Her first 556: Cheng gets mixed reviews

By Gus Bode

SIU President Glenn Poshard knew what he was looking for in a new chancellor — someone who could make tough decisions and wouldn’t settle for the status quo.

He found her in Milwaukee, where Rita Cheng was serving as provost at the University of Wisconsin.

When Cheng became SIUC’s eighth chancellor in 11 years in June 2010, she faced a daunting charge. Poshard and the SIU Board of Trustees wanted to improve enrollment and retention, solve a budget deficit, create a better marketing plan, and strengthen ties with community colleges.


Chancellor Rita Cheng makes an appearance at the 2011 Up ‘til Dawn event Nov. 19 at the Recreation Center. Cheng spoke to the participants to show her support for the volunteers and event staff. Sarah Gardner | Daily Egyptian

With so many problems to solve on a three-year contract, Cheng was almost certain to anger some people as she made decisions and implemented changes. She has been accused of micromanaging, being deaf to the effect of her words and insulting students, faculty and staff.

Others say she walked into the university’s pre-existing issues and received undeserved blame for labor turmoil, budget cuts and furlough days. The four Illinois Education Association unions’ contracts ended in June, the same month she took office, and the budget for the fiscal year that began a month later was millions in the red.

“I think people that are critical either don’t know me, haven’t paid attention, or don’t really want anyone in the chancellor’s office to make the final decision,” Cheng said.

Cheng began to shake things up immediately after she stepped into office June 1, 2010.  After less than two weeks, she removed Victoria Valle as assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management. Cheng appointed John Nicklow, associate dean in the College of Engineering, to the enrollment management position and directed his office to report to the provost.

The No. 2 position on campus had been filled on an interim basis for several years, but Cheng picked Gary Minish as the permanent provost in fall 2010. Minish resigned Jan. 19 via email — a month after Cheng hired him and after only 10 active days in office.

Sources familiar with the situation, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the two had heated arguments days before Minish resigned. He cited issues with Cheng over the direction she planned to take the university, including the University College model and the removal of Larry Dietz as vice chancellor for student affairs. Cheng assigned Peter Gitau to absorb those responsibilities into his position as dean of students.


Dietz, who had served in the position since 2000, said the move came as a surprise.

Students march Nov. 8 toward the Stone Center during a rally in support of the striking Faculty Association members. The FA went on strike Nov. 3 after negotiating with SIU administrators since June 2010 when the union’s previous contract ended. The strike lasted seven days. Steve Matzker | Daily Egyptian

“During our discussion, I told her that I certainly didn’t question her authority to make the decision she was making, but I wasn’t consulted about it,” he said. “There was no opportunity to discuss it with her before she made the decision.”

Dietz moved to a tenured-faculty position in educational administration and higher education before he became the vice chancellor of student affairs at Illinois State University six months later.

Minish said he disagreed with Cheng’s plan to eliminate Student Affairs, which she announced Dec. 6, 2010. She put New Student Programs, the Center for Academic Success, Student Support Services, Supplemental Instruction, University 101, Residential Life, Career Services, and pre-major advisement under the control of the provost. She also put supplemental instruction, Living Learning Communities, tutoring and mentoring programs, and Saluki First Year coursework into the same group so departments could work together as a team.

Cheng’s reorganization was intended to help create the University College, which Minish said was done without consultation from deans.

Tensions rose across campus following Minish’s departure. The Faculty Senate met with Cheng and Minish separately before its executive council released a statement Jan. 20.

“We believe Gary Minish is a grassroots administrator, skilled at listening to those he leads and bringing their perspective to bear on university decisions,” the council said. “We also believe Chancellor Cheng’s style is characterized by a top-down, heavy-handed approach. … We concur with what seems to be a widespread belief that she has isolated herself within a small inner circle where all decisions are made.”

Cheng said the statement surprised her, and she should not be blamed for Minish’s decision. She appointed Nicklow as the next provost May 12.

