SIU’s ‘big-boy pants’ leadership spat lives on in state Senate

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SPRINGFIELD-A Downstate Senate Democrat has donned a pair of “big-boy pants.”

State Sen. William Haine (D-Alton) waded into an ugly fight for control of Southern Illinois University that involves Gov. Pat Quinn, his hand-picked choice for the SIU board chairmanship and former Democratic gubernatorial nominee for governor, Glenn Poshard.

Haine moved legislation to the Senate floor to blow up Southern Illinois University’s governing board in a bid to get rid of the SIU’s colorful chairman, Roger Herrin, a podiatrist who is backed by Quinn and is a campaign donor. Herrin and Poshard are enemies and were players in a public-relations debacle last week over who’s in charge of a university that has more than 32,000 students at its Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses.

Haine’s legislation, which has passed the Senate Executive Committee on a 9-4 vote, would fire the four existing members of the seven-membet SIU board and require Quinn to replace them with three members with ties to the university’s Carbondale campus and three members linked to its Edwardsville campus. A seventh member would be a student.

“There seems to be some internal disputes on the board, a struggle for the chair. I believe that given the past week’s events, it’s time to reconstitute the board and have a rough geographic balance and give the Senate and governor an opportunity to reset,” Haine said.

Last week, Quinn ousted Alton lawyer John Simmons, Edwardsville school Superintendent Edward Hightower and O’Fallon contractor Mark Hinrichs, who were all aligned with Poshard and opposed Herrin’s push to reclaim his chairmanship of the SIU board. The Senate unanimously rejected Quinn’s three replacements.

On Thursday, after the remaining members tried but failed to hold a board meeting because they lacked a quorum, Poshard and Herrin staged a nearly hour-long press conference, taking turns at a mic and engaging in a back-and-forth of fingerpointing, name-calling and allegations of improprieties.

Poshard, the 1998 Democratic nominee for governor, has battled with Herrin in the past, claiming he micromanages the university. But last week, Poshard accused Herrin of trying to “rig elections” for the board’s general counsel and to “punish” university staff who’d run afoul of Herrin.

“I can go right down the list of hundreds of things. It doesn’t matter if it’s a friend or anybody else, I’m the president, and I’m going to protect the university. At all costs,” Poshard said to Herrin, a Quinn donor. “Don’t try to get me to do something illegal.”

“Wait a minute,” Herrin snapped back at Poshard. “You’re saying I tried to get you to do something illegal? You better be able to back it up. I’d never do that. And you damn well know it.”

“OK. Don’t worry,” Poshard said with a chuckle. “There’s plenty to back it up.”

“Then put your big-boy pants on and go after it,” Herrin fired back. “Accuse me of doing something illegal, and you’ve crossed the line.”

The whole encounter was recorded and posted on the WSIU-FM website.

Haine characterized the exchange, with its “barking back and forth” and “personal comments,” as “unseemly” but placed the blame on Herrin.

“This is a major university. And for someone who’s a chairman of the board to make a spectacle like that … what in the heck are you doing to this university for which you have a fiduciary duty?” Haine said.

“I have no quarrel with any other member. If I could carve him out,” Haine said of Herrin, “I’d do it.”

Republicans on the Senate panel balked at Haine’s maneuver, with Sen. Dale Righter (R-Charleston) calling it a “dramatic overreach” by the Senate. Others agreed.

“It seems a pretty dramatic step to take, merely because there’s some internal divisions on the board,” said Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine). “Are we going to inject ourselves every time there’s a board that can’t get along in this manner?”

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