SIU Trustee Chair Responds to Board Friction

May 3, 2018

The Chair of SIU's Board of Trustees says the administration is right to remain neutral on legislation affecting the university - because the board hasn't taken a stance on any of the bills.

In an open letter to the SIU community, Trustee Amy Sholar says the system remains strong, even though one of its campuses - Carbondale - is struggling at this time.

Sholar urges full transparency among board members and administrators as the university works to boost all of its campuses and programs.

President Randy Dunn and others have been criticized for not taking a side on legislation that aims to split SIU Edwardsville from SIU Carbondale, and another bill that would reconstitute the Board of Trustees. The package of proposals came about after last month's contentious Trustee meeting that saw the failure of a plan to reallocate some state money from Carbondale to Edwardsville.

SHOLAR'S LETTER:

 

An Open Letter to the SIU Community from Board of Trustees Chair Amy Sholar

 

It was a great honor to be elected to chair the SIU Board of Trustees in February.  As I accepted this responsibility, I was determined to serve in this capacity as I have conducted myself in all my personal and professional activities – promoting equality, honest leadership, transparency and fairness.  Recently, those qualities have been questioned and I believe that it is necessary to address them and some of the other accusations that have been leveled in recent days.

 

With regard to equality, I believe SIU is strongest when equal parts of the system are treated equally, and given a fair chance at maximizing their potential to succeed. It was with that in mind that I supported the notion of advancing a discussion of making an initial reallocation of state resources while we await a formal recommendation of what that amount should be changed to, as it surely will be, based on the tremendous growth at SIUE and the fact that we have moved even further away from the longstanding 60/40 split of state funds. I was dismayed and disappointed that some would not even entertain the idea of giving Edwardsville a chance at some of those dollars, especially after Carbondale has relied so heavily on the other campuses to keep its financial ship afloat. If Edwardsville is good enough to be asked to support another campus financially and to ultimately keep within the system, as some have supposed, it should also be good enough to be treated equally.

 

As far as leadership, there have been accusations critical of the neutral stand the SIU System Office has taken regarding legislation that would separate the system and create individually governed universities. To the contrary, there is no other position that President Dunn and his staff in Springfield could have taken because they received no direction from the Board of Trustees. To me, it seems logical that with such an important issue, it would go without saying that the President and System-level employees would not act without Board approval.  And why did they receive no direction? First, because the SIU Board was not scheduled to meet where a public discussion could be held to provide that direction. And second, while any three trustees could call on me to convene a full meeting of the Board to discuss this in open session, no one evidently saw fit to do that. 

 

Those who would expect the SIU System Office to take a stand simply because they want to do so are not only disrespecting the authority of the current Board, but are furthering the notion that the will of the Trustees from one campus should automatically overrule those of the others’. That is not only unfair, but also wrong, and is just another example of people from one part of the SIU family saying one thing – talking about the need for equal partners in a system, and then doing another – expecting everyone to do want they want. It’s that kind of logic that divides and foments distrust amongst the partners we claim are so important to SIU.

 

We have great leadership in and across the SIU System, so to me it is disingenuous to argue that our System’s leadership is ineffective because one campus is struggling, especially when two of the three campuses are flourishing. You can’t have it both ways. We need to move away from this arcane thinking that because one campus is older, it must be the first and the best, and that because leadership recognizes success and potential on one (or in this case two) campuses, they are working contrary to the best interests of the other. If we’re going to remain a system, we need to accept that we are continuously evolving and that we can’t stay in our silos forever. 

 

It has been reported that there is infighting between Board members. Some have even taken their argument to the media in an attempt to sway public opinion. For the sake of transparency, let me say this: As Chair of the Board, my record has been one of providing everyone the opportunity to have a voice in the workings of the university. That’s why we took time to give every individual who signed up during the public comments portion of the last Board meeting an opportunity to speak. I believe this helps ensure there is an opportunity for a balance of opinions to be expressed in an open public forum. If individuals consider my efforts at promoting transparency, by allowing the Board to discuss the funding allocation issue in an open meeting as infighting, well, we will have a great deal more infighting, because I am not going to conduct the business of this public university behind closed doors. I will not shy away from an issue simply because some individuals don’t support it. We are a public body. We are charged with making tough decisions, and for the first time, ever, in the spirit of transparency I brought to the Board a discussion on the fairness of our funding allocation that the faculty, staff and alumni of SIUE and the Metro East community have been calling for, for a number of years. This is a decision I do not regret.

 

This discussion has certainly highlighted the need for fairness across the SIU System, but beyond the fairness of a funding allocation, we are at a point where we must have a fair discussion on the future of this System and where, if we go together, we must go. Most importantly, we must have a fair discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of the components that make up the SIU brand. To be fair to our great students and their families and to the amazing individuals who make up our faculty and staff, we need to admit that some parts of SIU are doing better than others and we need to make decisions that maximize the investment we receive from the State. We need SIU Carbondale to find its voice once again, which I believe it can do, but to do that, tough choices must be made—and quickly. However, as Carbondale finds its place in this changing world of higher education, we need to understand that the Edwardsville and Springfield campuses, which have already done so, must be given the tools and resources to go to the next level. Failing to do so weakens those campuses, which as we have seen over the last two years have been the financial backbone of the system.

 

I recently saw a quote by Adam Grant, who at the age of 28 became the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was ranked by students as the best professor at the university from 2011 to 2017. Grant said that “to grow, people need to be challenged.” At this time when we must do everything in our power to grow the SIU campuses, I will challenge us to promote equality, honest leadership, transparency and fairness in all that I do as Board Chair. To do nothing less would be an insult to the great individuals who have come before us.