Editorial: Tell the General Assembly to Let Voters Elect SIU’s Trustees

SIU has a remarkable opportunity with Illinois Senate Bill 2406, proposed by senator Bill Haine, Dem
Chris Wissmann

SIU has a remarkable opportunity with Illinois Senate Bill 2406, proposed by senator Bill Haine, Democrat of Alton. In short, the bill would fire everyone on SIU’s Board of Trustees and require an equal number of Carbondale and Edwardsville campus alumni on the board (three apiece) and grant voting power to both campuses’ student trustees (currently only one of which can cast a binding vote).

In response to catastrophic enrollment declines and intractable strife on the Carbondale campus, this writer called for the removal of all the trustees, plus a large number of other employees [Nightlife, September 6, 2012, “An Open Letter to Gov. Pat Quinn: Fire Everyone at SIU”]. Though certainly not because of the Nightlife column, the governor did, in fact, move to replace the three trustees whose terms expired, all of whom were perceived as friendly to system president Glenn Poshard. Then the Illinois senate unanimously blocked Quinn’s nominees, ostensibly because none graduated from the Edwardsville campus, but really because Poshard pulled strings in a legislature where a flailing governor is enormously unpopular.

Haine’s bill, while offering a small improvement over the status quo, requires significant amendments. As ongoing, embarrassing, destructive power struggles at SIU attest, not to mention the legislature’s smackdown of Quinn, the problem goes beyond specific personalities and extends to the political-appointment process. Given time, Quinn’s nominees might have offered further proof-- a friend of mine knows one of the nominees and told me that person deserved senate rejection.

In addition to Carbondale, SIU has campuses in Edwardsville and Springfield. Carbondale mayor Joel Fritzler suggested the mayors of those communities receive appointments as SIU trustees, which wouldn’t work because Fritzler is an SIU employee and couldn’t legally hold a position on the board. But Fritzler is onto something.

So many of the trustees have lived in Marion, Harrisburg, Belleville, Chicago, and other places where SIU is not. The trustees are not accountable to the communities where SIU has campuses, and most don’t even live close enough to the university to see the real-world impact of the decisions they make as a board. Trustees vote and vanish, leaving us with the messes they leave behind.

Thus Haine should amend his bill to require the direct election of SIU trustees. Two should be alumni of the Carbondale campus in good standing, and two from the Edwardsville campus. (The Carbondale campus is larger in terms of student body, and perhaps deserves majority representation on the board. The enrollment trajectories of the two campuses are moving in opposite directions, however, so such a provision, even if politically viable, could well give the Carbondale campus minority representation in the not-so-distant future.) In addition, trustees elected from the body of Carbondale alumni should be required to live within the city limits of Carbondale, and Edwardsville trustees should need to live in Edwardsville proper. The student trustees of both campuses, as per Haine’s bill, should each receive a binding vote.

SIU is a state university, not just a Carbondale / Edwardsville / Springfield university. Having trustees in other parts of Illinois-- particularly the Chicago area-- could well help with lobbying legislators who do not have a direct interest in SIU’s success. Trustees with the governor’s ear can also help the university. Thus, the governor, with the advice and consent of the senate, should get to nominate four additional at-large board members among the SIU alumni, two from each campus, all of whom must reside in Illinois.

Voters once elected University of Illinois trustees, which was great for those who resented the influence and stature of the state’s flagship school-- they could always vote for troublemaking Socialist candidates.

According to a press release from state senator Mike Frerichs, the General Assembly made U of I trustees gubernatorial appointees in 1996 because candidates in the trustee elections “were often relative unknowns slated by political parties, and few voters were informed about their choices.” In reality, state politicos probably wanted trustees accountable to said politicos instead of the voters.

Frerichs, a Champaign Democrat, is himself apparently unhappy with the appointee system, and has proposed an amendment to Senate Bill 46 that would give the governor four appointees to the U of I board of trustees and five appointees to the Board of Directors of the University of Illinois Alumni Association. This bill is worth watching, and if passed it might well improve the trustee-selection process at the U of I and provide some lessons for SIU.

But ultimately Frerichs’s amendment, if applied to SIU, could still result in too many trustees who are too well-insulated from their decisions. Elected trustees with residency requirements are far better than selected trustees living in regions far-removed from the university they purport to serve.

Readers who agree should call their state representatives and senators to voice their opinions. The legislative boundaries aren’t easy to describe, but generally those who live on Carbondale’s west side should get ahold of Sen. Dave Luechtefeld at (618) 243-9014 and Rep Mike Bost at (618) 457-5787, and those on the east side should contact Sen. Gary Forby at (618) 439-2504 and Rep. Brandon Phelps at (618) 253-4189.