The chairwoman of the Southern Illinois University board fired back at two trustees who sought to oust President Randy Dunn, calling the move a "power play."
The board's vice chairman, J. Phil Gilbert, and secretary, Joel Sambursky, unexpectedly on Wednesday convened a meeting of the board's executive committee -- made up of them and Chairwoman Amy Sholar -- for Friday to consider two items: putting Dunn on administrative leave and appointing an acting president. Late Thursday, Sambursky called for Friday's meeting to be cancelled.
Sambursky said board policy allows the executive committee to take rapid action on behalf of the full board in times of urgency, but he has declined to specify his reasoning for seeking to replace Dunn on such short notice.
In a statement issued late Thursday, Sambursky again said that trustees recently received some information "that warrants the calling of an urgent meeting to consider placing Randy Dunn on administrative leave while a thorough investigation into his behavior is conducted by external legal counsel." He still did not specify the nature of that information but denied the intent of the meeting was to permanently replace Dunn.
Sambursky called for Sholar to quickly convene a special meeting of the full board and for Sholar to release the documents concerning Dunn.
The next regular meeting is not until September.
Sholar, in a lengthy statement released Thursday, contended the planned meeting is an overreach of the committee's powers and any decision made there would be invalid.
Sholar cited a policy stating that the executive committee cannot "overrule, revise, or change" previous decisions made by the full board. Since the board as a whole voted to hire Dunn in 2014, having only a faction of trustees essentially undo that violates board bylaws, Sholar said.
"While (trustees) Gilbert and Sambursky are attempting to satisfy the urgency standard by citing new evidence, they certainly have not shared it with me," Sholar wrote. "I find it contrary to both the letter and spirit of our bylaws for these two trustees to attempt to remove the president unilaterally without the votes or discussion of the full board."
Trustee Shirley Portwood agreed and said she, too, was not aware of any new circumstances requiring the board to reconsider Dunn's status.
"I think this is very inappropriate and probably illegal," Portwood said. "It totally leaves out the rest of the board."
Gilbert could not be reached for comment.
Don Craven, a media attorney in Springfield, agreed with Sholar's analysis that the executive committee cannot usurp a decision originally made by the whole board. Craven also said that it does not appear a significant enough emergency exists to require executive committee action.
"An emergency would be if the president had a stroke, if the president had a heart attack, if the president died," Craven said. "They disagreed with a policy statement that the president has made; that's not an emergency, they maybe just hired the wrong president."
The effort to replace Dunn blindsided him, Sholar and others in the SIU community who said they were not made aware of the plan until the meeting notice was released. Dunn told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday that he had not sought any type of break from his job.
He declined further comment Thursday.
The remarkable turn of events comes amid a prolonged battle at SIU campuses over state funding.
In April, Edwardsville leaders maneuvered to shift $5.125 million of SIU's annual state appropriation from Carbondale to Edwardsville. A divided board narrowly rejected the proposal, prompting area lawmakers to introduce legislation to try to force a funding shift.
Shortly after, Dunn found himself in hot water after a professor released emails obtained through open records laws showing the president referring to critics of the funding proposal as "bitchers."
Trustees held a regular meeting May 30 to discuss the simmering tension between the campuses in Carbondale and Edwardsville. While some community members criticized Dunn, no trustees publicly took issue with Dunn's leadership.
SIU's board has long been dogged by accusations that trustees more fervently advocate for the school to which they are connected, rather than pursuing decisions to benefit the system as a whole. The vote on the reallocation of state dollars broke down along partisan lines, with four Carbondale trustees blocking the money transfer.
Sholar alluded to that hometown allegiance in rebuking Sambursky and Gilbert.
"The power play by these two trustees is not only improper but also serves to further drive a wedge between our campuses at a time when all of us should be working together to ease tensions," Sholar wrote. "If a decision is to be made on President Dunn's future at SIU it should be made by the full board and not by two trustees representing one campus attempting to push through an action they suspect would not pass if presented to the full board."
Sambursky pushed back on that characterization.
"It has been the honor of my life to serve on this Board representing all parts of the SIU System," he said in the statement. "Since my playing days as a Saluki concluded, it has been enjoyable learning about all of the extraordinary components that comprises the SIU System."