In an effort to take Western Illinois University in a more promising direction, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker appointed an entirely new Board of Trustees (BOT).
The University has been unsuccessful in moving away from the black clouds that surround its BOT open-meetings act violation in 2018. The Illinois Attorney General’s office determined that the group broke the law when members discussed layoffs and financial matters behind closed doors.
Shortly after the incident became public, board members started to depart. Two members retired, two were found to have conflicts of interests and were removed, one resigned, one was not confirmed and one was not reappointed.
While a drastic decline in enrollment put Western’s decision makers in a difficult position, it is still important to hold them accountable for wrongdoing, according to Union leader Bill Thompson.
“Members of the old board would like to blame their legal counsel for their ignorance about the open-meetings act, but the truth is, each board member is supposed to undergo mandatory training regarding the basics,” Thompson said. “It is basic that the budget and layoffs be discussed in open session and only inopen session.”
One of the first moves after the violation was replacing the former University counsel with Elizabeth Duvall. Thompson said that Duvall’s presence is a positive when it comes to being able to trust the board and he doesn’t believe that she will allow any more violations.
Pritzker made his appointments about a month after the University announced it would be laying off 132 employees. A petition designed to snag more funding for Western accumulated more than4,000 signatures.
Thompson said that there’s also an effort to reverse some of the layoffs, which may be unjust. The Public Access Counselor is asking to review closed-session tapes from the months leading up to June’s violation in 2018. He said that it was a red flag that the old board wouldn’t ask any tough questions, leading him to suspect that there wereprevious violations.
“We need the information on those tapes to defend our members from layoffs that we believe were done in a non-contractual manner,” he said, “and because we also want to understand why the University is in the position it iscurrently in.”
Per the law, the governor cannot appoint a majority from any one political party. The process includes choosing from a field of candidates who were nominated by their constituents. Then, the senate must confirm the appointments within the next 60 meetings. Given how seldom that the legislature meets, it could take more than a year to meet this requirement.
Thompson is optimistic in the new board, especially after hearing them ask the administration questions that they couldn’t answer. One of them was, “What is your rationale for laying off tenured faculty?” which was directed toward President Jack Thomas.
“The president was not able to answer that question – and he should have been able to answer it immediately as he is laying off tenured faculty,” Thompson said. “The fact that he could not answer the question was revealing. The previous BOT would never have asked that question which is in part why no one from the previous board is on the new board.”
Another change that Thompson finds productive is the addition of public comment period toward the end of the BOT meetings. Previously, the public was only able to comment in the beginning of the meetings, making it impossible for their voices to be heard about
“That is a huge improvement public access-wise to the meetings. This allows the public to comment on what they have seen and heard at the meeting.”
As for other ways that the board could improve its reputation with the public, Thompson suggests that the vice presidents should sit in the audience. He said that having them sit at the table is misleading because it implies equality and it takes up space that could be used for more public seating. He also would like to hear less “humble bragging” during the meetings and more discussion about the ways that they can revive Western.
Pritzker’s appointees include the following: Greg Aguilar (Chair) from East Moline, Nick Padgett (Vice Chair) from Chicago, Jackie Thompson from Macomb, Erik Dolieslager from Quincy, Kisha M.J. Lang from Maywood, Polly Radosh from Good Hope and Doug Shaw from Peoria. The eighth and final member of the BOT is Western student Justin Brown, from Rantoul, who was elected by fellow students to serve July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019.
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April 12, 2019 at 12:06PM