September 11, 2017
Why every Illinois politician should read Blagojevich's words
There was a time when Rod Blagojevich spent thousands of dollars on Oxxford suits and baby blue silk neckties. And there was a time more recently when he gave four postage stamps to a fellow prisoner in exchange for ironing his prison uniform.
The old life of Blagojevich. The new life of Blagojevich. In his first set of interviews since his incarceration more than five years ago, the defrocked governor — and his wife, Patti — talked to Chicago Magazine's David Bernstein about life in prison and the struggles of keeping their family connected. It's a story less about the optimistic Blagojevich who exercises and reads and works on his case, and more about the impact of his corruption convictions on those closest to him. What's palpable is the worst price he pays for his federal felonies. Not the enduring shame. Not his lost potential. But his relationship with his family, especially his daughters.
Illinois politicians and inside players, read the article carefully, then calculate: How much are a few years with your family worth? Is an ethical lapse here and there an acceptable risk? A contract for a crony? A vacation on a donor's dime? A kickback?
Whether you agree with Blagojevich that his scheming was typical horse trading, or with prosecutors that he criminally exploited his job, this is indisputable: The one-time Democratic Party superstar took alarming risks, even when he knew he was under investigation.
In his 2009 book, "The Governor," composed after his arrest and before his first trial, Blagojevich spent 264 pages defending himself, pleading for fairness and exposing other Illinois pols whom he believed crossed ethical lines and got away with it. He wrote of his daughters and the possibility — he believed remote — of being sent away.
At the time of his pre-dawn arrest in December 2008, both girls were asleep in their beds, blissfully unaware that they would lose constant contact with their dad. That time is here
Patti Blagojevich and the girls still live in the family's Ravenswood Manor home, a 1920s Mediterranean-style house they renovated shortly after Blagojevich was elected governor. In a photo accompanying the article in Chicago Magazine — which is owned by this newspaper's corporate parent — Patti Blagojevich poses in her husband's library, with leather couches, a white crown molding-trimmed fireplace and scarlet, fabric wallpaper. She describes single parenthood as "a tough row to hoe," adding: "But I can't indulge in feeling sorry for myself. My kids are sad and anxious, like they have PTSD. It's been really hard for them. I can't let myself go there. I've got my nervous breakdown scheduled for, like, 10 years from now when Annie's out of college. That's when I can fall apart."
She describes how attached the girls are to her, checking in on her throughout the day; they worry about their sole caretaker. And that's partly why they don't visit their father as much as they used to. Traveling to Colorado and spending time with him forces an emotional transition when they return home. They realize what they're missing. Almost-monthly visits the first year of his imprisonment have wound down to about four a year. The girls are growing apart from their father.
"At this point, nobody ever wants to go," Patti Blagojevich admits.
Blagojevich says he writes the girls long emails, some of which they don't even read.
Which is worse? Never seeing your children while in prison? Or experiencing the painful, slow death of your connection to them? That's the steepest price of all. He's becoming irrelevant.
During his governorship, the Blagojeviches spent $400,000 on clothing and furs. They mingled with the wealthy. They craved it. They rang up debt, planning to pay it off when he landed a lucrative job outside of government.
Today he can hardly afford four stamps. His phone calls are monitored. His visitors are screened. His movements are regulated. His clothing is restricted.
Blagojevich remains one of Illinois' most puzzling stories. From governor to prisoner. How did I get here, he wondered during his first summer in prison while sharing cramped bunk space with sweaty, angry felons.
He got there by violating the public's trust. So read every word, Illinois pols. As we've asked here often and always found an answer: Who's next?
September 11, 2017
The (Champaign) News-Gazette
Free speech on campus?
If the University of Illinois is to answer the question in the affirmative, officials must stand ready to protect all speech — especially the unpopular.
University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen is overseeing a forthcoming declaration reiterating the university's commitment to the principles of free speech.
But he recently gave a preview of what to expect, one that was both encouraging and discouraging.
He said the UI intends to ensure that "students are exposed to the full diversity of concepts and ideas." It's always good to see the UI agreeing with the fundamental idea behind the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But Killeen also spoke of ensuring student "safety" when it comes to evaluating speech, a word that has been used to shut down speech on some campuses.
At the same time, the UI College of Law Dean Vikram Amar noted that so-called hate speech is, for a very good reason, constitutionally protected speech while warning that some "rabble-rousers" aren't worth hearing or, more importantly, being invited to campus.
Dean Amar is absolutely correct that some people are far more deserving of an audience than others.
But who decides? Aye, there's the rub.
Just as one man's trash is another man's treasure, one person's compelling speaker can be another's utter bore or offensive provocateur.
That's why the issue is not so much who's invited to campus to speak, but what type of reception will be granted to the invited speaker.
