New College of DuPage trustee: 'We're going to be able to accomplish a lot'
It even took a tiebreaking vote from the College of DuPage's newest board member to agree to go into closed session.
As the board emerged after more than two hours behind closed doors in the wee hours of Friday morning, one of the few audience members who remained joked to others: "Tomorrow's headline: New trustee resigns."
Welcome to the COD board, David S. Olsen.
On two occasions during the meeting that started Thursday evening, Olsen had to cast the deciding vote. That, at least, broke the deadlock of the past two months in which the board has been evenly split 3-3 following the abrupt resignation in December of former Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton. When the two factions were unable to choose a successor in the required 60 days, the decision fell to Illinois Community College Board Chairman Lazaro Lopez, who quickly named Olsen, a 27-year-old Downers Grove village council member.
Despite his first few votes, which saw Olsen siding with Hamilton's supporters, he says he doesn't consider himself to be the "swing vote" for one side. Instead, he told the Daily Herald in an hourlong sit-down interview that he wants to work with all his fellow trustees to help the Glen Ellyn-based college.
Here's an edited transcript of part of that conversation:
Q. How do you think your first meeting went?
A. I thought it was a really productive meeting. It was a long one -- over six hours. I think that was (the result) of the past few months where the board hasn't been able to meet. And I think it was really important the board get back to business to approve a normal consent agenda, to have a closed session ... and to pass some important items. Obviously, there was a lot of debate. There were some controversial issues we considered. Some of them we deferred to have more discussion. Some of them we made a decision. But I thought it was a great, productive discussion. I'm really excited about working with each of my colleagues on the board.
Q. What are you hoping to accomplish?
A. It's important I provide some interim leadership and some stability to the college over the next 14 months until the people have a say on who their representative is going to be. This is a really important institution for our state, for our region. We need to refocus on the education of our students. And I think part of the way we're going to do that is by addressing the findings of the Higher Learning Commission to ensure we maintain our accreditation.
There's also the hiring of a new president. There's going to be a new leader who's going to set a new tone. I'm really excited about that opportunity to select that new leader.
Q. It's a divided board, with trustees Erin Birt, Dianne McGuire and Joe Wozniak often at odds with trustees Deanne Mazzochi, Charles Bernstein and Frank Napolitano. How do you plan to work with both factions?
A. I think it's important to focus on the issues. It's something I've been saying since I got appointed. It's something I discussed with Dr. Lopez when he called and asked me if I would accept this appointment. We're not always going to agree. But if we can focus our disagreements to the issues at hand -- and not personal or political differences that we may have -- I think we're going to be able to accomplish a lot.
Q. Have you reached out to McGuire, Birt and Wozniak?
A. Absolutely. My first action upon being appointed to the board was to call each trustee. I've had the opportunity to speak with all of them, some of them for the first time (Thursday) night because of scheduling difficulties. But I think we're committed to at least talking to one another, and I'm really excited about working with each trustee.
Q. Now that you are on the board, you'll be faced with several issues. What are your thoughts on the following topics:
• Hiring an in-house attorney:
A: The idea of in-house counsel is something I generally support. In-house counsel is a way we can enhance our ability to engage with good legal counsel from a day-to-day perspective. Having somebody down the hall is a lot easier than having to pick up the phone and be worried that they're going to bill you for half an hour for a phone call.
Obviously, I'm looking forward to some discussion about how exactly that office should report to the board, to the president -- and what those reporting lines should look like. But I think ultimately, it's a good idea for the college.
• Firing some of the law firms:
A. With the creation of an in-house counsel, which is my hope, I think we're obviously going to have to evaluate our relationship with each of the law firms. And we should constantly evaluate our relationship to ensure they are performing as expected and performing to the highest standards.
I don't think the idea of coming in and firing the law firms and changing law firms is something I'm interested in. For the reason of stability, I think we need to ensure some consistency in our representation. However, we shouldn't be afraid to change law firms. We shouldn't be afraid to make a change given a change in circumstance and given our evaluation of the performance of that counsel.
• The search for the next president:
A. Second to the Higher Learning Commission letter and accreditation, I would say it's the most important issue that I'll face during my 14 months on the board. The next president is going to be a very important leader after the college's experience with (former President Robert) Breuder and some of the issues there. We really need to move forward. It's my vision that this president come in with a strong focus on returning to excellence in education. That's what we're about as an institution.
• Traits of the next president:
A. The traits I'm looking for first and foremost are honesty and high integrity. Having a strong ethical foundation is really important given the issues the college has faced.
I'm looking for somebody who has skills to be able to work with diverse groups. You have faculty, students, staff, the board ... and all these stakeholders are really important. We need somebody who can work collaboratively with each of the stakeholders. A top down ruler is not the kind of person we need as the next president of the college.
• Breuder's wrongful termination lawsuit:
A. I really don't want to get into pending litigation. There's litigation there, and we're going to have to deal with that appropriately in the best interest of the institution as a whole. It's unfortunate, and that's where I'll leave it.
Q. Have you read the findings by the Higher Learning Commission, which placed the college on probation for two years? What steps should the college take to get things fixed?
A. The first thing I want to comment on regarding the Higher Learning Commission report is that the report was not about the teaching. It was not about the education that's being provided at the college.
The issues that were discussed were mainly issues related to the administration and the board. And I think those are issues that can be addressed. I'm very excited to look at that. We're going to focus on that next week at the board meeting. We're going to hear from the administration. We're going to hear from the faculty. Because we need all of our stakeholders -- students, faculty, staff, administration, the board -- to buy into this process and to make the necessary changes to ensure that when the Higher Learning Commission comes back, they take us off probation and there's no further sanctions.
• Coming Monday: What sparked Olsen's interest in politics and led to his appointment to the College of DuPage board.