Dave Johnson, an associate professor of foreign languages and literatures and a member of the Faculty Association, said there are some positive aspects to top-down management, but it is risky because of the amount of authority it gives one person.

“We’ve not had a run of successful chancellorships, I think it’s fair to say,” he said. “If you put more power in the central administration, you raise the stakes.”

Cheng said she doesn’t think being called a micromanager is fair.

“I think there’s been an attempt to demonize me with the people seeking some personal gain,” she said. “I’m not a micromanager. I can pay attention to detail. I’ve got committees and task forces and groups I meet with on a daily basis. Our strategic planning process has over 100 people.”

Cheng said she reinstituted the planning and budget committee that meets monthly and has created task forces to look at graduation polices, awards polices and academic issues.

Poshard agreed, the chancellor receives input from all across campus.

“There’s always going to be contention about, ‘Where are the parameters of shared governance and academic freedom?’” he said. “But I really think she’s made a good faith effort in bringing more voices into the mix than we’ve had before.”

Nicklow said Cheng takes student feedback seriously as well.

“She responds to an incredible number of emails personally,” he said. “When a student, no matter how large or small the issue, submits an issue to the ‘Ask the Chancellor’ website, she reads them, she distributes them, she responds — sometimes personally — and that’s a really incredible thing to do.”

Her methods weren’t always criticized as much, though. In fact, Poshard said he hired Cheng for her success with improving enrollment and budget issues in Wisconsin.

Tom Luljak, vice chancellor for university relations and communications at UW-M, said his school struggles with a decrease in state funding, and Cheng played a vital role in budget decisions.

“Rita’s business background (as an accountant) was incredibly important to the administration as we found ourselves working through some very difficult budget times,” Luljak said. “She understood both the campus budget and had a deep appreciation for the different academic components that we were attempting to advance.”

She faced SIU’s $15.3 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2011 when she asked each department on campus to cut its budget by 4 percent. The board of trustees approved the budget Sept. 16, 2010, saying it saved the university $7.3 million.

Cheng took the budget cutting a step further Nov. 3, 2010, when she announced that faculty and staff would have to take four unpaid closure days for the school year. Even though the furlough days took place when school was not in session, faculty members began to express concerns they believed were unfair. The four unions without contracts protested outside the chancellor’s formal installation ceremony April 15. They said SIU had higher administrative costs than other Illinois universities.

The unions — the Association of Civil Services Employees, Graduate Assistants United, the Faculty Association and the Non-Tenure Track Faculty Association — voted to authorize a strike Sept. 30 and later set a strike date for Nov. 3. Cheng said the strike date approval came as a blow to her. She said she thought the university had taken positive steps, especially in enrollment and retention.

For the past 20 years, SIU has had an average annual enrollment decrease of 1 percent. While there was still a enrollment decline this year, it was by one-third of the previous year’s.

Poshard said no one should expect the university’s problems to disappear quickly.

“It’s not going to work the first or second year (she’s in office),” Poshard said. “It’s going to take time because it took us 20 years nearly to get into this situation.”

Cheng has staked much on the same University College model Minish said she developed without consultation. It is intended to address the 32 percent of freshmen who drop out of SIU by the end of their first year.

“We realigned and restructured the University College model, broke down the silos and really stepped up our service to the students in their first year, everything from academic support to a better alignment of the student life and orientation activities,” Cheng said.

She also hired consultants to revamp the university’s marketing strategy with a new logo and advertisements. She was criticized for the project’s $1.5 million cost of this project as well, but Cheng said it’s already helped with enrollment.

She said universities across the state were down 4 to 7 percent in enrollment for 2011, and community colleges in the region were all down 7 percent, while SIU was down by 1.1 percent.

Her working relationship with community colleges in the area has also brought more transfer students to the university, Poshard said.

“She’s made the strongest ties of any chancellor with these community colleges, and being up in these transfers, I think, speaks to the fact that she’s built really good relationships with them,” he said.

