Regent fails to regain board seat

By Peter Schuh and Jerry Lawrence

Regent Sylvia Nichols has had her seat pulled out from under her by Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar and that could mean a table full of trouble for the Board of Regents.

Nichols’ term on the Regents ends this year and in order to stay on the board, she must be reappointed by Gov. Edgar.

Regents Chancellor Rod Groves this summer said the chancellor’s office received three letters from the governor’s office. The first letter said Nichols wouldn’t be reappointed, marking the end of her six-year term, the second said she would and the third said she would not.

Lana Kains, assistant to the chancellor, said the last letter the office received said Nichols had not officially been appointed, and late this summer Nichols was informed by phone from the governor’s office that she would not be reappointed.

Ken Zehnder, assistant to the governor, said the decision to not reappoint Nichols had nothing to do with her performance.

“We had heard she had been a good member of the board,” he said. “The thing is that people are appointed to a term and when their term expires it is the governor’s option to replace them if he wishes.”

Zehnder also admitted, “Mrs. Nichols was not a Governor Edgar appointee, she was a Governor Thompson appointee.”

Nichols is a Democrat, while Edgar is a Republican.

One of Edgar’s most recent appointees to the Regents was Joseph Ebbesen. Ebbesen has been the only member of the Regents to endorse its own abolition—an agenda recommended by Arthur Quern, the Edgar-appointed director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

The recommendation to eliminate the Regents was part of the Governor’s Task Force on Higher Education report released in January. The task force was chaired by Quern and Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra.

Although he said he was uncertain who would be appointed to replace Nichols, Zehnder said the decision would be made soon.

“I expect in the near future,” he said. “I anticipate within the next month.”

If Edgar appoints another person from the Ebbesen mold, the Kustra-Quern camp may use the renegade Regents as evidence that higher education governance needs reform. Furthermore, if the decision to dump Nichols is cut along such clear political lines, more such moves are likely to follow.

Any new appointment made by Edgar must be approved by the Illinois State Senate before it becomes official, the majority of which is controlled by Edgar’s own Republican party.

Groves said he is not certain that Edgar would demand total loyalty of his appointees.

Groves also said he was not yet certain the decision to not reappoint Nichols was final since the decision had already been reversed once before.

“Certainly I would like to have her continue. She has been a very good board member, but it is very much the governor’s prerogative to appoint whomever he wishes and I can’t deny him that,” Groves said.

In the interim, Nichols will continue to serve as a member of the Regents, Kains said.

“We don’t know when a new appointment will be made so we will keep her on the seat until it happens,” she said.

Nichols was appointed to the Board in 1985. She is chair of its academic and student affairs committee.

“It certainly is unfortunate that it happened,” Kains said. “Sylvia has been a very solid board member.”