Illinois profs freak out over anti-union Higher Ed Board appointee

Professors are lashing out at Gov. Bruce Rauner’s (R) appointment of a part-time lecturer to represent faculty on the Illinois Board of Higher Education, complaining the choice is anti-union.

Rauner, who has for months been locked in a budget battle with the state’s Democrat-controlled General Assembly in which higher education has featured prominently, announced his selection of John Bambenek, president of Bambenek Consulting and a part-time cybersecurity lecturer at the University of Illinois, to join the IBHE in an April 15 press release, though the appointment still requires confirmation by the Senate before it is official.

According to The News-Gazette, multiple faculty groups have taken issue with Rauner’s choice, and are planning to take their case directly to the Senate Executive Appointments Committee, which must review the appointment before sending it to the floor for a vote.

U of I education professor Nicholas Burbules, who is in charge of drafting one such letter on behalf of the Urbana campus Senate Executive Committee, told The News-Gazette that although “the governor is entitled to appoint somebody who shares his views in a broad way,” the Committee is still hoping to convince the Senate that Bambenek will not adequately advance the interests of full-time faculty.

“He's representing all universities in the state. Other universities are even more up in arms about this than we are,” Burbules claimed. “The question is what authorizes someone as a representative of the faculty. And it seems to me that the selection process in some way ought to give this person credibility and … legitimacy as a representative of the faculty, not just someone who is appointed and happens to be a faculty member.”

The IBHE Faculty Advisory Council (FAC) is also planning to put pressure on lawmakers to reject Bambenek with a letter expressing “shock and dismay” that the appointment was not only made over the objections of numerous critics, but also disregarded the Council’s own nominations of two longtime members to fill the same seat.

The first, and so far only, person to fill the position before Bambenek was Southern Illinois University professor Allan Karnes, who was appointed by then-Gov. Pat Quinn (D) after being nominated by the FAC.

Bambenek “[has] not been working with students, advising them. He's not been deliberating curricula, he's not been engaged in sustained research, and he hasn't had to juggle all of those teaching, research, scholarship and service activities,” complained FAC chairwoman and DePaul University professor Marie Donovan. “It’s not [Bambenek’s] fault. I'm pointing our fingers at the governor and the governor's staff who are responsible for advising him.”

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly responded succinctly to the questions about Bambenek’s fitness for the position, telling The News-Gazette that “John Bambenek's knowledge and experience make him a valuable addition to the Illinois Board of Higher Education,” adding unequivocally that “he is qualified under statute to serve in this position.”

While both organizations deny being motivated by political considerations, carefully couching their objections in terms of Bambenek’s supposed lack of qualifications and inability to effectively represent his constituency, the denunciations from other quarters have expressly targeted his political positions as disqualifying factors.

In a post on the Academe Blog shortly after Rauner announced the appointment, for instance, PhD student and former Adjunct Professor at Illinois State University John K. Wilson lambasted Bambenek as a “right-wing crackpot” who espouses “loony ideas” that Wilson describes as “anti-faculty, anti-free speech, anti-union, anti-academic freedom, anti-science, and anti-academia.”

Bambenek’s purported opposition to academic freedom is based on a statement simply condemning instructors who “turn their podiums into pulpits,” while his “anti-science” sentiments stem from complaints about the “character assassination” of those who believe in intelligent design.

Similarly, he is portrayed as implacably hostile to unions for asserting that “university unions, and public-sector unions in general, have largely hijacked the legacy of the unions from the days when they were necessary.”

Asserting that “Rauner has been trying to destroy Illinois higher education from the moment he became Governor,” Wilson contends that Bambenek was chosen specifically to advance that agenda, and should therefore be prevented from joining the IBHE for a full five-year term.

More recently, the Illinois Education Association also decried the appointment, writing in a blog post Friday that “Rauner is stepping up his assault on Illinois’ public colleges and universities by appointing … a man who displays little respect for faculty members, the people he’s supposed to represent.”

Echoing many of the same arguments made by Wilson, the IEA declared that “Bambenek cannot represent faculty when he has repeatedly expressed contempt for academic freedom, free speech, and the right to collective bargaining,” because those are all “issues most faculty embrace.”

The IEA concludes by offering Rauner its expertise to help him “select an appropriate IBHE faculty representative.”

Bambenek, however, claims that his critics have been frustratingly reluctant to address their complaints to him in person, explaining in an email to The News-Gazette that “I have attempted to reach out and have meetings with anyone I have heard who has issues … [but] to date, no one has contacted me directly nor has taken me up on my offer to meet with them.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @FrickePete