When a Faculty Representative Holds Views Professors Reject

Illinois governor's pick for state higher education board questions the way academic freedom is defined, the need to defend faculty rights and scientific consensus on evolution.

April 26, 2016
John Bambenek

The Illinois state government’s relationship with higher education has been strained this year, to say the least, with state colleges and universities going unfunded for 10 months due to a budget impasse in Springfield. A stopgap measure was passed last week to fund public institutions through the summer, but now a new issue has emerged: Governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican, has appointed a controversial, anti-union part-time instructor of cybersecurity from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as the faculty representative to the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

The move to designate John Bambenek as the sole required faculty representative to the board already has been criticized by members of the American Association of University Professors. “Rauner has been trying to destroy Illinois higher education from the moment he became governor,” John K. Wilson, co-editor of the association’s “Academe” blog and an independent scholar of academic freedom, wrote in a recent post. “So it’s not surprising that he would appointment as the faculty representative on the [board] someone who is anti-faculty, anti-free speech, anti-union, anti-academic freedom, anti-science and anti-academia. Bambenek was not chosen for this position in spite of his loony ideas and efforts to repress freedom; he was chosen because of it.”

Wilson added, “The faculty of Illinois should not accept Bambenek as their representative on the [board], and the people of Illinois should not accept Bambenek as a person with any influence over higher education. The Illinois Senate must reject his appointment to the [board].”

Objections to Bambenek’s appointment stem from his past positions on free speech, unions and other issues. Bambenek’s sparred with the left-wing website the Daily Kos, for example, including in 2008 when he filed a criminal complaint alleging voter fraud against its founder, Markos Moulitsas, for suggesting that voters cross party lines in an attempt to nominate Mitt Romney in the Michigan primary. (A year earlier, Bambenek reportedly filed a Federal Election Commission complaint against the website, alleging it was a political committee rather than a blog.)

In a regular column for Illinois’s student newspaper, Bambenek’s also rebuked both non-tenure-track faculty and graduate unions and argued that academic freedom has come to mean “academic serfdom” to liberal ideas. In one such column, he suggested that intelligent design -- which scientific consensus rejects -- merits a place in the classroom.

“Academics pat themselves on the back for parroting out each other's ideas while slamming their minds shut to all that could shake their faith,” Bambenek wrote in The Daily Illini in 2006. “This is the behavior of a prelate, not a professor. The intelligent design debate remains the best example of this. Instead of talking about intelligent design, the acolytes of Darwinism engage in character assassination.”

“Academe” co-editor Wilson in his column also criticized as being “gutless” Bambenek’s recent comments to the local News-Gazette -- Bambenek reportedly said, “When someone wants my opinion on what the higher ed appropriation should look like, I’ll be happy to work with staff to figure that out.”

That's “not a representative of faculty; that’s a representative of Rauner,” Wilson wrote.

Bambenek, who runs a cybersecurity consultancy, referred comments to the governor’s office. A spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the appointment or the “Academe” critique.

In a statement announcing the appointment last week, Rauner’s office said Bambenek’s “experiences as a lecturer at the University of Illinois and as a small business owner will bring a unique perspective to the board.”

Via email, Wilson said his concerns about Bambenek stem from his views, not the fact that he’s a part-time faculty member. Commenting on Wilson’s post, Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of California State University at East Bay and chair of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, raised another issue, saying, “A faculty ‘representative,’ much like a legislative one, must in some way be chosen by and responsible to those being represented. For an outsider to appoint someone to ‘represent’ others is a mockery.”

The State Board of Higher Education, which is distinct from the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, performs a variety of duties, including approving or rejecting proposals by university governing boards and the Illinois Community College Board for new academic programs and the viability of existing ones.

Guidelines for boards established by the Association of Governing Boards more readily extend to college, university or system boards than state boards such as that at which Bambenek will have a seat if the Illinois Senate approves it. For reference, about 13 percent of public colleges and universities have a faculty voice and a vote, according to 2010 association data, while an additional 10 percent had a faculty voice but not a vote.

Susan Whealler Johnston, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the association, said AGB doesn’t approve of faculty participation in governing boards, since they exist for the long-term fiduciary interests of the institution. A faculty seat poses potential conflicts of interest in that mission, she said.

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