Randy Dunn is officially out as president of Southern Illinois University, but the issues that are dividing the university will continue, according to several who spoke out as Dunn’s severance was approved.
The SIU board of trustees voted unanimously Monday to approve a “voluntary separation” agreement for Dunn, which includes six months’ salary and a teaching position at SIUE beginning in January 2019.
Dunn’s leadership has been controversial in recent months as a politically split board of trustees wrangled over his support for shifting more of the state’s funding from the Carbondale campus to Edwardsville, viewing it as undermining Carbondale. Last month, the board voted 4-4 on a motion to suspend Dunn, which meant it did not pass.
Trustee Joel Sambursky, who has been one of Dunn’s strongest critics, said the separation agreement was “not perfect” but provides the system the opportunity to move forward.
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“It allows our university to avoid costly litigation and prolonged negative press which would chip away at the reputation of our nationally recognized campuses,” he said. “There is a lot of work to be done as we move forward to strengthen the SIU system. The lifting will be heavy. We are all entitled to disagree on the specifics about how that work will be carried out, but make no mistake, the directive from the board is crystal clear: all of us must be working tirelessly to advance the interests of the SIU system.”
But the Edwardsville faculty and staff who spoke to the board were more skeptical.
Eric “Duff” Wrobbel, a 25-year professor of applied communication studies at SIUE, told the board that the issue of dividing state funding will not disappear with Dunn’s departure. He reminded them that SIUE faculty spoke to them 16 months ago about the funding discrepancy, and it remains at the forefront for SIUE.
“You didn’t like his proposal? What’s yours?” he asked. “Upset he spoke to the legislature? Why didn’t you?”
Wrobbel said the numbers have all been trending in the same direction for more than a decade. “So my question is, where have all of you been?” he said. “You brought President Dunn in to solve a problem that you all avoided for more than a decade, then you paid him more money we don’t have and shoved him out when he finally tried to fix it. You have literally made things worse rather than better, so I sincerely hope that you and our next president come up with a better plan to move us forward.”
Anne Hunter, current president of the SIUE Staff Senate, said she would like to think that Carbondale would now focus on their financial and enrollment issues, “but I’m not certain they are willing to do that,” she said.
“Rather than face the writing on the wall, they choose to live in the past and manufacture one drama after another to distract from reality,” Hunter said. “I have little faith that the board of trustees will ever give Edwardsville fair consideration now. Trustees (Joel) Sambursky and (Phil) Gilbert have repeatedly made it very clear that thy are only interested in what is best for Carbondale. They might do well to follow President Dunn’s example and do what is best for the system.”
State Rep. Katie Stuart, a former SIUE professor, also felt that the funding issue still needs to be addressed by the new leadership. Stuart and state Rep. Jay Hoffman are co-sponsors of several bills that take different approaches to solving the problem: requiring a 50-50 split of funding tied to enrollment, a new board of trustees equally divided between the campuses, or a split of the entire system into two separate universities.
“I remain committed in the fight for fair funding for Edwardsville to reflect the growth in enrollment that has led to an equal student body population at the Edwardsville and Carbondale campuses,” Stuart said. “Regardless of who serves as president of the university, there is a serious need to evaluate the current funding system ... I strongly encourage the interim president and the board of trustees to engage in this process to address the funding disparity.”
Gretchen Fricke, immediate past president of the SIUE Staff Senate, is director of student services in the school of education, health and human behavior and spoke to the board Monday. “I’m not here to try to influence a decision that has been made,” she said, but said she urged the board to try to heal the division within the system.
Fricke pointed out that the national Chronicle of Higher Education has had seven articles about SIU since January: five about the funding split controversy and two about the ethics investigations into SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno.
“No campus in our system can afford an enrollment drop that the continued negative publicity will bring,” Fricke said.
Dunn did not attend Monday’s meeting. On Friday, he issued a statement acknowledging that he had “become a polarizing figure.”
“My retirement, along with the new leadership of an outstanding interim president, can allow healing to begin across all parts of the organization and advance important decisions that will need to be made for the future,” he said.
On Monday, the board also approved the appointment of Dr. J. Kevin Dorsey, former dean of the SIU School of Midicine, as interim president. Dorsey will serve for one year during the search for the next president. SIU Board Chair Amy Sholar said information will be released over the next several months regarding the organization of a search committee and the process by which the university will look for its next leader.