General

Feel our ‘Paign, Gov. Quinn

Today’s Wisch List column from the Kankakee Daily Journal

Feel our ‘Paign, Gov. Quinn

The WISCH LIST

Sept. 12, 2009

Come this afternoon, I’ll hop in my car, point it south and zip down Interstate 57 to Champaign to root on my Fighting Illini in their home football opener.

The trip will be my first to the University of Illinois campus since the school’s admissions scandal blew up earlier this summer, resulting in buckets of bad ink and exposing a leaky administration’s clout-stained dirty laundry.

In spite of the mess, campus will look the same, I’m sure.

There will be fans tailgating across from Memorial Stadium. There will be plenty of orange on Green Street. And just off the Quad, the stately Alma Mater statue will still be standing with its arms wide open above the engraved message: “To Thy Happy Children Of Tomorrow Those Of The Past Send Greetings.”

Although right now, sending warnings might be more apropos.

Nevertheless, do I still hail Alma Mater?

Hail, yeah.

But that doesn’t mean I’m very happy with her right now.

And I’m not the only one.

“The University of Illinois is a super place, and it’s sad to see what’s happened to it,” said Lou Liay, 72, of Champaign, who served as executive director of the University of Illinois Alumni Association from 1983 to 1998. “I don’t know when we’re going to recover from (the scandal). It’s hurt the reputation of the university. I don’t know that it will hurt the students coming in or the quality of the university as long as we keep good faculty, but it has hurt.”

To wit, last week a Chicago Tribune poll found that 4 out of 10 Illinois residents believe that revelations about powerful individuals influencing the U. of I. admissions process have harmed the school’s academic reputation.

That damage can be repaired in time, but only if the university truly cleans house, changes the way it conducts its administrative business and gives alumni more of a voice in the process. Unfortunately, however, I don’t feel confident those changes are being properly implemented.

On Thursday, the six new members of the board of trustees appointed by Gov. Pat Quinn met in Urbana for the first time to begin untangling the school from its self-made mess. It’s a task made trickier by the fact that two of the alleged admissions-scandal culprits remain as trustees.

Last month, Quinn sadly became the first to blink in a stare-down with sitting Trustees James Montgomery and Frances Carroll when he opted not to fire them after they ignored his repeated requests for their resignations. The governor claimed he didn’t want to subject the state to a lengthy legal battle, which the two had threatened to pursue.

To which, I would have said: Subject us.

Quinn then compounded the situation when he appointed Christopher Kennedy, president of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart Properties and son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, and Lawrence Oliver II, chief counsel in charge of internal investigations for Boeing Co., as U. of I. trustees.

Those moves prompted Tribune reader Terry Bush of Evanston to fire off a letter to the editor that read: “Gov. Pat Quinn’s appointment of new University of Illinois trustees is a fascinating revelation of priorities and style. He’s added a Kennedy and the chief counsel from one of Chicago’s largest corporations and campaign contributors. I am sure glad that clout is no longer a factor in the selection of U. of I. trustees.”

I too was disturbed that at a time when politics need to be removed from the university, Quinn inserted a trustee from an enormously political family. And beyond that, while Kennedy may be qualified to serve as a trustee for a university, the fact that he’s studied only at private schools (Boston College for undergrad and Northwestern for his MBA) doesn’t at all show me it should be for a public university.

Neither Kennedy nor Oliver – who earned degrees from Purdue and Michigan State – have any apparent ties to U. of I., a painful blow for those who would like to see Illinois alums as Illinois trustees.

“That just hurt,” Liay said. “They have to be political appointments. I mean, there are 250,000 U. of I. alumni in this state.”

Of the four other new trustees appointed by Quinn, as well as reappointed trustee Edward McMillan, each at least is an alumnus of a U. of I. campus. That’s good. But what needs to happen is for six of the nine trustees, at minimum, to be selected through elections so the board is not so beholden to the governor. With all nine trustees currently appointed, it’s far too susceptible to politics and pressure.

In April 2007, Illinois House Bill 3289, which provided for the U. of I. trustees to be an elected body, passed the House by a vote of 113-1, but then got hung up in the State Senate.

That bill needs to be revisited. Because control of the University of Illinois should be in the hands of its alumni and the people of Illinois, not in those of politicians too easily tempted by cookie jars.

Hail, no.

  • steve price

    Lou forwarded this column to me. As a Californian for more than many moons (eons?) and totally detached
    from alumni affairs, I read your column with great interest
    and sadness. You are quite correct, it will take years to remove the stains of scandal. With no personal interest other than geographic proximity, I am reminded of UCI (Irvine) and the fertilization clinic scandals fueled by doctors’ greed and abandonment of any personal sense of ethics and responsibility. UCI will fight this battle for years, and the same fate awaits the U of I., albeit for different reasons.
    With Illinois’ apparent and innate proclivity towards choosing governors who seem to do the wrong thing, perhaps placing the decision making in the people’s hands, or as you suggest, involvement in the selection of majority of the trustees, might result in a less tainted Board.

    N.B. Lou was my dorm counselor at Lundgren in 1960.
    Oh, the stories we both could tell! We have been good, very good friends, since that time. He is a most special guy. I will re-visit the campus next year for the first time in almost forty years. Although I am an extremely young 67, it still is a long time!
    Steve Price
    949 587-1000

  • Hey, thanks much for the comment, Steve. I actually ended up seeing Lou at the Alumni Center on campus on Saturday afternoon. It was very nice to hear that he shared the column with you and some others.

    In turn, thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Appreciate it.