Her relationships with some on campus, however, grew increasingly frayed as the strike date approached.

Students began to take an interest in the negotiations as unions posted fliers around campus and the chancellor’s office started to send emails to the campus community about the labor situation. When the unions began to recruit students for support through question and answer sessions, the chancellor said in an email students should not be used as pawns in the disagreement between the two sides. Some students, insulted by the word “pawn,” became active supporters of the unions.

After the Faculty Association, which represents tenured and tenure-track faculty, went on strike Nov. 3, students and others became frustrated when they saw saw their comments and questions deleted from SIUC’s Facebook page. Students created their own Facebook page, “SIUC Fan Page. Stop Censoring.” Cheng became the face of the administration as students put negative captions on photos of the chancellor and posted them around campus.

Nicklow said the chancellor’s emails were motivated by her concern for students.

“Her goal the whole time was to minimize student impact (and) reach out to students and parents so they knew what was happening,” he said.

“I think it certainly wasn’t an easy situation to deal with,” Nicklow said. “You have relationship issues, student impact issues, but I think she managed that very well.”

Even though Cheng was not a part of the administration’s bargaining team, Nicklow said she was as dedicated to the long hours of work as the negotiators were.

“I left the office one night at 9 o’clock and she was still there. She left at 4 a.m. and was back here at 8 a.m.,” he said. “That woman clearly loves what she does, and it’s more than a job.”

John Jackson, who was interim chancellor from 1999-2001, said he dealt with similar issues when he helped negotiate the first union contract. He said Cheng did a good job during the strike.

“It was a difficult thing to try to manage,” he said. “Given that the demands are almost impossible to meet, I thought she and the president handled it well.”

Although they had not officially settled on a contract yet, the FA bargaining team decided it was close enough to an agreement that it ended the strike Nov. 9 without a tentative agreement. The union approved the contract Nov. 30.

In the weeks following the strike, issues of Cheng’s image continue. Many blame the chancellor for the Facebook censorship and the rift in the administration’s relationship with the faculty. Some of her emails’ tone continues to grate on some among the faculty.

“She’s made some blunders as far as public statements that should have been thought through a little more clearly,” said Mike Eichholz, an associate professor of zoology. Eichholz, a member of Faculty for Sensible Negotiations, which seeks to decertify the union, said Cheng got too involved in debating the Faculty Association in her emails.

“From a PR standpoint, it didn’t look good,” he said. “I think she felt like she had to defend the administration.”

Eichholz said the university has seen positive changes since Cheng took over. He pointed to the university’s increased productivity and better enrollment numbers.

Eichholz said Cheng is in a tough position, which is something even her opponents in the union agree with.

“It’s never an easy job, and she’s come in at a really difficult time,” said Johnson, who served as the Faculty Association spokesman during the strike. “I think anyone would have to recognize that relations with the unions on campus have not been a strong point of her period in office so far.”

He said he hopes the union and administration’s relationship will improve, but he understands the pressure placed on the chancellor.

Cheng said she expected some resistance to changes she’s made.

“I think it’s kind of par for the job,” she said. “I’m going to receive criticism because you can never please everyone.”

Poshard said he has full confidence in the chancellor.

“In all the major areas we have expected a new chancellor to perform, she has done an excellent job. I don’t know anyone else that could have done the job better,” he said.

Cheng said she’s optimistic about the university’s future.

“It’s going to be a lot of work, but we are definitely in much better shape than we were a year ago,” she said. “I believe that the campus, faculty and staff, in general, are very dedicated to the institution and they’re talented.”

Yet it’s still early in the game, as the chancellor has been in office for less than two years.

“It’s undeniable that she’s been very active,” Johnson said. “She’s been a change agent on campus. The question is whether those changes are going to work. She hasn’t been here long enough for us to be sure one way or the other.”

He said the well being of the university will be attributed to her, though.

“If enrollment doesn’t go up in the next couple of years, even if it’s not her fault, it’s her fault.”