In accepting your position here at the University of Illinois, you were no doubt aware of the myriad difficulties that would confront your office. A stagnating economy, a State with long-standing budget issues, a University with insufficient funds and a backlog of needs, and an administration rebuilding on the heels of an administrative scandal. By no means was this position going be without its challenges.
Your experience with turning around other universities that faced financial hardship, like that which the University of Illinois finds itself in presently, was probably a significant factor in offering you the position, and was likely reassuring to many among the administration, staff, and community at large.
Understanding the need to bolster a positive image for the University, ethics and standards immediately rose to the top of the priority list for you and your office. Student retention, funding allocation, staff cooperation, and the University’s reputation were all negatively impacted by the “Category 1” scandal. Subsequently, the “golden parachutes” issued to the previous President and Chancellor engendered further pessimism and dissent, both internally and among the public. The fact that these incidents were occurring in the midst of a significantly depressed economy only exacerbated the problems.
Recognizing those factors, I am sure that you also knew, or at least suspected, that there was more to be found before improvements could be made. The recent revelations of impropriety at the College of Law are a prime example — questioning current practices and “shining a light” on heretofore uninvestigated areas within the University was likely to turn up issues, both great and small. Discovering and correcting these issues early in your tenure would be imperative to improving the University’s reputation and, hopefully, reestablishing Illinois’ standing among elite research institutions.
Knowing all of this, it came as a great shock and a tremendous setback to learn that your former Chief of Staff Lisa Troyer (who remains a University employee) was responsible for a significant ethical breach, and that such a breach had been committed from such a high level of University administration.
The University can ill afford another round of bad press, and particularly from the top of the administrative chain. The proximity of this latest incident to your position makes it especially potent in its impact and detrimental to your efforts.
The arena of academia may always be slightly different from other fields, but in all cases actions have consequences. So too should it be with this instance. As I mentioned above, a large part of the public outrage at the Category 1 scandal was due not simply to the issue itself, but to the lack of consequence for those involved — directly or otherwise.
The public, community members, and University employees alike would, for the most part, be immediately terminated following a breach of ethics or conduct on a similar level. No resignation of one position while retaining another, no paid sabbatical to consider their actions while searching for their next position.
The University’s handling of these issues is every bit as important, if not more so, than the finite act that warranted dismissal. And that is an important distinction — dismissal, not resignation. The present climate at the University of Illinois, and the significance of recent scandals, forces heavier weighting on this situation, and a resignation is insufficient.
Public perceptions are of course also informed by nationwide issues. The economic crisis and the lack of accountability among those on Wall Street and elsewhere have swept into all areas of the country, including right here in Champaign-Urbana. The public’s anger at the absence of sufficient punishment for high-level executives, and in many cases their outright coddling, filters down to people’s perception and scrutiny of all levels of bureaucracy. This is especially true in a town that began around and looks to the University for opportunity, education, and a point of pride.
Previous issues were handled before your arrival, and cannot be associated with your administration. But understand that those incidents do inform the tone and tenor of the public’s reactions to current and future issues, and their perception of your administration is informed and defined by how you handle them as they arise. As such, introducing a culture of accountability should be one of the highest priorities, and doing so will require an administration that has the wherewithal to marry consequences to actions.
By the same measure, the actions that are taken at this juncture in the University’s history have the potential to shape and dictate appropriate action and reform for several administrations to come.
I, along with my fellow alumni, staff, friends, and supporters of the University, hope that you will take the steps necessary to guide and grow the University of Illinois. Patching the issues of the past will not be sufficient — your office needs to build momentum for a more positive and prosperous future; one that raises the bar for the University, and that establishes a higher standard of conduct for future administration officials.
Jason A. Brown
University of Illinois Alum