It should go without saying — but, unfortunately, no longer does — that all speakers should be given a polite reception and that any protests be peaceful.
But the current mood on campus is one of extreme intolerance in some quarters toward those who take positions disfavored by enforcers of campus orthodoxy.
Just last week, a UI student group promised the same kind of response here if anyone runs afoul of its self-proclaimed rules.
The Students for Justice in Palestine issued a statement indicating it is willing to use violent tactics to stop people it deems fascists, white supremacists and Zionists from speaking on campus because "speech is not just expression but violence."
The student group stated that "we do not believe there is any other option (than violence) when it comes to dealing with fascists and white supremacists."
"Granting them any platform will only lead to further normalization of their violent ideologies," decreed the Students for Palestine.
The main, but certainly not the only, problem with that assertion is that it's the SJP that decides who is a fascist, white supremacist or Zionist, and it will come down on anyone who disagrees with the organization's world view. That's particularly true as it relates to Israel, which the SJP characterizes as both fascist and white supremacist.
It's especially disappointing that college campuses, once beacons of free speech, inquiry and thinking, have become the segment of American society most hostile to those noble concepts.
Perhaps it will change one day — preferably sooner rather than later. But if the respectful airing of points of view on controversial issues is to become the rule, rather than the exception, the UI is going to have to stand up for what is right — freedom of speech for all.
The tepid defense of free speech that President Killeen hints at won't get the job done.
UI officials need to let campus speakers stand or fall in the marketplace of ideas, oversee law enforcement practices that strictly separate hostile political factions and make it crystal clear that those who violate campus rules will be punished, not given a pass.
September 10, 2017
The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan
There is light at end of the tunnel for SIUC
There is nothing comforting in the fall enrollment numbers released by Southern Illinois University Carbondale last week.
As has been the case in recent years, a decline in enrollment was expected. Nevertheless, the numbers were still somewhat shocking.
The 10-day figures announced earlier this week pegged SIU's enrollment at 14,554, an 8.96 percent drop from last year. The largest decrease was in the freshman class — down 408 students from last year, a precipitous 19.19 percent decrease.
There is no way, nor any reason, to sugarcoat the numbers. They are what they are — a continuation of what has been a decade-long downward spiral.
Let's also not pretend this is a simple problem. There are no silver bullets, magic wands, marketing campaigns or miracle drugs that will get SIUC back on course. In fact, this year's numbers seem to actually cloud the picture a bit.
In previous years, student retention seemed to be the primary issue. Now, it appears getting students to Carbondale initially has become more of a problem.
It's not a pretty picture.
Granted, some of the issues facing SIU are not the fault of the school. The two-year budget crisis has crippled other state institutions. The lack of a budget has resulted in staff and program cuts. Upgrades to student housing have been put on hold.
And, the university has taken an indirect black eye from an uptick in violent crime experienced in Carbondale the past few years.
But, in the midst of the doom and gloom of raw numbers, there is one ray of hope. We take heart in the words of new chancellor Carlo Montemagno, who said the reasons for SIUC's continuing enrollment decline cannot be excuses.
No, attitude itself won't reverse the enrollment decline, but approaching the issue with the proper resolve can help. We say this with full knowledge that it is Montemagno's job to approach the issue with an optimistic viewpoint.
With that grain of salt, we like many of the things Montemagno said.
For starters, there are a couple rays of silver lining poking through the black cloud — retention numbers are better and the average ACT score for SIU students has increased.
It's hardly a novel approach, but Montemagno stated the university must build upon what it does best. While it sounds like a simple solution, if Montemagno is serious, that will require some serious introspection. It may result in sacrificing programs that were once considered sacred cows.
"We need to re-envision ourselves as a university to make our message appealing and fit the needs of this new generation of students," he said. "Some programs will go away, some programs will have resources added to them and there will be some new programs that get established."
That would appear to be simple common sense.
Hopefully, with a state budget in place, SIU administrators can get to the hard work of streamlining and modernizing the university's approach to education instead of being pre-occupied with simply keeping the doors open and the lights on.
We do take issue with one thing Montemagno said. He cautioned against comparing enrollment numbers at the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses, citing the fact that SIUC is the flagship institution in the SIU system.
While factually correct, the continued growth of SIU Edwardsville has to have had an effect on enrollment at the Carbondale campus.
Three decades ago, SIUE was a commuter school with an enrollment hovering at about 5,000 students. The Edwardsville campus now has more than 14,000 students. The campus is located in the Metro East, an area that is also a prime recruiting ground for SIUC.
Finally, while we are encouraged by Montemagno's words, it's time to put those thoughts into action. The downward trend in enrollment must be reversed, and quickly.