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SIU System leaders: We'll stay neutral for now on campus separation proposal

  • SIU President Randy Dunn and board of trustees Chairwoman Amy Sholar at the April 12 board meeting.

    SIU President Randy Dunn and board of trustees Chairwoman Amy Sholar at the April 12 board meeting.
    Geoff Ritter photo

updated: 4/19/2018 12:31 PM

This is a statement from SIU President Randy Dunn and board of trustees Chairwoman Amy Sholar.

CARBONDALE -- To begin, we acknowledge the issue that would be addressed by House Bills 5861/1292 is not a new one, nor is this the first time legislation has been proposed to dissolve the SIU System and operate the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses independently under separate boards.

As early as 1975, state Sen. Sam Vadalabene introduced legislation to establish a separate board of trustees for Edwardsville. The measure passed both houses and the Illinois Senate overrode Gov. Dan Walker's veto, but the House of Representatives declined to do so.

There have been more recent attempts in 2003, 2005, and 2013. The 2013 bill, also filed by Rep. Jay Hoffman, similarly changed the affiliation of the SIU School of Medicine to SIUE -- expanding Edwardsville's focus on the health sciences by joining the Schools of Dental Medicine, Pharmacy and Nursing which are already affiliated with that campus -- though the physical location of the School of Medicine would remain in Springfield.

With the filing of amendments to House Bills 1292-1294 (which mirrors the language in House Bills 5859-5861), these proposals are now on track in the legislative calendar to receive a hearing before the House Higher Education Committee, where they have been assigned, and to meet the April 27 House deadline for passing bills from that chamber.

By definition, as an entity of the state under the Southern Illinois University Management Act, the ultimate decision about system dissolution will and must be a legislative one.

Admitting the different missions of SIUC and SIUE, the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses are, by any measure of organizational scope and strength, equal partners in the SIU System. There are tangible benefits the two institutions derive from being part of a larger public higher education system.

But in the end, the legislative calculus -- and that of the citizens those legislators represent -- will rest on whether those benefits are of a greater value and import than the perceived gains that may come by each university being independent of the system and each other.

The SIU System board of trustees has not yet taken an official position at this time. The Board is not set to meet again in regular session until July 12, but it is possible Trustees could convene a special meeting for that purpose. Any such meeting would be subject to the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

Until directed otherwise by the governing body of SIU, the position that the SIU President's Office will take on these and any other proposals that could still emerge is "neutral" -- restricted to providing data, background information, and technical expertise which may be requested.

Without a doubt, there are benefits to being part of a system. It has been pointed out in previous debates that our multi-campus system can earn better bond ratings as compared to some single-campus institutions in Illinois. This in turn holds down interest and insurance costs on bonds.

Too, all campus funds are co-mingled for investment purposes to obtain the highest rate of return; likewise, SIU's risk pools are commingled for insurance savings and reduced liability.

Possibly the most challenging aspect of a dissolution would be breaking out the bond debt by campus which could entail significant legal and financial consulting expenses, albeit on a one-time basis.

Finally, it's been noted over the years that our combined political leverage is stronger as a system -- representing the common interests of 66 counties of central and southern Illinois, including the Metro East area -- than it would be for the Edwardsville and Carbondale campuses individually.

Nonetheless, the natural evolution of those regional interests also creates a demand for change over time, contributing to the rationale for a careful review of the legislation in front of us.

Dissolving the SIU System would be far from easy, but not impossible. The system is already one of the most decentralized nationally, providing shared services in the areas of legal, internal audit and ethics, technology transfer and export control, Treasury services, governmental affairs, and risk management.

These functions -- and the people undertaking them -- would need to be reassigned and absorbed by the stand-alone campuses; fortunately, system personnel working in most of these functional areas already have work locations across the various SIU sites now.

Another positive in the eyes of many is that salary savings would be generated as there would no longer be system administrative leadership and their related staff to pay for.

Rather, it is anticipated that the respective chancellors currently in place would become the interim presidents of their campuses, until newly appointed boards for SIUC and SIUE could decide about permanent institutional leadership.

The SIU board of trustees, as part of a major revision of the system's strategic plan about two years ago, adopted a goal to study and incrementally expand systemwide shared services across a variety of "back office" and other nonacademic service functions (e.g., purchasing, human resources, IT).

Those centralization efforts may be paused temporarily in the event HB5861 garners sufficient support to move forward this legislative session. Additionally, an effective date of this legislation no earlier than July 1, 2019 (as opposed to the current July 1, 2018) would minimally be necessary to guarantee a smooth governance transition to the new boards as well as to ensure a careful unwinding of the combined operations to the campuses.

When the 2003 version of the dissolution bill was being debated, Illinois' beloved Sen. Paul Simon opined in the Springfield State Journal-Register that SIU " ... is a powerful political and financial voice for the entire region. Dividing the university will diminish that important voice."

The question some 15 years later for all of us who love our university -- students, employees, alumni, donors, community members, taxpayers, our elected representatives, and so many others -- is to determine if the current governance and board structure remains the optimal one for a collective voice in Illinois and beyond.