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ISU president seeks to calm furor over Athletics missteps

ISU President Aondover Tarhule seeks to soothe a troubled athletics department with what he termed 'quick' and 'decisive' action.
Charlie Schlenker
ISU Interim President Aondover Tarhule seeks to soothe a troubled Athletics department with what he termed "quick" and "decisive" action.

New Illinois State University Interim Athletics Director Jeri Beggs has a large set of tasks following the departure of Kyle Brennan under a cloud caused by questions over spending on a donor trip.

In this interview with WGLT's Charlie Schlenker, ISU Interim President Aondover Tarhule lays out his expectations for Beggs and how ISU has responded. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

WGLT: What's most important for the interim athletics director to do?

Tarhule: Restore trust. Provide direction. Set expectations going forward. Reassure students and our donors that we remain in a very strong position, we remain true to our values and to our long history and that in the end, our students and coaches and staff, everybody remains extremely committed to what we've always done as a university.

WGLT: How is an interim person, a temporary person, supposed to do all that? What can they do in a meaningful way?

Tarhule: To my mind, who that person is, is important. If you look at Jeri Beggs’ bio, she has been the faculty athletics rep for 14 years. She has been on NCAA committees and on the Missouri Valley Conference committees on athletics governance. This is the body that envisions how athletics should be governed. She has been part of coming up with that vision. Who better qualified at this point in time to take that reins?

"Our response here, I think, has been swift. It has been quick. Hopefully, people see it as decisive. And we remain very committed to moving forward."
Interim President Aondover Tarhule

Beyond that? She is also extremely respected, both as a faculty member and for her knowledge of athletics, and for her ability to relate with and connect with campus constituents and community constituents. I felt like appointing an individual with such impeccable credentials, in itself was an important part of the message.

WGLT: Beyond that, in this particular instance there are allegations of a toxic workplace culture. Considering that, does her gender matter in this particular case?

Tarhule: I would hope we are at a point in our society where gender is not necessarily the first thing one thinks about. For me, the most important thing was expertise and competence. I think that the gender helps. It doesn't hurt. But I wasn't prioritizing gender.

WGLT: As a leader, how does one rebuild a workplace culture that has been shaken or called into doubt?

Tarhule: I think your messaging and your actions are important. You have to be clear about exactly what it is you're trying to do. And you have to act as such. In some ways, that's what we're doing here. We feel like the some of the decisions that were made, didn't quite live up to the expectations the university has for our leadership in that area. And we're taking actions to show what we think about that. I think this is exactly what leadership does. As a new interim leader comes in, I think the first thing is to be clear about what we expect and reinforce where those values are and proceed to show that your actions match, match the words.

WGLT: What does the next permanent athletics director have to be able to do? And what do they have to have in a demonstrated skill set before they set foot on campus?

Tarhule: We have a large division with a large budget; 99% of our staff and faculty and coaches continue to work extremely hard every day, making all the right decisions. To my mind, what we have here is not a broken unit. It's a unit that has stumbled. We've made a number of decisions that maybe not quite to the high level that we expect. It is a stumble. It is not a crash, not a fall. It's not a situation where the division is broken, and we need somebody to come in and fix it. The sky is not falling.

I think we need to hire an individual who knows their job, who has the level of integrity and is forward looking and support and compassion for our student-athletes, and they are able to be an advocate for student-athletes who thinks and puts their welfare first and who is able to connect with different constituencies. Athletics must deal with donors, alumni, students, faculty, and the community at large. That's generally the job description of any athletics director. Hopefully, we have a nice, deep pool of applicants.

WGLT: What is the hoped-for timeline on that permanent hire?

Tarhule: I would like to move as quickly as possible. We're likely to engage a search firm to help us out. But we would like the entire campus community to be involved or have an opportunity to participate which constrains the time a little bit. School will be out here in a second and faculty will be off. We want to make sure the search takes place at a time school is back fully in session and every constituency has an opportunity to be engaged. That would put us sometime in the fall.

WGLT: The once prevalent campus custom of holding public presentations by the field of finalists to various campus constituencies during hiring for high level positions has faded in recent years. Given the nature of the present moment, is that something that should change in the permanent AD hire this time?

