Editorial: Glenn Poshard’s Army: Will He Mobilize SIU? Will He?

A few weeks ago, Illinois governor Pat Quinn finally stepped into the often entertaining but deeply
Chris Wissmann

A few weeks ago, Illinois governor Pat Quinn finally stepped into the often entertaining but deeply embarrassing turmoil between the SIU Board of Trustees and system president Glenn Poshard. Quinn removed three of Poshard’s closest allies on the board and appointed three new-- but not necessarily better-- trustees. Poshard looked like a goner.

But Quinn, as governor, has often stretched the Peter Principle to its limits, and here he demonstrated how far beyond his level of incompetence he has risen: The state senate balked and unanimously rejected all three Quinn appointees. Unanimously. The senate rarely votes unanimously on anything, except maybe to rename a building or approve a state fish.

Some senators grumbled that Quinn’s appointees all earned degrees from SIU’s Carbondale campus, and if approved they would have destroyed the balance on the board between the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses. Sen. William Haine of Alton introduced a bill that would require said equilibrium and give each campus’s student trustee a voting role on the board-- currently only one student trustee gets a vote. (Another bill, by Belleville Rep. Jay Hoffman, would dissolve the Board of Trustees and split the campuses in a way that would significantly damage Carbondale, but that’s a story for another column.)

Disaffection in the legislature from the Metro East delegation hardly tells the whole story, however, because SIU is just too far away to attract concern from the Chicago Democrats and suburban Republicans who control their respective parties.

No, Quinn’s inability to garner a single vote in favor of his nominees-- even from the senate districts where those nominees live-- not only illustrates the governor’s terrible poll numbers and the contempt held for him by the legislature. It also speaks volumes about Poshard’s power. Poshard, a former state senator as well as a U.S. Congressman, must have called in every favor he had left to save his hide and engineer this political body slam to Quinn.

While a truly astonishing display of clout, Poshard outmaneuvering Quinn ultimately remains an incredibly selfish act. Observers must think: Had the university-system president instead used his considerable influence to obtain the timely delivery of sufficient state funding to SIU, enough to keep tuition low and build enrollment, he’d receive no hostility from the board or community.

With dust still settling on the state senate’s action, Poshard and his most vocal critic on the board, Roger Herrin, teed off on each other during a bizarre press conference. That affair significantly raised expectations for fireworks at Poshard’s March 6 state of the university address.

But Poshard’s speech didn’t draw a single open protester, as board meetings and presidential addresses once regularly did. Poshard’s audience didn’t come close to filling the Student Center Ballrooms-- lectures by Ron Jeremy and Bruce Campbell drew significantly larger, more appreciative crowds. The audience remained silent during the speech’s few applause lines, and asked only a few respectful questions at the end of the address.

Afterward, in a moment of sincere humility, Poshard made this blunt statement: “For any discredit that I brought upon this university with respect to recent events, I apologize. I’ve been associated with SIU Carbondale for over forty years in one form or another, and sometimes it’s hard for me to be silent. That’s all I’ll say.”

Poshard, throughout his address, made plain how truly he loves SIU. He fanatically believes in higher education as a ticket out of poverty. And for a man who spent years in electoral politics, Poshard steadfastly refuses to sugarcoat his assessment of the problems SIU faces.

Poshard’s honesty once was refreshing. For years he has hammered home the need to rebuild enrollment, which has fallen by more than twenty-four percent since 1991. Previous university leaders brushed off the existential threat of SIU’s enrollment death spiral, at least in public, with weasley terms like “rightsizing.”

But by and large, the university has not responded to Poshard’s increasingly dire warnings, and his state of the university address illustrated a significant reason: a lack of inspiring leadership.

Poshard spent more than forty minutes pounding home all the problems SIU faces, including falling enrollment, low retention rates, a shrinking regional population from which to recruit students, and decaying levels of state aid. By the time Poshard got around to offering a few platitudes about SIU’s attributes, he had the audience resigned to a most depressing fate.

Poshard was right to make sure his audience understood the gravity of SIU’s existential crisis-- but only to make sure his listeners understood the consequences of inaction on their parts. Poshard, however, beat constituents and stakeholders into submission when he needed to motivate and empower them to help reverse SIU’s rapid downward slide. In the parlance of SIU’s most basic advertising and public speaking courses, Poshard offered no call to action.

A signature moment came after the address, when someone in the audience asked Poshard what he was doing to push state and federal government to invest in higher education. Poshard concluded his answer by saying, “I am, sir, doing the best I can in trying to represent our university in making progress on both of those [governmental] levels. I’m doing the best I can.”

And that’s a significant portion of the problem: Poshard’s best efforts, despite the clout he demonstrated in keeping his job, aren’t enough to protect SIU’s interests. Of course, in Poshard’s defense, with the state’s current economic and political climates, that degree of power probably rests in no single person’s hands.

But as SIU’s president, Poshard sits at the top of a potentially potent political machine. On three campuses in multiple Congressional and legislative districts, Poshard has nearly seven-thousand full-time equivalent employees who don’t want to endure layoffs or additional furlough days, and thirty-four-thousand students who do not wish to pay increased tuition and fees. They might even vote on behalf of their economic self-interests, if given proper education and motivation.

With just a little organization, focus, and inspiration, plus some intensive voter-registration drives and information campaigns, the SIU campuses could mobilize into a formidable lobbying and voting bloc capable of bringing unbearable pressure on the General Assembly, state executives, and perhaps even Illinois’s congressional delegation. Much of the faculty and staff are already in unions with well-oiled lobbying arms.

Students, while living on or near the SIU campuses, probably hail from just about every legislative district in Illinois, and can expand the university’s influence far beyond Carbondale, Edwardsville, and Springfield. And SIU’s alumni network, some two-hundred-thousand strong, is even larger than its student and employee bodies. Asking alumni to make phone calls or send emails to their elected legislators and executives might net SIU more funding and goodwill than dogging them for direct financial contributions.

Poshard might just discover an SIU community hungry for leadership, ready and excited to contribute to the university’s long-term well-being, if in some cases from self-interest, and others altruism or loyalty. But unless he challenges the university system-- from the students and alumni to the employees-- he’ll never realize this amazing potential, prospects for improvement will decline by the day, and the involuntary end of Poshard’s presidency will grow nigh.