Few surprised by White's resignation announcement

Few surprised by White's resignation announcement

The news of University of Illinois President B. Joseph White's resignation Wednesday was greeted with a variety of reactions. Few, however, expressed surprise.

White, according to the chairman of a commission that investigated admissions abuses at the university, was caught in an "impossible situation."

Retired federal Judge Abner Mikva, who headed the Illinois Admissions Review Commission, said he had hoped White could stay on and help restore faith in the UI, but it was "a very difficult situation for him."

"Both the governor and the board of trustees at the time he came in were just not looking out for the university's best interests. He was caught in the middle," Mikva said, referring to ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his appointees on the board.

"I think he always had the best interests of the university at heart. Obviously it was a painful decision for him. I think he's a good man and he tried to do the right thing," Mikva said. "I think the deck was stacked against him."

The commission had called for all nine UI trustees to step down but left the future of White and Chancellor Richard Herman up to the newly constituted board.

"It was obviously going to be painful to try to replace the two top officials at the university at the same time," Mikva said.

Mikva Commission member Bernard Judge said he was not surprised by White's decision. "I thought it was the appropriate thing to do. As leader of the institution, he has to fall on his sword."

Neither the commission, named by Gov. Pat Quinn, nor the governor has the power to remove White, Judge said. (That responsibility falls to the board of trustees, appointed by the governor.) But the commission's findings were leading in the direction of a leadership change, he said.

"I think he's bearing the brunt of the responsibility" for the admissions scandal, said Elliot Kaufman, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who co-chaired the committee that recruited White to be the UI's president. He described Wednesday as "a very sad day" for the university.

"It's tragic for the university to lose as good a leader as he is," he said. "The solution seems to be to remove every leader we have. ... We can only guess what's next."

Former Trustee David Dorris said it was foregone that White would leave.

"The failures of Joe White's leadership had become apparent to most of the board of trustees prior to the admissions scandal," he said. "The UI desperately needed change at top, aside from the admissions problems. I applaud Joe for stepping aside. (But) it was delayed longer than it should have been."

The fact that it appeared to be a political inevitability that White would eventually resign has made May Bernbaum uneasy, she said. Berenbaum, head of the entomology department and a professor in the Center for Advanced Study and Institute for Genomic Biology, said she is concerned the resolution of the situation seems as driven by politics as the admissions scandal that precipitated it, rather than by thoughtful, balanced consideration.

"I think it's extremely unfortunate if political expediency drives the solution in the same way it created the problem," she added.

Dorris said trustees had been concerned about other problems under White's leadership, including the online education initiative formerly known as Global Campus.

"Besides Global Campus, there were other failures, but that was probably the straw that broke the camel's back," Dorris said. "(Problems) started almost immediately after his tenure started, because of ineffective leadership."

Dean John Unsworth of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science called White's performance as UI president "a mixed record, but I don't think that's for lack of effort.

"It's a large, complex organization. It's an organization that isn't only governed by one person," he said. "It has a complex governance structure, so it's more difficult to make things happen."

While some of White's proposals – specifically, Global Campus – may not have gone the way he wished, Global Campus did focus campus on online education, he said.

"It moved the institution in a direction we needed to move," Unsworth said. "We engaged with it more than we otherwise would have done."

"I do think his decision was motivated by his desire to do what's in best interests of the university and that is illustrated by his decision to make the effective date of his resignation before he would receive his retention bonus," said Joyce Tolliver, UI professor and chair of the Urbana campus senate, which earlier this month voted in favor of a change in leadership.

Walt Harrington, interim dean of the College of Media, said the resignation is "understandable" and gives the board time to make an orderly transition in the presidency.

"The truth is, no matter what you thought about Joe White, this is a sad day for the university and a man who gave a large piece of himself for the years he was here," Harrington said.

In a statement released Wednesday, University of Illinois at Springfield Chancellor Richard Ringeisen thanked White for his efforts on behalf of all three campuses.

Staff writers Julie Wurth, Christine des Garennes, Jodi Heckel and Paul Wood contributed to this report.

White's resignation letter to trustees

September 23, 2009

Christopher G. Kennedy, Chair
Members of the Board of Trustees
University of Illinois

Dear Chairman Kennedy and Members of the Board:

I write to inform you of my resignation as president of the University of Illinois, effective December 31, 2009. I take this action to enable you as a newly constituted Board to select University leadership going forward.

I note that this effective date means I will forego the retention incentive earned over the last four years which otherwise would have been due on February 1, 2010. As I discussed with Chairman Kennedy, this is a decision I have made because I am sensitive to the University's difficult financial situation and the sacrifices being made by faculty and staff.

It has been a privilege for my wife, Mary, and me to serve the University community. We remain highly committed to the University of Illinois and I look forward to continuing that commitment as a member of the faculty.

Sincerely,

B. Joseph White

White's speech to faculty/student senate

Speech by UI President B. Joseph White to Urbana-Champaign senate on Sept. 14, attached to his resignation letter:

Two weeks ago, I told you I regretted the admissions problems that occurred on this campus. I told you that I did not admit candidates noted as denials, nor did I ask or expect them to be admitted. I did not direct the admission of any candidate. The Mikva Commission report is consistent with this record.

Today, I want to tell you things I did do as president.

For four-and-a-half years, I have worked to insulate this university from external pressures in an extremely difficult and intensely political environment. From the outset, I understood that was my job.

– I stood behind every admissions denial, no matter who the advocates or how persistent they were.

– I said no when I was told that Governor Blagojevich's office wanted a new (Institute of Government and Public Affairs) research report killed rather than published.

– I said no when a senior aide to Governor Blagojevich told me the administration was at war and I was in their army. He asked if I had read the organization chart. He berated me for not supporting the Gross Receipts Tax proposal. I told the aide that the president of the University reports to a board; that I am independent and not in anyone's army; and that I would not support bad policy.

Throughout my presidency, I have consistently said no when no was the right answer. I have protected the university's autonomy. I have defended faculty freedoms of inquiry and expression. That was my job and I did it.

So let me be clear. The notion that I would submit to pressure – or apply pressure – for admissions or anything else in order to please the high and mighty is dead wrong. I never did. It would have been completely out of character.

I am not and never have been a servant of power.

I came to Illinois in 2005 a fiercely independent person and high integrity leader. I still am.

I appreciate your listening. I welcome your comments and questions.

Ui Board of Trustees chairman's letter to White

September 23, 2009

President B. Joseph White
711 West Florida Avenue
Urbana, IL 61801

Dear President White,

As Chairman of the Board of Trustees, I write to indicate that I have accepted your letter of resignation as President of the University of Illinois effective December 31, 2009, for consideration by the full Board.

My colleagues on the Board and I appreciate that your resignation is motivated by serving the University's best interests and is not intended to create any presumption of wrong-doing by you concerning the subjects investigated by the Governor's Admissions Review Commission.

We recognize that you have taken this step to enable the University to move forward with a change in leadership so that the University community may come together to focus on critical issues confronting higher education in the State and in the nation.

Your work on behalf of the University, including on the Brilliant Futures Campaign to raise funds for faculty members and students of the University, has been exemplary, and I hope that you will continue your involvement, as requested, in advancement efforts for the University.

I deeply appreciate the work you and Mary have done for the University and look forward to your future contributions.

Sincerely,

Christopher G. Kennedy
Chair of the Board of Trustees

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