The Western Illinois University Board of Trustees (BoT) split right down the middle on whether to name Dr. Martin Abraham as the school’s next president. Tri States Public Radio spoke with a board member from each side of the issue to get their thoughts.
Eight people serve on the board. Seven are appointed by the governor and must be confirmed by the Illinois Senate. The other member is a student who is elected by fellow students.
The board voted 4-4 December 13 on a motion to name Abraham president. The proposal failed because it needed a majority to pass.
Chairperson Polly Radosh and trustees Carin Stutz, Patrick Twomey, and Erik Dolieslager voted in favor hiring Abraham. Trustees Greg Aguilar, Kisha Lang, Doug Shaw, and Justin Brown voted against the motion to appoint Abraham.
WIU hired Abraham last spring to serve as provost, a position that has been filled through interim appointments for several years. Trustees agreed to appoint Abraham to serve as acting president after President Jack Thomas announced in June that he would step down at the end of the month. The board named Abraham interim president in October.
After deadlocking on the resolution to appoint Abraham president, the BoT voted 8-0 to form a 23-member committee to conduct a national search for WIU’s next president. The committee is authorized to spend up to $250,000. The search could take 12 to 18 months.
Q & A with Chairperson Polly Radosh
TSPR: You seemed disappointed with the deadlocked vote on appointing Dr. Abraham. Can you talk about that?
Radosh: Yes, I think it was obvious that I was disappointed. I voted in favor of hiring him with a three-year contract. So yes, I was very disappointed but the next best option is to go with a search and we will move forward and look for the best interests of the institution.
TSPR: Why were you disappointed?
Radosh: I think he has very strong community support and our evaluation of him was very strong. He has done a fabulous job initially in rallying the community and the institution and has come in with fresh ideas. So I was very hopeful that the board would appoint. And then when we did not, of course I’m disappointed, but we must move forward and we’ve got to unify as a board to get the job done to complete the search process. And I sincerely hope that he is a candidate in the search.
TSPR: Are you afraid a search and however long that might take is going to slow down Western’s ability to move forward?
Radosh: Yes, I am. I’m very nervous about that. We have a high percentage -- almost all in fact -- of our upper administration in interim positions. And it’s very difficult to find candidates who would come here not knowing who their boss is going to be. So selecting candidates to fill those interim positions is going to be a huge challenge. I am worried about that, yes.
TSPR: As an interim president, will he have authority to remove “interim” from some of those titles or how does that process work?
Radosh: He may with some of them. But we would like to try to rebuild the diversity that we lost on campus. So we would very specifically like to hire with an eye toward diversity. And yes, some of those positions may have diverse candidates already in them and it’s possible that they would be appointed. It’s complicated. I can’t say that it’s going to turn over in permanent appointments for those appointments.
TSPR: What sort of timeline do you see for the search?
Radosh: I would love to complete it in a year. I think realistically, it’s going to be 18 months.
TSPR: Will this be a national search or a regional (search)? How do you anticipate that playing out?
Radosh: It will be a national search. We’ll begin investigating search companies to help us with the search. We have a lot of challenges on this campus and we have had a lot of past problems that will make it difficult for us to identify candidates, so we will need the help of a national search company.
TSPR: What characteristics or qualities are you looking for in Western’s next president?
Radosh: I’m looking for someone who able to unite the campus in much the same way that Martin has already done this. We have turned around so quickly in the last few months that you almost have whiplash by how quickly people have rallied to his programs and ideas and initiatives. I would hope we would be able to find someone who would also be able to rally the campus.
Q & A with Trustee Greg Aguilar
TSPR: Your vote on appointing Dr. Abraham – why were you opposed?
Aguilar: I believe that as leaders of a public entity, it is important that we have open and transparent processes when it comes to hiring or moving on from the president’s position. That is our role as trustees. That’s who we focus on – hiring and firing the president. In order for us to create equitable opportunities for people to apply for positions, it is important to have an open and equitable process. I felt that we owed it to the state and we owed it to Western Illinois University to have that process and that is to do a national search.
TSPR: Are you concerned at all about how long that search might take and we continue with interim administrators on the campus?
Aguilar: When President Thomas stepped down, we knew as a board we had to take quick action. We did not hesitate and we voted unanimously to put the provost into the presidential position so that we would have a leader and to move this university forward. I know that we still have a leader in Dr. Abraham. I know that there is a lot that he is doing and will continue to do. And because time is of the essence, this is why we started a search immediately because we do understand the challenges of not having people in leadership roles. What I’ve heard from Interim President Abraham and what I’ve heard from the community is that things are getting better. That’s why he is in his role, to continue to make those things better. But again, we have to be true to what we do and that is to ensure that we have equitable and inclusive opportunities to apply for that position.
TSPR: What characteristics or qualities will you be looking for in Western‘s next president?
Aguilar: I would love to see people with innovative ideas, people who have demonstrated action and success in having successful town and gown relationships. I’m looking for someone who has – I think we’re all looking for as trustees – is someone who understands the business side but also respects and honors the academic side, which is the university. Being university president is considered one of the toughest jobs in the country. And so it’s important that we know what our needs are here at the university, but that we also find a candidate that can not only maintain what we are, but take it to the future. And also understand where we’ve been, our history as academics, but also what is coming in the future. So someone who can also be ready for whatever is coming.
TSPR: What have you been hearing about Dr. Abraham’s performance?
Aguilar: Like any leader, you’re going to hear a lot on both sides. Overall in my experience with Dr. Abraham, if I have needed to get hold of him, he has been there. What I have heard from the Macomb community is that he has been very active and we have seen him out there. Because of geography, it’s not always as easy to do the same in the Quad Cites (note: Aguilar is from the Quad Cities) and that also would have people wondering where he might have been. Overall, as the board, we support him. That’s why we appointed him interim. And I know that he is going to continue growing relationships for the university and continue to do the best that he can to improve Western Illinois University.
TSPR: One of the challenges (facing WIU) is diversity. What are your thoughts on Dr. Abraham’s performance on that issue?
Aguilar: I think he’s tackled them head-on. He has not ignored them. He has also reached out to community leaders in Macomb to say that we need to work on this issue together. I wish Macomb could follow the example that has recently happened in the Quad Cities where organizations and leaders and nonprofits and businesses are stepping up and saying ‘Hate and racism are not welcome in the Quad Cities.’ I feel that would be a good next step to help with the diversity, especially in attracting and retaining diverse talent. We have to be real. Overall we’re in a global war for talent. Universities and colleges are in a war for students. And the demographics, especially of multicultural populations, are growing. Communities and universities who demonstrate that they are a welcoming and inclusive community will be the ones who will be successful in attracting and retaining those students.
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