News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

A contentious appointment pits Rauner against Illinois’s academics

Critics say cybersecurity expert John Bambenek wouldn’t even count as faculty at most colleges.


John Bambenek at a Chicago Tea Party Fourth of July rally in 2009. - STEVE RHODES/FLICKR
  • Steve Rhodes/Flickr
  • John Bambenek at a Chicago Tea Party Fourth of July rally in 2009.

You've got to give Governor Bruce Rauner this: some parts of his job are complicated. Like negotiating a budget in a political war zone.

But an appointment to the only faculty seat on the 16-member Illinois Board of Higher Education? I didn't expect that to be one of them.

And not just because the words "faculty seat" and "Illinois Board of Higher Education" (unlike, say, "no budget" and "your money") are enough to put most of us into an immediate, deep sleep.

Faced with the need to make this appointment, as he was last fall, all the governor had to do was follow the standard procedure and pick one of the two candidates already researched and vetted for him by the board's very own Faculty Advisory Council. The council is made up of 36 representatives from every kind of postsecondary educational institution in the state, so they've got a pretty good handle on who would be right for the job.

Or, if he wanted to have a go at it on his own, Rauner could have selected any regular faculty member at any of Illinois's colleges and universities. Thousands of them would have qualified.

It should have been a piece of cake.

But, like everything else in Springfield this year, this appointment wound up stalled in a committee, with the governor looking like he's waving a fat middle finger in the face of anybody who cares. Instead of appointing a full-time, tenure-track or tenured professor, Rauner picked a businessman whose academic experience consists of a one-course adjunct gig.

DePaul University professor Marie Ann Donovan, who chairs the board's Faculty Advisory Council, puts it this way: the governor didn't do his homework.

"And when my students don't do their homework, their grade suffers," Donovan says. "On this one, it's an F—failed."

“There is no conceivable scenario in which Mr. Bambenek would be chosen as a representative of the faculty of this campus, let alone as a representative of all the university faculty in this state.”

—UIUC senate

The board is a 16-member body responsible for creating and interpreting the policies that control every higher education institution in the state (except for community colleges, which have their own board). Members are mostly appointed by the governor, and most serve six-year terms.

By law, one of those board seats is set aside for "a faculty member at an Illinois public university." The person holding it is meant to represent all of his academic colleagues across the state. When that seat opens up, Donovan says, it's the job of the Faculty Advisory Council to suggest a replacement.

So, last October, the council sent Rauner two possible candidates—both experienced members of the FAC—and waited for a response. Winter came and went, but "we never heard anything," Donovan says. Then, on April 15, they were surprised by an e-mail announcing that an appointment had been made. Rauner had selected John Bambenek, a cybersecurity consultant and former Republican candidate for the state senate, who teaches one computer course a year on the University of Illinois's Urbana-Champaign campus.

According to the governor's announcement, "Bambenek's experiences as lecturer at the University of Illinois and as a small business owner will bring a unique perspective to the board."

Donovan says it was unique, all right. "We started looking into him, and found he's taught one course, three or four times. And that's it. He didn't even have a master's degree."

He did, however, have a 2007 appearance on the Daily Show to his credit, putting to rest the mythic cyberthreat of a daylight-savings-induced "Aclockalypse Now."

The appointment set off alarm bells at the American Association of University Professors. John K. Wilson, writing on its Academe blog, described Bambenek as "a dutiful right-winger" with "a disturbing record of seeking to suppress freedom of speech," including an attempt "to get the federal government to shut down free-wheeling opinions on the liberal website Daily Kos" by filing a Federal Election Commission complaint accusing it of being a political committee rather than a blog. Wilson's post ran under this provocative headline: "Gov. Rauner Appoints a Right-Wing Crackpot to Represent Faculty on the Illinois Board of Higher Ed."

Bambenek, reached by phone last week, says he's not going to address those complaints, most of which are "misrepresentations" of things he wrote "over a decade ago for the college paper." As for the claim that he's opposed to free speech, he offers this: "I ran as a Rand Paul delegate in the primary." Make of that what you will.

Donovan doesn't want to politicize the issue, and says it's not about Bambenek personally. She's focused on what she says is "the heart of the matter" regarding this particular seat: the fact that, as she wrote in a May 12 letter of "shock and dismay" to the Senate Executive Appointments Committee, Bambenek "has never worked as a full-time faculty member."

That point is seconded in a May 20 letter to the same committee from the UIUC senate, which points out that "by the terms of the University of Illinois Statutes, he would not even qualify as a member of the 'Faculty.'"

The UIUC senate letter continues:

"There is no conceivable scenario in which Mr. Bambenek would be chosen as a representative of the faculty of this campus, let alone as a representative of all the university faculty in this state."

The appointment awaits senate confirmation. And the state awaits a budget. v

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