The chairwoman of the Southern Illinois University board fired back at two trustees who are seeking to oust President Randy Dunn, calling the move a “power play” and contending that the pair has no authority to act on Dunn’s employment status on their own.
The board’s vice chairman, J. Phil Gilbert, and secretary, Joel Sambursky, unexpectedly on Wednesday convened a meeting of the board’s executive committee — made up of them and Chairwoman Amy Sholar — for Friday to consider two items: putting Dunn on administrative leave and appointing an acting president.
Sambursky said board policy allows the executive committee to take rapid action on behalf of the full board in times of urgency, but he has declined to specify his reasoning for seeking to replace Dunn on such short notice, saying only that it was a personnel issue. Sambursky also said some “additional information” had come to light necessitating the meeting but he would not elaborate.
Sholar, in a lengthy statement released Thursday, contends the meeting is an overreach of the committee’s powers and any decision made there would be invalid.
Sholar cited a policy stating that the executive committee cannot “overrule, revise, or change” previous decisions made by the full board. Since the board as a whole voted to hire Dunn in 2014, having only a faction of trustees essentially undo that violates board bylaws, Sholar said.
Sholar most likely cannot attend the meeting because of a work conflict, meaning that only two trustees would be present Friday to act on the president’s employment status.
“While (trustees) Gilbert and Sambursky are attempting to satisfy the urgency standard by citing new evidence, they certainly have not shared it with me,” Sholar wrote. “I find it contrary to both the letter and spirit of our bylaws for these two trustees to attempt to remove the president unilaterally without the votes or discussion of the full board.”
Trustee Shirley Portwood agreed and said she, too, was not aware of any new circumstances requiring the board to reconsider Dunn’s status. Even if there were, Portwood said, the appropriate avenue would have been to convene a special meeting that all the trustees could attend. The next regular meeting is not until September.
“I think this is very inappropriate and probably illegal,” Portwood said. “It totally leaves out the rest of the board.”
Gilbert could not be reached for comment.
Don Craven, a media attorney in Springfield, agreed with Sholar’s analysis that the executive committee cannot usurp a decision originally made by the whole board. Craven also said that it does not appear a significant enough emergency exists to require executive committee action.
“An emergency would be if the president had a stroke, if the president had a heart attack, if the president died,” Craven said. “They disagreed with a policy statement that the president has made; that’s not an emergency, they maybe just hired the wrong president.”
The effort to replace Dunn blindsided him, Sholar and others in the SIU community who said they were not made aware of the plan until the meeting notice was released. Dunn told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday that he had not sought any type of break from his job.
He declined further comment Thursday.
“While I have nothing to add at this time, it remains possible that I will have some sort of statement tomorrow, depending upon how the situation plays out,” he said in an email.
The remarkable turn of events comes amid a prolonged battle at SIU campuses over state funding.
In April, Edwardsville leaders maneuvered to shift $5.125 million of SIU’s annual state appropriation from Carbondale to Edwardsville. A divided board narrowly rejected the proposal, prompting area lawmakers to introduce legislation to try to force a funding shift.
Shortly after, Dunn found himself in hot water after a professor released emails obtained through open records laws showing the president referring to critics of the funding proposal as “bitchers.”
Trustees held a regular meeting May 30 to discuss the simmering tension between the campuses in Carbondale and Edwardsville. While some community members criticized Dunn, no trustees publicly took issue with Dunn’s leadership.
SIU’s board has long been dogged by accusations that trustees more fervently advocate for the school to which they are connected, rather than pursuing decisions to benefit the system as a whole. The vote on the reallocation of state dollars broke down along partisan lines, with four Carbondale trustees blocking the money transfer.
Sholar alluded to that hometown allegiance in rebuking Sambursky and Gilbert.
“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,” Sholar wrote. “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.”
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June 7, 2018 at 05:00PM