be as well,” said SIU Edwardsville Student Trustee Mackenzie Rogers. “I truly believe that this is an implementation that will further allow the SIU System to prosper.”
While his speech on Tuesday focused on the value of amplifying student voices, Pritzker declined to call for the same change at other state universities. When asked if he would like to see similar changes at the University of Illinois, Pritzker declined to say, indicating he believed the student trustee balance should be an issue of local governance at each university.
“You all know what’s best for your university,” he told the crowded atrium of SIUE’s Morris University Center. “I think student voices need to be heard all across the state, most importantly, though, here at SIU as we’re trying to enhance ... all the campuses.”
SIU particularly needs more student power, Pritzker said, because of “the changes that occurred between the two campuses, the weighting, enrollment and so on.”
He did not elaborate on his view of the balance between the campuses, a contentious issue since last spring.
For her part, Stuart told The Southern she helped convince Pritzker to sign the bill by “making sure he understands the dynamics of decisions that have been made by the board prior.”
In her view, she said, the board erred in its April 2018 4-3 decision against shifting $5.1 million in state funding from SIUC to SIUE in recognition of the Edwardsville campus’ enrollment growth relative to Carbondale.
“It really brought to the forefront how important it is to make sure the students across both campuses have a voice,” she said.
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However, it’s unlikely more student involvement would have pushed that controversial resolution toward passage, since the Edwardsville student trustee was among the three ‘yes’ votes, and the Carbondale student did not vote.
Stuart’s trustee voting bill, introduced in March, initially drew suspicion from deep Southern Illinois, because it sought to change the power balance on the board as conversation about splitting the university system swirled.
Stuart pushed for the split in 2018, as did Reps. Jay Hoffman and Monica Bristow, who joined Stuart and Pritzker for the bill signing Tuesday in Edwardsville.
However, the five trustees appointed by Gov. Pritzker in March have pledged their commitment to maintaining the university system.
Pritzker, for his part, has declined to weigh in on whether or not SIU should remain a system, again qualifying the decision as a local issue.
Moving forward, Stuart said she’ll be paying close attention to the board’s decisions on how to allocate state funds between the two campuses.
Since about 1975, state funds have been allotted on a roughly 64% to 36% split between Carbondale and Edwardsville — about $91.4 million and $53.8 million respectively in Fiscal Year 2018.
But calls to invest a greater share in SIUE have intensified as the university equaled and then eclipsed SIUC in enrollment over the last two school years.
A study commissioned by the trustees to assess the balance came back inconclusive in July, and Interim President J. Kevin Dorsey will now convene a committee of trustees and administrators to work out a formula by the end of the year.
It’s a complex task that must account for enrollment, infrastructure costs, and the differing expenses of providing different degrees.
Stuart would like to see the work passed off to “an independent entity,” like the Illinois Board of Higher Education, she said, and she already has a resolution that would allow the intervention.
Whether or not she advances that bill will “depend on how I see the new board and the decisions that they make,” she said.
A previous attempt to give both student trustees the vote was vetoed in 2015 by former Gov. Bruce Rauner.
At the time, he cautioned against diluting “the insight gained from the other trustees’ years of professional experience.”
“Having two student voting members is not necessary or advisable,” read a statement explaining Rauner's decision. “The Board of Trustees must consider difficult budgetary issues, academic requirements, and student conduct and disciplinary issues. The long-term views of professionals must be given appropriate weight.”