Honorary degree recipient reflects on time at SIU

By Cory Ray, @coryray_DE

When Donald Beggs came to SIU as a student, he never imagined he would lead the university as interim chancellor from the same building his mother lived in when she was a student.

And at the May commencement, Beggs, who served as interim chancellor for two years in the late 1990s, will receive an honorary degree, Doctor of Education Leadership. 

When he first received the call that his name was being submitted for the nomination, Beggs said he had to make sure he wasn’t being prank called. 

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“It’s an enormous compliment,” he said. “It’s something I did not anticipate or see coming.” 

A current SIU leader knows Beggs’ value to the university, after he served as interim chancellor in 1996. 

“One of the most unfortunate things that took place in SIU’s recent history is the fact that Don did not remain as chancellor after he served that role so well on campus,” said SIU President Randy Dunn, who was hired at SIU as faculty while Beggs was dean of the College of Education. 

Dunn said Beggs accepted the interim position under the condition he would not be a candidate for the permanent role. Dunn said as the completion of Beggs’ two-year term came to a close, many people on campus urged the then-SIU president to allow Beggs to continue serving as chancellor. The president did not renegotiate terms.

The current SIU president said Beggs could have changed the direction of the university and built continuity on campus. At the time of his departure, the university had many interim and vacant positions, Dunn said.

“It would have been a game-changer at a critical time in our history to have had Don Beggs in that role for maybe a 15- or 20-year run,” he said. “It could have done some amazing things here. I think the biggest success he had was just bringing a stability and direction to the campus.”

Beggs, who has four generations of Saluki students in his family, has memories of campus that stretch well before the 1990s.

When he began his education in 1959, classes were still being taught inside World War II military barracks. Beggs completed his bachelor’s in education in 1963 and his master’s the next year.

Beggs spoke about some of his fondest SIU memories.

“I’ll always remember when [presidential] candidate John Kennedy was on campus,” he said. “He drove through the campus, as students we got to see him and Jackie. That was a special time. ” 

Beggs went to the University of Iowa to complete his doctorate, but always found his way back to Carbondale. In 1970, he became associate dean of SIUC’s graduate school. 

“When I came back and joined the faculty, those were wonderful years,” Beggs said. “That was not a part of my plan. The opportunity presented itself, and next thing I knew, it’d been 32 years.”

During his time at SIU, Beggs saw the university add professional schools in medicine and law, as well as the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. One the biggest changes Beggs said he saw was the influx of technology and the university’s rise as a research institution. 

He would later serve as both assistant and associate dean of the College of Education before becoming its dean for 15 years. 

After his term as interim chancellor, Beggs became president of Wichita State University in 1999 until his retirement in 2012.

Beggs’ family history at SIUC — known as Southern Illinois Normal College at the time — traces to the 1890s when his grandmother and her three sisters attended the university for one year to be qualified to teach. 

His mother originally attended the university from 1924 to 1926 to attain a teaching degree, but returned in 1960 to earn her bachelor’s degree. His mother lived in Anthony Hall, a girl’s dormitory at the time, which now houses the chancellor’s and provost’s office. Beggs said his mother and the woman who would later become his wife, Shirley Beggs, even tackled a chemistry class together. 

Since then, both of his children have attended SIU, each of them pursuing a career in education. 

“It’s quite an honor,” he said of the honorary degree. “It made me think of my family history — of the people I taught with and got to know on a personal basis. Just a lot of memories flowed forward that haven’t been on the front burner for quite some time.”

Cory Ray can be reached at [email protected] or at 618-536-3326

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