Editorial: A Eulogy for Glenn Poshard

It was a sad day last week when Glenn Poshard announced his retirement from SIU, effective June 2014
Chris Wissmann

 

It was a sad day last week when Glenn Poshard announced his retirement from SIU, effective June 2014. When he steps down, Poshard will have been president of the SIU system for about nine years.

Though I like Poshard personally a great deal, in this space I called for Poshard’s termination last September, in the wake of a historic enrollment collapse-- SIU lost 970 students from the previous school year. It was the worst but only the most recent in a long series of steep enrollment declines that brought with them a catastrophic loss of cultural wealth, economic power, and political clout. The time had come for a change.

Governor Pat Quinn apparently agreed, if for his own inscrutable reasons. Turmoil had erupted between Poshard and some members of the Board of Trustees (another issue in itself), and after some hamfisted, typically incompetent Quinn efforts failed, the governor removed Poshard’s biggest supporters from the board. Poshard was done.

It needed to happen, and yet the campus and surrounding community should mute any joy, instead taking the time to reflect a little about the lost opportunities of the Poshard presidency.

After a string of hired-gun predecessors with no strong ties to SIU, Poshard offered a realistic promise of renewal for a moribund campus. Poshard earned three degrees here, understood the culture of the campus, and truly loved the institution. His predecessors were content to downsize SIU’s Carbondale campus, publicly ignore its serious problems, and didn’t seem to understand or care about the impact of Illinois politics on the financial support of higher education.

Poshard, a former state legislator and U.S. Congressman, knew better. His political connections helped secure promised funding that failed state economic policies had tied up for many months past their expected disbursement dates. Instead of talking about downsizing or rightsizing SIU, Poshard frequently said that enrollment declines threatened the prestige and clout of the university, and he demanded growth in the student body. He almost never candy-coated his clear-eyed opinions about SIU’s many challenges.

Poshard entered the president’s office with a strong wind at his back and the skeptical but unified support of the campus and community.

Almost immediately, however, Poshard made terrible missteps.

A coronation ceremony to celebrate his installation as president could most charitably be interpreted as break from the past and a pep rally for a new dawn at SIU. To most observers, however, the affair came off as dictatorial, not to mention a large waste of taxpayer dollars during a time of state cutbacks.

After swiftly moving to replace controversial chancellor Walter Wendler, Poshard’s handpicked successor, Fernando Treviño, couldn’t even last one year in the position.

Poshard was whacked by anonymous and what looked like unfair charges of plagiarism in his doctorial dissertation. Ultimately, he was cleared of consciously stealing other people’s work, but the damage was done-- Poshard permanently lost a lot of respect, especially from the faculty.

While at first Poshard managed to quickly and quietly settle union negotiations, peace shattered during the faculty strike of November 2011.

To combat steep drops in student headcounts, Poshard supported a painfully unsuccessful multimillion-dollar marketing contract with the Lipman Hearne marketing firm. With that group supposedly burnishing the university’s image, SIU may have set an all-time record for declining enrollment. Then, rather than cut bait, Poshard pushed to renew the contract.

And if he was able to correctly, frankly identify problems at SIU, Poshard lacked the leadership skills to build creative solutions. Quite simply, he didn’t inspire the campus. Too often, he came off as whining.

This list could contain many more details, it could go on, but further enumeration offers nothing constructive.

Even Poshard’s harshest critics probably should acknowledge that he did the best he could, but his staunchest supporters must admit the effort wasn’t good enough. For while Poshard didn’t create most of SIU’s worst problems-- many had festered here for years before his presidency-- Poshard failed to solve them, and in some cases he made them worse.

Supporters and optimists hoped Poshard was the second coming of Delyte Morris, the visionary leader who helped transform SIU from a small teachers’ college into a major research institution. The state’s economic woes rendered such expectations unrealistic and almost cruel. Poshard didn’t stand a chance of fulfilling them, and in fairness, it’s worth wondering if anyone could have, considering the state’s broken condition.

And that’s a fairly sobering thought: Going forward, can the Board of Trustees find a better president?

More cynical people might ask: What are the board’s priorities, anyway? Does the board even want a better president, or just a figurehead? Will the board give the next president not only the mandate but also the freedom to restore SIU’s status as a great university? What do the board members care about SIU or this region, anyway? Are they here to serve the institution or do favors for friends?

Alas, SIU’s past does not point toward a truly great successor for Poshard. As we have learned from the end of John Guyon and Walter Wendler’s chancelleries, those who feel the end of Poshard’s reign was necessary for the good of SIU ought to postpone the party for at least a few years, until the next president has established enough of a track record to determine whether he or she merits a celebration.