Southern Illinois University, Carbondale
SIU Carbondale Chancellor Carlo Montemagno dies after battle with cancer
By Brian Muñoz
SIU Chancellor Carlo Montemagno died early Thursday morning, according to an announcement by interim SIU President Kevin Dorsey.
Montemagno announced in June that he had been diagnosed with cancer.
“Dr. Montemagno was a visionary who worked tirelessly to advance SIU Carbondale since he joined the campus as a chancellor in August 2017,” Dorsey said. “He created a roadmap to secure the university’s future; earned the respect and commitment of faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members’ and was an unwavering proponent of the university’s mission.”
Dorsey called the Board of Trustees to convene for a special meeting as soon as possible to appoint an interim chancellor but will be serving as acting chancellor until the board appoints a new individual.
Career before Southern
Montemagno became the latest chancellor at the university in August 2017 after being recommended for the position by former SIU President Randy Dunn.
Montemagno was an internationally recognized expert in nanotechnology and biomedical engineering, focusing his work on linking multiple disciplines to solve problems in areas of health, energy and the environment, according to Montemagno’s biography released by the university.
Prior to his appointment at SIU, he founded the interdisciplinary Ingenuity Lab based at the University of Alberta in Canada.
In addition to leading the lab, which connects organizations and researchers from across the Province of Alberta, he served as director of the biomaterials program for the Canadian Research Council’s National Institute for Nanotechnology as well as research chair in intelligent nanosystems for the Canadian National Research Council.
Before joining the faculty at the University of Alberta, he was the founding dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a professor of bioengineering at the University of Cincinnati, according to the biography.
He also served as a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, founding chair of the Department of Bioengineering and co-director of the NASA Center for Cell Mimetic Space Exploration at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Other previous roles include serving as director of the biomedical engineering graduate program and associate professor at Cornell University, group leader in the environmental research division at Argonne National Laboratories at the University of Chicago, and as a U.S. naval officer working with the U.S. Department of Energy.
Montemagno has received a number of awards for his scientific work, including the Feynman Prize for Experimental Work in Nanotechnology, the Earth Award Grand Prize and the CNBC Business Top 10 Green Innovator award, according to the biography.
He was named a Bill & Melinda Gates Grand Challenge Winner for his development of an oral vaccine delivery system that increased vaccine stability.
He has also been named a fellow for the American Institute for Medical and Biomedical Engineering, the American Academy for Nanomedicine and the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts.
Over the course of his career, he has received more than $100 million in grant funding for research, and he has received or is awaiting approval of more than 40 patents.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in agricultural and biological engineering from Cornell University in New York, a master’s degree in petroleum and natural gas engineering from Pennsylvania State University and a doctoral degree in civil engineering and geological sciences from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
The Journey to SIU
Montemagno was appointed as SIU’s ninth chancellor since 2000, the latest non-interim appointment since Rita Cheng’s tenure from 2010 to 2014.
Montemagno and former interim-chancellor Brad Colwell were the only two finalists for the position after Rodney Hanley and George Hynd pulled out of the running in June 2017.
Colwell was appointed the SIU Vice President for Academic Affairs, a position that had been vacant since 2014, after officially recommending that Montemagno be appointed as the permanent chancellor.
Montemagno, a former researcher and professor in engineering, chemical and materials engineering at the University of Alberta, came to the university with a vision of a new university — “Vision 2025.”
As part of his plan, Montemagno talked on shared governance and the removal of seven programs, four humanity-based, in August 2017.
During the chancellor’s “State of the University” address last year, Montemagno unveiled a plan to reorganize existing academic programs and consolidating them with similar programs into new colleges.
Since Montemagno unveiled his plan to reorganize SIU’s academic units, campus leaders said he had not been receptive to their input.
Montemagno’s reorganization plan and proposal to eliminate all departments was met with pushback from major constituency groups including the faculty senate, undergraduate student government and graduate and professional student council.
Both student constituency groups later went on to provide votes of no confidence for Montemagno after the chancellor refused to meet with student groups and would only meet with students, one-on-one.
In a survey sent to faculty association members, out of those who voted, 75 percent chose to extend the deadlines for reviewing or not advancing SIU Chancellor Carlo Montemagno’s restructuring plan, according to a press release from the Illinois Education Association’s regional office.
After Carbondale campus and community members took to the SIU Board of Trustees to express their discontent with the proposed reorganization, board chair Amy Sholar and Dunn released a statement on the reorganization.
Dunn and Sholar said the plan was not a “be all end all” for the university.
“Chancellor Montemagno has delivered an academic reorganization plan that would certainly change the way the campus operates as it introduces new ideas into what the future might be for SIUC,” a joint statement between Sholar and Dunn said. “While its various aspects have sparked a vigorous debate, everyone, including the two of us, has agreed to the fact that something must take place to change the trajectory of the campus.”
