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An elected U of I Board of Trustees?

Sometimes there is no good solution to public policy issues. This may well be the case in regard to the selection of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.

The Illinois House of Representatives recently approved legislation that would return the selection of University of Illinois of Trustees to the voters. However, it is unlikely the bill will be approved in the Senate. The legislation was a response to many people's unhappiness with the process the board used in retiring Chief Illiniwek as well as broader concerns about the political involvement of the board over the last eight years.

This is a retreat from a so-called reform in 1995 when the General Assembly ended the statewide election of the board, and gave the governor power to appoint board members with confirmation by the State Senate. At that time, the prevailing view was that an appointed board would be more effective than one elected by a generally-uninformed electorate.

History suggests that structural reform to correct the perceived problem of board performance is not always the answer. The problem as suggested by the Shaw quotation above is that neither the appointment nor election of the Board of Trustees is likely to guarantee high quality board members. Both methods have potentially serious flaws.

Ideally, a university trustee would be someone with a genuine interest in the institution who is knowledgeable and involved, but not intrusive. The major role of trustees would be to choose effective senior leadership. The willingness to make major contributions (to the university, not to politicians) would also be welcome.

The idea behind an appointed board is that it is better to vest the authority to choose the board with an elected governor, a position that is highly visible and one that voters are able to evaluate carefully, rather than allowing the public to vote on virtually unknown board candidates. It should also be noted that the governor is, by law, a member of the board although by tradition governors rarely participate in board deliberations. Presumably, the governor, who has the confidence of the voters, would have the best interests of the state and the university in mind in the appointment process.

Unfortunately, this has not always proven to be the case during the last two administrations. Appointees have often been politically-connected operatives as well as major campaign donors. Some have had little prior connection to the U of I. For example, Gov. Rod Blagojevich recently appointed the chair of the Coles County Democratic Party to serve on the Eastern Illinois Board. There has also been increased intrusiveness by some board members in university affairs, especially during the Ryan years, as well as more involvement by politicians.

These problems with an appointed board might appear support the idea of an elected board. Unfortunately, the election process has equally serious flaws. It is unlikely that the average voter with little interest in or knowledge about the university, will cast a well-informed vote. Further, candidates in most cases will be unable to reach the voters because of the cost of a statewide or district-wide race. The bill approved by the House includes the election of university trustees from districts used to elect state Supreme Court justices.

The experience in voting in Cook County judicial races is not encouraging since past candidates have changed their names to pleasant sounding (often Irish) names to further their election prospects.

In the dim past, U of I alumni screened prospective candidates from both parties to try to insure that candidates would be dedicated trustees with a genuine interest in the university. This broke down in the late 1980s, when the process became dominated by more traditional political concerns.

Board elections were usually dominated by the party doing best overall in the general election. The actual identity of board candidates seemed to have had little impact on election outcomes. For example, in 1992, David Downey, a respected Champaign businessman, was a Republican candidate for the board. Downey was an all-time great U of I basketball player, the recipient of two degrees from the university, a former member of the Illinois Board of Higher Education and a sitting member of the U of I board. Although he was one of the highest Republican vote getters for all statewide offices, he was defeated by three relatively unknown Democratic candidates as part of a general Democratic sweep in the state. In earlier years, Harold “Red” Grange was an exception to this when his name recognition was sufficient for his election.

A return to an elected board at this point would be particularly problematic. Pro- and anti Chief candidates would probably run highly visible campaigns. This would mean that the issue would likely never be finally resolved, which would not be in the best interest of the university.

On balance, it appears that an appointed board may be he best of two undesirable approaches. It may be futile hope, but it is possible that future appointments by governors will not be based on political connections, but on a candidate's true interest and knowledge in the university and desire to improve it.

— J. Fred Giertz is a professor of economics within the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs. He can be reached at 217-244-4822 or jgiertz@ad.uiuc.edu.

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