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Former trustee: Kinzy’s abrupt exit was about fit, not wrongdoing

Illinois State University President Terri Goss Kinzy resigned Tuesday after less than two years on the job. No reason was given for Kinzy’s abrupt resignation. Her separation agreement said only that ISU’s Board of Trustees and Kinzy had “agreed to amicably end” her employment.

NORMAL — Illinois State University marked its annual Founding Celebration on Thursday with the usual traditions – bellringing and a toast of faculty and staff – even as unanswered questions hovered as to why President Terri Goss Kinzy had abruptly resigned.

Some faculty and staff told WGLT they were surprised by Kinzy’s exit. Others heard rumblings about a leadership change. Almost everyone said they knew nothing about why she left.

“If you want to compare it to what happened with (former ISU president Tim) Flanagan, it was nothing like that. There was no wrongdoing,” said Dobski. “It was more a case of she was not the right fit.”

Flanagan’s rocky seven-month tenure ended in 2014, after an altercation with a university employee.

Dobski’s term expired in January, and he has not been reappointed to the board by Gov. JB Pritzker. But he said he was serving when faculty and staff feedback and performance evaluations of Kinzy were done.

Regarding the lack of transparency about her departure, Dobski said the agreement to refrain from comment came on the advice of the board attorney.

“The attorney said we should try to put it behind us and move on with interim President (Aondover) Tarhule,” said Dobski. (Tarhule is expected to be named interim president on Friday.)

He declined to say anything further.

Kinzy’s separation agreement with ISU – which includes a payout of about $144,000 – includes a silence clause. It says Kinzy and the Board of Trustees can’t talk publicly about her resignation, beyond a brief press release issued Wednesday. No reason has been provided for her exit, less than two years into a four-year contract.

Remaining members of ISU’s leadership team did not reference Kinzy during their remarks Thursday’s Faculty/Staff Appreciation Luncheon and Awards Ceremony at the Bone Student Center.

At the luncheon, WGLT sought a comment from trustee Kathryn Bohn, who was there. Here is that exchange:

Bohn: “The board does not talk about personnel issues.” WGLT: “Why is that?” Bohn: “It is the policy of the board. That is always done (in) executive session, and we can’t comment on that.” WGLT: “Do you think the public has a right to know about why the president of the university resigned?” Bohn: “I can’t comment on that.” “What is your message to students, faculty and staff who might be worried about such an abrupt leadership change?” Bohn: “I have no comment at this time.”

William Sulaski is a former chair of the Board of Trustees. In an interview Thursday, WGLT asked Sulaski what ISU leaders should do next to put the campus at ease.

“The first thought, and I know it’s probably not an easy one, is to get all the information out there,” Sulaski said. “People are going to have their questions, so the quicker the information can get out there, whatever that is … it helps to calm things down so people aren’t drawing their own conclusions. Every time you read one of these headlines and they say we can’t discuss … all that does is add more fuel to the fire. And that would be one of the first things, I hope that they can come out with enough information, whoever that is, whether it’s the board chair or someone else. Let’s get the information out. I know they have to protect the opportunity for people to get another job, but the public needs to get the real scoop.”

Steven Lazaroff, a Ph.D. student in ISU’s English department and a member of the ISU Graduate Workers Union, agreed. He called the lack of transparency provided behind Kinzy’s resignation “undemocratic” and unbefitting of a public institution.

“We have a right to know why the person that makes the huge decision for our campus was just, you know — I think it’s naïve and insulting that they would act like this is a resignation,” he said. “They should be accountable to us, and they aren’t. That is not a democracy. We purport to live in a democracy, to be developing a democracy, and the Board of Trustees is the least democratic institution on campus.”

The Board of Trustees was Kinzy’s boss. The ISU president’s job performance is evaluated every year in a report prepared by the Academic Senate’s Administrative Affairs and Budget Committee, summarizing commentary solicited from faculty, staff and students. The Academic Senate was in the middle of this process at the time that she resigned, said Senate chair Martha Horst. Horst said she didn’t know what would happen to the data and feedback gathered from the campus community.

Lazaroff said rumors that poor results from campuswide surveys taken last year impacted Kinzy’s length as president did not explain the urgency of her departure from campus.

“The Board of Trustees clearly just fired the first female president of ISU for, clearly, an urgent reason,” he said. “They did it two days before Founders Day. I can’t believe those surveys … was what got her out of here that quickly.”

