CARBONDALE -- On Friday, Feb. 1, the Southern Illinois University Board of Trustees held a retreat that members called "refreshing," "positive," and "thoughtful."
That's a far cry from last summer, when the members of the university's governing board were criticizing their colleagues in the press as they debated firing former SIU System President Randy Dunn.
Dunn eventually resigned. The board moved on to other issues, and the perceived rivalry between the Carbondale-affiliated trustees and those affiliated with SIU Edwardsville began to fade.
After the retreat, where trustees discussed ways the Board could work more fairly, efficiently and productively, the optimism was evident from trustees affiliated with both campuses.
"I think we've reached a point on this board where we're really making progress," said Tom Britton, a Carbondale-based trustee. "We've done what we can to heal some of the wounds inflicted over the past year. Now, stable leadership is what we need."
But that leadership could look much different by week's end.
SPRINGFIELD — J. Kevin Dorsey used his background as a medical doctor to assess the state of the Southern Illinois University System.
New Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has the opportunity to replace up to five members of the seven-member board. Three trustees -- Joel Sambursky, Shirley Portwood and Randal Thomas -- are at the end of their terms. Two more, Marsha Ryan and Tom Britton, were never formally confirmed by the Illinois Senate after previous Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed them.
Pritzker may reappoint any of the current trustees, or none of them. The choice is his alone.
Commonly, such decisions are announced before the first board meeting following a governor's inauguration, said Brione Lockett, the student trustee for the Carbondale campus.
At the University of Illinois, Pritzker replaced three outgoing trustees two weeks ago, reaffirmed the appointment of a trustee picked by Rauner but not yet ratified, and nixed another Rauner appointee in favor of his own pick.
Now, with the SIU Board scheduled to meet in Edwardsville on Wednesday and Thursday, many trustees are expecting Pritzker to announce his intentions soon.
"As soon as Friday, you may find out that the board is completely different," said Marsha Ryan, a trustee based in Carbondale.
Of the five trustees up for consideration, four have interest in reappointment, they told The Southern, while Thomas intends to leave the board when his term ends.
Lockett, the Carbondale student trustee, will also seek re-election by his fellow students, he said.
"This is the first time since my term began last July 1 that I'm extremely comfortable with this board," Lockett said. "We've made a huge push forward, for the system."
So far, the governor's office has given no indication of its intentions, beyond a commitment to representing "all campuses and constituencies" from Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz.
SIU Interim President J. Kevin Dorsey hasn't spoken to Pritzker about them, said John Charles, SIU's Director of Government and Public Affairs, nor had any of the six trustees contacted by The Southern for this story.
Still, the often political nature of the appointments has many expecting a shake-up.
"I'm confident the governor will want to change the political balance on the board," Britton said. Appointments tend to favor a governor's party, and Pritzker is a Democrat replacing a Republican.
State statute requires no more than four trustees belong to any one political party, and the trustees' political affiliations are not publicly known.
"It is not a partisan job," Britton emphasized. "But usually, the balance favors the incumbent."
Politics may also impact who influences the governor, a Chicago resident, as he makes decisions about a university system over 250 miles from his home.
"This should be a conversation about the system as a whole," said State Rep. Terri Bryant, of Murphysboro, "and I keep getting told that Jay Hoffman (a Belleville Democrat) has the governor's ear, night and day."
Last Friday, Bryant requested an appointment with the governor to discuss the appointments, she told The Southern. As of Tuesday afternoon, she had not yet received a response, and said she planned to follow up on the request in person, at Pritzker's office, on Wednesday.
Bryant has also requested a meeting with Dorsey and legislators from both SIU Carbondale and the SIU Edwardsville region. Her goal, she said, is to build trust.
"The trustees are working very well together, and they seem to be moving the ball forward," Bryant said. "That's the conversation Pritzker needs to hear."
In the past year, the board has navigated a presidential scandal, and the death of Carbondale chancellor Carlo Montemagno. It appointed interim replacements in both cases, and has begun a nationwide search for a new, permanent president to lead the SIU System.
It has hired consultants to improve its governance and to assess the need for an adjustment to the proportion of SIU's yearly state funding that each campus receives.
In conversations with The Southern, trustees acknowledged the board still struggles with members' perceived allegiances to their home campuses, but said there was broad agreement on the importance of keeping SIU Carbondale and SIU Edwardsville together as a system.
"I think everybody is committed to moving forward fairly," Portwood said. "I think we do have some disagreements as to what constitutes fairness."
Portwood and Lockett, the two African-American trustees on the Board, both called on Pritzker to prioritize diversity in his appointments.
"I'm tired of being placated," Lockett said. "I will not be happy with just one other black trustee on the board."
Representative Bryant agreed diversity should be key.
"I'd like to see another African-American on the board," she said. "Right now we're talking about the possibility of three women leaving the board, and I've only heard about white males as possible replacements."
Come what may, trustees asked Pritzker to prioritize stability and fairness.
"I think we've proved ourselves capable of a system approach and could carry that on, if given the opportunity," Ryan said. "I have no idea if we'll be given the opportunity, but I hope whoever gets it will take our work and move it ahead."