An already-tense situation at SIU grew even worse this week as public infighting among members of the board of trustees further enflamed tensions between the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses, and cast a further shadow over the system's top administrator.
The week's events began Wednesday with the stunning announcement of an executive committee meeting aimed at temporarily replacing system President Randy Dunn with a new, acting president, but quickly devolved into a feud among some board members that exposed more fully the growing divisions between leaders of the two campuses. By Friday, the scheduled meeting had been canceled, but not before raising even more questions about the university system's precarious path forward.
A day after the announcement of the meeting of the executive committee -- an exclusive group that includes board Chair Amy Sholar, Vice-Chair J. Phil Gilbert and Secretary Joel Sambursky -- Sholar issued a blistering statement contending that the planned meeting was invalid according to the board's bylaws, and that the three members of the executive committee do not have the sweeping power, given the circumstances, to replace the university's president.
"It truly baffles me that these two trustees" -- referencing Sambursky and Gilbert -- "both representing the Carbondale campus, would attempt to exclude the full board from participating in this important issue after we approved a policy just last week that we would advocate for keeping the SIU system together," Sholar said in her statement Thursday. "The power play by these two trustees is not only improper but also serves to further drive a wedge between our campuses at a time when all of us should be working together to ease tensions. If a decision is to be made on President Dunn's future at SIU it should be made by the full board and not by two trustees representing one campus attempting to push through an action they suspect would not pass if presented to the full board."
The tumult dates back to April, when trustees failed to approve a measure that would have diverted about $5.1 million in state appropriations from the Carbondale campus to Edwardsville -- a move aimed at creating more funding fairness between the two campuses, whose respective enrollments now are nearly equal to each other. Traditionally, about 64 percent of total state appropriations have been given to Carbondale, which has experienced a decade-long enrollment collapse. The Edwardsville campus, meanwhile, has seen enrollment gains and threatens to surpass the headcount on the Carbondale campus as soon as this fall.
Dunn inadvertently made the inter-campus feud far worse when emails made public last month appeared to show him withholding some parts of the reallocation plan from Carbondale administrators prior to the vote, and also making reference to the "bitchers from Carbondale" who were impeding the plan. Dunn since has apologized for his choice of words and said there was no plot to keep some on the Carbondale campus, most notably Chancellor Carlo Montemagno, in the dark.
Following the reallocation vote, state legislators introduced several bills that, in turn, called for the dissolution of the SIU system, the replacement of the entire board, and a requirement for equal distribution of funds between the two campuses. At a special meeting May 20, the full board passed resolutions in opposition to each of those bills.
Sambursky replied with his own statement Thursday evening asking that the executive committee meeting be canceled. That action followed on Friday morning. Sambursky said the intent of the planned meeting was never to permanently replace Dunn. The meeting agenda itself called for possibly putting Dunn on administrative leave and subsequently appointing an acting president. Sambursky said the university's general counsel had affirmed the validity of the planned meeting.
"With the next SIU board meeting now more than three months away, it would be unconscionable for the executive committee to not meet to discuss and potentially take action on matters that are permitted under SIU board policy, since they are 'urgent and cannot be postponed to a regular meeting of the board,'" Sambursky said in his statement. Sambursky continued that all board members were in possession of documents demonstrating why action relating to Dunn is "urgent and cannot be postponed," and he urged Sholar to release those documents to the public.
Dunn did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
What happens next is unclear. While the full board is not scheduled to meet again until September, Sambursky is urging another special meeting to be scheduled as soon as possible. In his statement Thursday, he made reference to a possible meeting date of June 21, although no formal announcement of a meeting has yet been made.