Lazaroff said he believes there should be students on the Quad protesting the lack of transparency from the Board of Trustees — a demonstration that not only would provide a visual display of student and staff displeasure with the obfuscation of the situation, but also show what group holds power at ISU.

“What I would like is for the BOT to tell us why Kinzy has left ISU and to not hide behind secrecy, because most of us believe that she was clearly fired and we deserve to know why,” he said. “It’s our campus: We’re the ones that go to class. We’re the ones that teach. We’re the ones that clean the grounds and we’re the ones that serve the food. We deserve to know why someone who was so esteemed and beloved by the BOT was just let go, in the middle of the week, two days before the biggest anniversary of the year (Founding Celebration).”

Asked if he believed the trustees would provide that transparency, Lazaroff was frank.

“Do I have hope for that? No,” he said.

How the search found Kinzy

Kinzy was hired in 2021 to succeed retiring President Larry Dietz, who was in the role for seven years. Dietz was previously ISU’s vice president for Student Affairs and was passed over for the presidency once before — when Flanagan was hired instead.

Kinzy, who was a VP for research and innovation at Western Michigan University, emerged from a field of over 50 qualified candidates. There were four finalists, though their names were not disclosed publicly during the search.

Terri Goss Kinzy was hired as ISU’s president in 2021, when the campus was still dealing with major disruptions caused by COVID-19. Emily Bollinger/WGLT (file)

The search was led by WittKieffer, a private search firm hired by ISU.

Sulaski, the former Board of Trustees chair, questioned the use of search firms for high-level positions when in a couple cases the candidates found by the consultants have not worked out.

“Why do we immediately feel that we have to go out and do a search? And if in fact we’re going to spend the kind of money that we do, why do we have these so-called mismatches and poor fit of the choices that we make?” said Sulaski. “Are we really getting what we pay for? But maybe the questions should be addressed to the people that are providing these searches. Why didn’t you do a better job for us if we’re having these difficulties whatever they are?”

He added: “They might want to rethink who they used to search and who consulted with them the last time and make sure they have someone else to do the job next time through if they have to go that way. But maybe the right persons are already on board. And maybe we don’t have to go outside and do a search.”

In an interview with WGLT, a member of the search committee that found and recommended Kinzy praised her first-rate academic credentials and said she was the most qualified of the applicants.

“Sometimes personalities don’t work out. That’s what I think happened here,” said the person, who WGLT granted anonymity in exchange for his candor. “There’s more to being a president than having a great resume.”

Dietz, Kinzy’s predecessor, had a good rapport with faculty and showed “genuine concern with the day-to-day of academics,” said an ISU professor who spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity.

“Dietz is a hard act to follow,” the professor told WGLT.

Provost Aondover Tarhule, who came to ISU in 2020, would be the sixth person to serve as ISU’s president or interim president in the past decade.

Sulaski said that kind of churn is not good for the institution.

“I don’t think so at all. I don’t think there should be that much turnover,” said Sulaski. “I think the continuity is very important. We go through a whole new learning process every time we bring somebody in … There’s a whole start all over again. It shows me we’re not progressing, as well as we should be. Too many changes.”

But Sulaski added that questions about leadership can also be overblown. He said the headlines can also obscure the many good things that happen at ISU. He has moved to the Chicago suburbs, and when he mentions his affiliation with ISU he’s surprised at the large number of people with connections to ISU that he meets. He says the feedback is overwhelmingly positive.

“They don’t talk about the presidents. They will talk about their kids and their grandkids having gone to Illinois State University, and how much they love it. That’s the kind of headlines you like to read,” said Sulaski.

Community reaction

Meanwhile, Normal Mayor Chris Koos said he had heard rumblings about the Kinzy situation but was “caught off guard” by the departure. Koos said he “was surprised it happened that decisively and quickly.”

Koos said he does not think the turnover will impact town-gown relations.

“Everyone I have worked with at the university really values our relationship and will work to keep that. And I’m sure the interim president and whoever they decide will be the president will certainly work to keep that alive. It’s just too valuable to the community as a whole,” said Koos.

Koos said he had a meeting with Kinzy set next week about student polling places for the April election and other issues.

“Considering there are 21,000 students and 3,000 some faculty and staff members, it’s a huge economic driver in the community. It’s a huge cultural driver in the community. It’s very important,” said Koos.

Koos said the office of the interim president has already reached out to him indicating a desire to schedule a meeting soon.

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