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Dorsey takes over as new SIU president Trustees strike a deal with Dunn

  • Geoff Ritter photoJ. Kevin Dorsey, who retired in 2015 as the dean and provost of the SIU School of Medicine, is the new president of the SIU system. Shown with him is Amy Sholar, chair of the SIU board of trustees.

    Geoff Ritter photoJ. Kevin Dorsey, who retired in 2015 as the dean and provost of the SIU School of Medicine, is the new president of the SIU system. Shown with him is Amy Sholar, chair of the SIU board of trustees.

  • Randy Dunn

    Randy Dunn

By Geoff Ritter
updated: 7/16/2018 2:39 PM

The troubled SIU system is under new leadership after university trustees Monday approved a separation agreement with embattled President Randy Dunn Monday and hired an interim president, J. Kevin Dorsey, to steer the university through what has proved to be a divisive few months.

Meeting in special session on the Edwardsville campus, trustees unanimously approved an agreement with Dunn that will see him formally step down from his post in exchange for a six-month severance payment of $215,000, as well as his hiring as a visiting professor on the Edwardsville campus at a salary of $100,000 per year.

The agreement immediately ends Dunn's authority to act as head of the system, and nothing in the contract guarantees that he will be retained in his teaching position -- set to begin in January -- beyond the spring 2020 academic semester.

In Dunn's place, trustees unanimously voted to hire Dorsey, retired dean and provost of the SIU School of Medicine, as interim president. Dorsey will be paid a salary of $430,000 a year, with his contract running through July 15, 2019.

Speaking ahead of the vote, two trustees addressed the perception of giving Dunn a generous payout instead of simply terminating him outright. Trustee J. Phil Gilbert, a retired judge, said his experience in the courtroom taught him that a settlement is always preferable to what might become costly litigation.

"To the general public, the optics may not look good," Gilbert said, adding he was not entirely "happy" with the agreement. However, he said the arrangement was the best means toward moving the system in a positive direction once again.

"The benefits of this agreement far outweigh the negatives," Gilbert said.

Trustee Joel Sambursky, who along with Gilbert led the charge this spring against Dunn's continued tenure as president, struck a similar tone, also noting that the agreement is "not perfect" but will allow the system to avoid potentially greater expenses.

"There's a lot of work to be done as we move forward," Sambursky said. "All of us must be working tirelessly to advance the SIU system."

Dunn was not present at Monday's meeting but provided a written statement in response to an emailed request from this newspaper.

"I believe the proposed separation agreement provides a fair way to all parties to resolve some of the tension throughout the SIU System and help open a way for it to move forward again," he wrote. "In my role, I had become a polarizing figure, so my retirement, along with the new leadership of an outstanding interim president, can allow healing to begin across all parts of the organization and advance important decisions that will need to be made for the future."

Following the board's vote, Dorsey said he had much to catch up on, but his primary goal is to chart a path forward that will allow both campuses to prosper. He said he looks forward to meeting with members of the SIU community on all of its campuses.

"We can't have a zero-sum game here," he said. "Discord is never helpful. We've got to move forward here. I'm not going to focus on the past."

Separation prompts varied responses

During public comments at the start of Monday's meeting, individuals affiliated with both campuses urged unity in the system, and also implored trustees to finally confront the issue of state allocations between the campuses, which has festered for years without any decisive action.

"I do want to urge the board and president's office to look for ways to heal the fractures that have occurred the past few months," said Gretchen Fricke, director of the SIUE School of Education. "Some of these fractures have been a long time coming, and I hope you take them to heart. Prospective students and parents read about this discord, and both campuses lose ground in terms of enrollment."

Collin Van Meter, who works in information technology on the Edwardsville campus, was even more blunt in his statements.

"I am here to warn you that you have lost the faith of this campus," he warned trustees. "I am here today to challenge you to do better. I challenge you to look from a new perspective, to see us as a member of the system that has long felt betrayed and ignored. I challenge you to understand that we are asking for more than words. I challenge you to show us through actions that this board has the willingness to put in the effort required to regain our trust and faith."

Jonathan Bean, an SIUC history professor and current president of the SIUC Faculty Senate, spoke to the board less than a week after that body passed a vote of no confidence in Dunn's leadership. Bean said the entire university system is sorely in need of an "improved public image," citing the need for all stakeholders to refocus on the university's central work.

"Above all, we at SIUC need stable leadership as we reorganize the university," said Bean, referencing SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno's ongoing efforts at academic restructuring on the Carbondale campus.

Mike Eichholz, an SIUC associate professor of zoology, urged much the same, citing the continuing value of the entire SIU system remaining as one.

"We believe a strong, united system that serves two campuses will allow us to achieve our mission," Eichholz said.

News of Dunn's separation also prompted responses from area legislators. State Rep. Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro), who twice called for Dunn's resignation following the disclosures of the past months, said his departure from the president's office was "welcome news."

"It also signals and end of one era and the beginning of another," Bryant continued. "The next president of the Southern Illinois University system should remember that they are charged with protecting and preserving the health of the entire university system as a whole ... Although this action took much longer than I wish it would have, ultimately Mr. Dunn took the appropriate action and stepped aside for the good of all of Southern Illinois University."

State Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo) expressed similar sentiments in his own statement.

"I'm glad that Randy Dunn and the Southern Illinois University board of trustees have come to a resolution that will allow for new leadership to work toward a unified system," Schimpf said. "I look forward to working with Interim President Dr. J. Kevin Dorsey during this challenging period for all of higher education in Illinois."

Turmoil with Dunn stretches back

Monday's actions bring some closure to a turbulent three months that have rattled the entire SIU system, although many of the underriding issues remain in spite of Dunn's departure.

Trouble first arose in April, when trustees voting along campus-affiliated lines failed to pass a proposal to divert about $5.1 million in state appropriations for the current fiscal year from the Carbondale campus to that in Edwardsville -- a plan that was aimed at building more funding equity between the two campuses, which have been on opposite paths in terms of student enrollment for a decade or more. Enrollment on the growing Edwardsville campus now threatens to surpass that at Carbondale, which has shed close to half of the students on campus during the enrollment peak of the early 1990s.

Following that vote, state legislators introduced several bills calling separately 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. Trustees subsequently passed resolutions in opposition to each of those bills, none of which passed during the spring legislative session.

Yet turmoil continued in May with the disclosure of emails that appeared to show Dunn, the system's president since 2014, withholding parts of the funding proposal from Carbondale campus administrators in the run-up to the April vote, and also using crude language to describe some on the Carbondale campus in opposition to parts of the plan that had been made public. Dunn apologized for his language, but he denied any plot to exclude Carbondale administrators from discussions.

Discord over Dunn's leadership divided trustees along campus lines, and two affiliated with the Carbondale campus, Sambursky and Gilbert, initially attempted to overthrow the president with a hastily called, and eventually canceled, meeting of the board's executive committee, prompting public feuding among the trustees. In June, the full board considered terminating Dunn's employment, although the final 4-4 vote -- again falling entirely along lines of trustees' individual campus allegiances -- was not enough to push him from his position.

Emails subsequently obtained by this newspaper and other media outlets showed that in the lead-up to April's funding vote, Dunn not only was engaged in closed-door discussions with Edwardsville administrators about the reallocation proposal, but also was playing an active role in the drafting of the legislation that would not be introduced until after the proposal's ultimate failure. None of this was done with trustees' direct involvement or approval.

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