Tarhule: There is a tension, if you will, a difference of opinion, at a minimum, about the need to attract a diverse and deep pool and the need to have the campus engaged. There are many search firms who will tell you that if you don't keep some elements or aspects of the search confidential, then a lot of sitting, highly qualified, or people from underrepresented groups might be reluctant to apply. In some ways you hurt your applicant pool (by having a public phase.) That's a conversation that I will have both with cabinet and also the search firm when we identify it.

WGLT: You characterized this as a stumble and said, the sky is not falling. But it is in the interest of competing institutions, and their athletic programs to portray it as the sky is falling as they look for recruits and administrative talent. How should ISU respond to those positioning statements by other institutions?

Tarhule: Our role is to continue to tell the story as accurately as possible. We remain as committed as ever, our athletes and students and all of our coaches, who remain highly supported and focused on what they're doing. We're fortunate to have a community that is very supportive of us and is an integral part of what we do. Keep in mind also, that much of what we're talking about is rarely things that happened in the past, right? It's not right now. Look at the way we are responding. We can't have a situation where we expect every organization to run perfectly. We expect that in every large organization, things may happen that we know are less than we expect them to be. That's why we have leadership. Our response here, I think, has been swift. It has been quick. Hopefully, people see it as decisive. And we remain very committed to moving forward. Yes, I think other institutions might try to exploit the situation and undermine the true nature of what the division is going through, but the fact of the matter remains everybody at ISU is just as focused as committed. I am determined to address this as quickly and as decisively as possible so that we're back on track.

WGLT: In any incident or series of incidents like this, you may get some donor reticence. How should ISU respond to that?

Tarhule: I'm reaching out to donors and explaining to them exactly the actions that were taken. This is something that has happened. We can't change the past, but we can reposition to be to be better and stronger. I expect Jeri will do this as well, once she gets into her position. It's explaining what we've done, what we think went wrong, and how we are repositioning the university to ensure that this does not happen again, reassuring them about our focus and our commitment to what we think are the true values of Illinois State University and how we're continuing to live by them.

WGLT: This incident has prompted a movement among some students to ask that the fees that go to support the athletic department not be increased this year, at least until a better track record can be established. How do you respond to that student request?

Tarhule: The students’ disappointment is understandable. I completely understand where they're coming from, that frustration. My hope would be that we will keep the larger context in mind; what the student fees are for. We have 400 student-athletes that need this money. A big part of the reason why we're asking for an increase is that with the Missouri Valley Conference recently expanded, it added two more schools. That's two more destinations. Think about traveling with a football team. That's 105 individuals that have to travel. That's hotels and food and accommodation and longer distances. And that's just football. Think about basketball, and volleyball and all of that. The cost, especially given the inflationary environment, that we’re in, is undeniable. In some ways I feel like we might be punishing our student athletes twice for decisions and actions over which they have no control. By showing displeasure, understandable as it may be, with the events that have happened, I think that the disappointment is directed against other students. I would hope that they see how quickly and how decisively we're moving to address this concern. And I hope they would not impede the ability of our student-athletes who just want to represent ISU.

WGLT: Some sports boosters may wonder if you will want to reverse course from a very pronounced pro-athletic stance under former president Kinzy, especially after what's happened and given your background and academics.

Tarhule: Will I be supportive of athletics? Absolutely. 100%. 120%. I am very supportive of all parts of our organization, you know, athletics, advancement, academics. All of that makes up the university. Athletics has always been an important component of this university. Without it, I think that the complexion, the dynamic, and the very nature of who we are changes. Now, how I support athletics may be different because I'm a different individual from the last president. I see some of my strength in strategic planning, identifying priorities, and being very focused. I'm not on the sidelines at every game, that's not to say I'm not supporting it. My support might be a little bit more understated. It may be a little bit more behind the scenes. But I want to make sure the students, staff, and coaches have what they need to be successful; whether that's in priority, resources, or donor engagement. And that's how I would like to focus my energies and my support.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to clarify a question about campus hiring practices.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.