Montemagno’s third and final draft of the reorganization plan planned to take SIU from eight colleges with 42 departments to five colleges with 20 schools, including the proposed education school, which would be unique in that it would have its own dean and act as an independent entity.
Upon the end of the academic year, Dunn said Montemagno bet his chancellorship on the success of this reorganization, calling the initial deadline bold and aggressive but almost impossible.
“The driver for his selection was that he had proposed putting forward a plan that would address the challenges of the university and would implement shortly after arriving over the course of a year,” Dunn said.
Surrounded by controversy
The chancellor was subject to protests, including an occupation of his office, on a proposed police academy at the university.
In January, Montemagno had been found to have been involved in the hiring of his daughter and son-in-law in positions that the university created for them, were never formally applied for and were never advertised.
The revelation raised national attention to Southern and raised ethical inquiries on nepotism law, leading SIU President Randy Dunn to launch an ethics investigation on the hirings.
The investigation was later passed on the State of Illinois Ethics Commission because the SIU Board of Trustees had a hand in the hiring of the chancellor’s children.
Montemagno was also found to have used university money to move his daughter’s home from Alberta, Canada to Carbondale.
The former chancellor refunded the university $11,146.42 for the part of the moving cost of the second household initially covered by the university.
He also paid $4,930.03 upfront to the moving company after exceeding the $61,000 in moving expenses allotted to him by the university, SIU university spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith said.
Looking at the administrator’s past, employees of Montemagno’s nanotechnology lab in Alberta came forward about the “toxic” and “hostile” work environment he created in a lab where he employed his family.
The Ingenuity Lab was established in 2012 by the government of Alberta in partnership with the University of Alberta and Alberta Innovates to conduct nanotechnology research related to health, environment, energy and agriculture.
Though a reason was not explicitly given, funding for the lab was cut this year following a review of the lab’s operations — many attribute it to Montemagno’s poor leadership and abandonment of the laboratory.
The chancellor was found to be kept in the dark as Dunn worked with SIU Edwardsville officials in an attempt to shift more than $5.125 million in state funding from the Carbondale campus.
In an email obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by former faculty senate president Kathleen Chwalisz, Dunn wrote that a reference to a traditional 60/40 funding split between Edwardsville and Carbondale was “simply to shut up the bitchers from Carbondale who are saying loudly we shouldn’t even be doing the $5.125M at this time.”
The motion was denied during the Board of Trustees meeting in April, Dunn later resigned from his position as SIU President and Kevin Dorsey was appointed as an interim president as a national search is conducted for the system’s next leader.
A vision for a better university
Montemagno hoped to revitalize campus and make SIU the “maroon ruby in the crown of higher education in Illinois.”
Through new initiatives and recruitment efforts, Montemagno hoped to increase the university’s enrollment by 18,300 by 2025 after the university saw one of it’s largest student decreases in recent history.
“We knew that this year would be challenging, since many students are already seriously considering colleges in their junior year, and the recruitment season was well underway when we embarked on our transformation,” Montemagno said in a September press release. “Our focus last year was on increasing the quality of new students, retention and positioning ourselves for the future.
His focus on student life has brought internationally acclaimed musicians and groups to the university such as the band Skillet and hip-hop artist Ice Cube. Part of his efforts also include bringing a new makerspace and e-sports arena to the university.
As a continuation of his plan to improve the student experience, Montemagno said a new intramural esports arena is to be placed in the Student Center within the next two months.
“The whole idea is having a collegiate experience where [students] are having fun… and growing as individuals to be successful,” Montemagno said.
Montemagno also closed two of the residence hall towers “not for economic reasons” but in order to “bring all of the students in one location,” he said in August.
“You probably heard that we closed the towers,” Montemagno said. “We closed the towers not for economic reasons — we closed the towers because we had the ability to bring all of the students in one location.”
Montemagno said the community created now has dormitories that are “97-98 percent full versus 68 percent full.”
On the dissolution of the system, Montemagno believed the campuses are better together as a university system.
“There are great things happening on both campuses across the system and our hope is that moving forward we’re going to be able to bring ourselves closer together and not be driven apart,” Montemagno said during a legislative hearing at the Carbondale campus in August.
As the Carbondale campus prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2019, Montemagno looked forward on ways to prepare the university for the next 150 years.
Montemagno said the upward swing at the university is part of the school’s re-emphasizing four attributes associated with getting an education at SIU — communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.
“We are revamping the academic programming — we’re making core curriculum extend through all four years,” Montemagno said. “I want to have a place where anybody can come learn about anything they want to learn about and to do it at a world-class level.
Montemagno is survived by his wife Pamela, his two children and five grandchildren.
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