© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

ISU cancels student fee increase for Athletics amid fallout from donor trip

Jeri Beggs speaks to the Senate
Ryan Denham
Incoming interim athletics director Jeri Beggs speaks at Wednesday's Academic Senate meeting. Beggs' first day on the job is Monday.

Illinois State University’s interim president said Wednesday that he’s canceled plans for a student fee increase for Athletics and pledged “closer oversight” of Athletics fundraising in the wake of a costly and widely condemned donor junket.

Interim President Aondover Tarhule spoke and answered questions at Wednesday’s Academic Senate meeting, where faculty, students and staff were given their first public venue to react to WGLT’s reporting about the donor trip and Athletics Director Kyle Brennan’s subsequent resignation.

Some said the episode suggested a profound, systemic failure of leadership at ISU at the highest levels and asked what mechanisms could be enacted so it doesn’t happen again. Others pointed to a broken trust and lamented tight budgets in their own departments.

Tarhule told the Senate about two previously announced actions he’s taken to address the situation: the appointment of Jeri Beggs as interim athletics director and an accelerated “full financial audit” of Athletics. He added two more actions on Wednesday: the abandonment of the student fee increase for Athletics and increased oversight of fundraising activities in Athletics.

“I do know the need is real,” said Tarhule, referencing additional costs related to the recent expansion of the Missouri Valley Conference. “Our student-athletes need money to cover the increased cost they will incur. But I will work to find other ways of supporting them without having to ask for additional fees this year.”

The university was looking to raise student fees $4 per credit hour for the 2023-2024 school year. Nearly half of that ($1.90) would have gone to Athletics and its facilities.

Tarhule’s decision won praise from student leader Jimmy Holmes, who is a member of the Senate.

“Athletics cannot and should not waste ISU money and still get a budget increase the very next year, and I want to thank you for your decision,” Holmes said.

Tarhule also told the Senate he’ll be working “very closely with Vice President for University Advancement Pat Vickerman to provide closer oversight of Athletics department fundraising and development activities.” It’s unclear who exactly knew about the donor trip in advance.

Academic Senate chair and music professor Martha Horst read a statement provided by former Senate chair Lane Crothers, a politics and government professor. Horst said she supported the statement.

“This is not just a failure of the athletic director and his senior staff who choose to abuse the university’s money. Rather, those who knew about these issues and either did not care or actively supported them are equally responsible for this problem,” Crothers wrote, as read by Horst. “This is a systemic failure.”

Asking for patience

Senators asked questions such as: What type of oversight is provided to the ISU Foundation (the university’s private fundraising arm)? Are there existing rules in place that weren’t being enforced, or do we need more rules?

Tarhule asked for the Senate’s patience as that “full financial audit” is completed.

“Either the audit will assure me and all of us that what we witnessed was a one-off, and I can look all of our constituents in the eye and tell them so … or it will identify if there are other instances where maybe the judgment and decision-making didn’t quite rise to the level we’re used to at Illinois State,” Tarhule said.

The audit will be done by ISU’s internal auditing team. Some on the Senate suggested ISU leaders consider an external or independent audit instead, or in addition. Tarhule signaled an openness to that.

Tarhule was less committal to sharing the “unfiltered findings” of the new audit, as one senator requested, rather than administration’s interpretations of those findings. Horst also asked for the audit’s results to be provided to the Senate.

“There may be rules as to what we can share or not share. I don’t know that. I’ll find out. But my pledge to you is … the whole point of the audit is to assure us that either we have more work to do to fix the processes that may be lacking, or to assure us that maybe this was anomalous. And so my goal would be to make sure we’re as transparent as possible,” Tarhule said.

The Athletics donor trip happened in December 2021, when Terri Goss Kinzy was still ISU’s president. She was Brennan’s boss and a close ally. Kinzy resigned earlier this year for unexplained reasons.

Brennan’s resignation came as WGLT was preparing to publish its story about the donor trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten football championship game in 2021. Athletics spent more than $23,000 on last-minute tickets and hotel rooms as they tried to woo Aaron Rossi — suddenly a millionaire due to his booming COVID testing business — into making a hefty donation.

Some on the trip visited a strip club. The trip worked: Rossi made a $3 million pledge in January 2022 to support Athletics’ new Indoor Practice Facility, although it’s unlikely ISU will ever get that money. Rossi was indicted on fraud charges soon after and remains under federal investigation. A judge has restricted how he spends his money.

The Senate is a central piece of ISU’s shared governance model, in which various governing bodies collaborate on decision-making. The Senate is the primary governing body that recommends educational policy for the university and advises the president on implementation. One of its external committees is the Athletics Council that some senators said has been ineffective.

Education professor and senator Craig Blum said he wanted university leaders to commit to “reinvigorating” the shared-governance process as it relates to the Athletics Council. Horst also said Athletics never provided a detailed budget to the Athletics Council for the proposed fee increase, and that another Senate committee was not provided a more detailed Athletics budget as it requested.

“This is an opportunity to reinstate and rebuild that,” Blum said.

Horst said she’d like ISU administrators to update the Senate at the start of the Fall 2023 semester regarding how they’ve addressed concerns raised at Wednesday’s meeting.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.