SPRINGFIELD – Former Gov. Jim Edgar, who led the charge to convert the job of University of Illinois trustee into an appointed position, said he has mixed feelings about legislation pending in the Senate to elect that board instead.
In Springfield on Monday to promote President George W. Bush's re-election campaign in Illinois, Edgar was asked about the proposed change in the governance of the UI.
"I think it's good to take a look at it," Edgar said. "I think still, theoretically, that the change we put in in the mid-'90s was the right change. The key, though, is who you appoint. And the key is how much thought is given and I guess the key is who the governor is. And as long as I was making the appointments I thought it was a great system. But I still think it's a good system if it's done properly."
Edgar said after nearly a decade with the appointment system and three different governors tapping UI board members, now is probably a good time for the General Assembly to evaluate how well it is working and whether it wants to go back to the old way.
However, Edgar warned that both systems are imperfect.
"Anybody who thinks you are going to take politics out of it by electing them, I don't think they understand," he said.
While members of the UI Board of Trustees are currently appointed by the governor with the Senate's consent, the board has been an elected body for most of its history. The first trustees were elected in 1888 and the last trustees were elected in 1994.
In the early 1990s, Edgar said voters often knew little about the candidates for UI Board of Trustees other than their political party affiliation. He suggested that all nine members be appointed by the governor, with no more than five from the same political party. The bill was approved on a vote of 30-24 in the Senate and 66-49 in the House and became law in 1996.
State Rep. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, who was twice elected student trustee, said the appointment system worked well under Edgar, but has been problematic ever since.
He said the board's "integrity has systemically been compromised" over the last several years and the panel has become "basically a tool of the governor's office."
Rose is the sponsor of SB 1960, which would transition the UI Board of Trustees back to an elected panel, which he said would make those positions more accountable to the electorate.
The House approved the bill on a 62-53 vote on May 31, and sent it over to the Senate for consideration.
State Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville; state Rep. Shane Cultra, R-Onarga; and state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana; were co-sponsors of the bill.
"I think it's valid for them to discuss and let them decide," Edgar said. "After this eight years of experience with three governors now, you don't have the same governor all the time and there might be a sense that we need to change it, but again, that's their decision."
The University of Illinois is monitoring the bill, but has not publicly taken a position.
Cindy Davidsmeyer, spokeswoman for Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, said Monday she was not sure when or if Jones would call the bill for a vote. Jones is listed as the Senate sponsor of SB 1960.
State Sen. Rick Winkel, R-Urbana, who supports the return to elected trustees, said he hoped the bill might still be called sometime before lawmakers adjourn for the summer.
Under SB 1960, the first trustee elections would take place in 2006 and continue every other year thereafter. Nominations for the position of trustee would be made at each political party's state convention and trustee terms would continue to be six years long.
Even if the Senate approved the legislation, its prospects upon reaching the governor's desk are uncertain.
Blagojevich, who was in the House in 1995, voted against the switch to appoint trustees. Rebecca Rausch, a spokeswoman for Blagojevich, said on Monday that the matter is "under review," but Brenda Holmes, the governor's deputy chief of staff for education, testified against the trustee election bill in committee on May 31.
Holmes said the Blagojevich administration believes the appointment process should be maintained.
"One of the reasons the General Assembly decided to go to a selected process rather than an elected process was that the UI Board of Trustees garnered little interest, and many of the members of the public had no idea who the various members of the board of trustees were," Holmes testified. "We also know that at this particular time, there may be some board members who are interested in running for the board with a particular ax to grind. There are certain controversies at the university that we believe are better left to a selected board."
You can reach Kate Clements at (217) 782-2486 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.