Our Word: Conflict policy changes, confusion lingers

By Gus Bode

The confusion that has plagued the SIU Board of Trustees during the past months could be toxic.

How can we avoid indirect conflicts of interest if we don’t know what they are?

The board’s charter states, ‘Nor shall any member of the Board be directly or indirectly interested in any contract made by the Board.’

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Reports from the Chicago Tribune and others last month indicated that board Chairman Roger Tedrick might indirectly benefit when his company sells insurance to firms that win business with the university.

But Tedrick said he could not receive ‘indirect benefits’ because no one had ever defined the term. ‘What is an indirect benefit?’ he asked during an interview with the Daily Egyptian last month.

Not to worry. The board approved a new conflict-of-interest policy at its most recent meeting May 7. SIU General Counsel Jerry Blakemore said the policy’s architects – who did not include the campus constituency groups that reviewed other measures such as the plagiarism and sexual harassment policies’ – have worked on it for more than a year. And Tedrick voted to approve this policy, so surely it answers his question.

Nope. Not so much.

The term ‘indirect benefit’ has been bandied about so often it ought to be defined, especially because the board’s chairman could be receiving such a benefit. If board members were really interested in the kind of transparency that dispels allegations of corruption, they would have tried harder to address the ethical blurry areas that make this policy so necessary.

Of course, one step up is still higher than the ground. The new policy requires board members to report anything that may appear to be a conflict of interest to the governor, the Senate president and the Senate minority leader. It also requires board members to abstain from votes in which they might have an interest. And all of that is good.

But we are skeptical it will change much, if anything.

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Granted, the nature of Tedrick’s work ties him to many southern Illinois construction firms that do business with SIU. He has the right to make a living, and’ his time and energy as a board member are donated to the university. He is not paid for the work he does at SIU.

Still, Tedrick makes money by selling insurance to firms that are doing work for the university – firms he approved to do jobs he approved. And when he voted in favor of Saluki Way, Tedrick had to know his business would benefit from the massive amount of construction involved.

A few words in a policy won’t change the kind of problems inherent in this system.

But the system can be changed.

Tedrick’s term is up. If the governor appoints a new board member, Tedrick will no longer serve on the board – but the potential for these types of conflicts will still exist.

That’s why we hope those in the governor’s office will take these types of situations into consideration when they choose future board members. The people who sit on the board dictate the fate of this university, from what buildings get built or fixed to how much students pay in tuition and fees. The governor should choose people who are less likely to experience conflicts of interest – direct or otherwise – in the course of steering SIU on its path.

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