Trustees | Trusteeship

Quinn and U. of I. trustees appear on collision course

CHICAGO TRIBUNE   |  August 16, 2009 by Stacy St. Clair, Tara Malone, and Jodi S. Cohen

The standoff between University of Illinois trustees and Gov. Pat Quinn could move into uncharted territory if neither side backs down soon.

Not a single trustee has stepped down since the governor called for letters of resignation from the entire board on Aug. 7. Three board members, including Chairman Niranjan Shah, had previously volunteered to leave.

“I’m a patient man but I don’t have infinite patience,” Quinn said Friday. “I’m willing to let them study the report, but you know, I think they better realize that school is beginning soon and it’s time for them to do the right thing.”

If Quinn decides to fire the six remaining trustees, it would be an unusual move both locally and nationwide. While other Illinois governors have removed political appointees, it’s rare for them to sweep an entire board.

On a national level, education experts cannot recall a single instance of a university board being wiped out for malfeasance or neglect.

“This seems to be a unique Illinois story. I’m just not aware of any comparable situation,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumniin Washington.

Quinn asked board members to submit letters of resignation after a state commission issued a report that blasted the university for admitting subpar applicants with ties to powerful patrons, including university trustees. In some cases, denial decisions were overturned after board members intervened on the behalf of rejected students.

The Illinois Admissions Review Commission, formed in the wake of a Tribune investigation that uncovered the practice, recommended the board step down so the governor could decide whom to keep. Quinn has accepted resignations from Shah and Lawrence Eppley, the former chairman.

He is expected to retain Trustee Edward McMillan, who also offered to quit. The downstate Republican joined the board in May.

The state constitution allows the governor to terminate the trustees for “incompetence, neglect of duty, or malfeasance,” but it does not outline any recourse for challenging the removal. In 1975, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that fired appointees can fight dismissals in court.

Quinn would not say whether he would fire the board, but says there’s “no question whatsoever” that he has the power to do so.

“I would much prefer that the individual trustees upon reflection, upon study—as the commission has recommended—voluntarily resign,” he said.

Trustees James Montgomery, a Chicago attorney, does not intend to step down and said he told Quinn’s general counsel that during a phone call last week.

“If the governor has a legal basis for forcing me out of the trusteeship, he is going to have to access that avenue and I will defend against that,” Montgomery said.

The commission’s report singled out Montgomery for intervening on behalf of a rejected student related to his daughter’s boyfriend. The decision, however, was not overturned.

The blue-ribbon panel blistered the entire board for failing to exercise the “care and diligence appropriate to protect against admissions-related abuses.”

If Quinn fired Montgomery and he challenged it, the courts would decide whether those actions reached a level of neglect or malfeasance, though neither term is defined in the state constitution.

“It’s going to be an interesting court case,” said Ann Lousin, a John Marshall Law School professor who helped write the state’s constitution in 1970. “It’s such an incredible mess.”

Trustee Frances Carroll called a clean sweep “foolhardy” and suggested the idea is just further fallout from the board’s 2007 decision to retire Chief Illiniwek.

“I have worked too hard and given too much of my energy and time and I have not done anything wrong,” she said. “I am not responsible for the admissions scandal.”

Trustee Kenneth Schmidt, the board’s longest-serving member, has suggested that he won’t step down, but declined to comment for this story. Trustee Devon Bruce, who just returned from a trip, said he needs more time to read the report and will make a decision “soon.”

“Each trustee is unique with respect to what, if any, misconduct that they engaged in,” Bruce said. “I believe that is ultimately determined by the evidence derived from the commission and what is contained in the commission’s report.”

Board member David Dorris supports a group resignation, but has been mulling whether to submit his letter for fear others will not.

“I don’t know what good piecemeal does if some stay,” he said.

Dorris urged caution and cool heads when considering the future leadership of the state’s premier public campus. He questioned whether nine new trustees could be immediately qualified to evaluate the university’s top administrators.

President B. Joseph White has given campus leaders eight weeks to create a new system for avoiding outside interference in admissions. Whether with new or familiar faces, the board will need to determine whether White and Chancellor Richard Herman remain in charge.

“The long-term damage from all nine leaving at the same time is profound because we have the possibility of losing the president or the chancellor,” Dorris said.

McMillan, who offered to step down about 15 minutes after the commission released its report, criticized fellow trustees for ignoring the governor’s request.

“Continuing to leave the issue up in the air makes it difficult for the governor and makes it difficult for the university to begin the process of moving forward,” he said. “For the good of the university and everyone involved, the sooner we can have closure to this problem and get on with going down the road, the better.”

Trustees who heed the governor’s request are not necessarily impugning their reputations, but rather acknowledging the need for a clean slate, Neal said. At issue is the public’s trust.

“What’s unfortunate here is trustees need to understand that they are there and are serving for the benefit of the people,” she said. “When there comes a time when stepping down will restore public confidence—and I think that time is now—it’s incumbent on them to step down.”


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