Dean Greg Budzban couldn’t get the projector to work, so he had to explain his new project to the dozen or so staffers without visual aids.
It was a small meeting in a conference room in Peck Hall, just an introduction to the next big step for the current dean of Arts and Sciences at SIUE. But his enthusiasm for the project didn’t need a PowerPoint or video.
Budzban had announced a few months ago that he intends to step down as dean, in part so he can concentrate on a documentary about the 2020 election.
“I announced early so that there would be a seamless transition,” Budzban said.
He remains dean through this academic year, but by the time fall rolls around, someone else will be running Arts and Sciences, and Budzban will be focusing on politics.
“Illinois is not going to come down to a recount in the presidential election,” he told the faculty and staff who had joined him for the December meeting. “If Illinois is close, this thing is a landslide. But the primaries are going to be very interesting.”
Budzban said the recent political history of Florida has turned it into a “purple state.”
“The statewide elections in Florida going back to 2000 have ended up very close and in recounts,” he said. “It’s a bit of analyzing the presidential election of 2020 from the vantage point of a state that arguably will be at the forefront of deciding who our next president is.”
So Budzban reached out to colleagues at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute in Carbondale, Illinois and in Florida, and is beginning the process of developing funding for the documentary. Academically, he hopes to loop in people from mass communications, political science, history and possibly sociology to work on the project, observing history as it happens.
“I’m going to try to be as nonpartisan as possible, as journalistic as we can,” he said.
They plan to interview people up in the panhandle, which is a conservative area of Florida; down in Miami; and along the Interstate 4 beltway, which Budzban said he would characterize as “more Democratic.”
The faculty members had questions. Could students be involved, given that they’d be in Florida for weeks in the middle of a semester? Instead, should students be involved as researchers and production assistants in Edwardsville while the crew is in Florida?
“The problem we historians have is that we always know the end of the story,” said history professor Stephen Hansen. “Here we don’t know the end of the story, and that’s exciting.”
Mass communications professor Tom Atwood said that a PBS-style news documentary can be thrown together quickly, but a “deep dive” as Budzban is suggesting could take a year or more in development. “Sometimes through the story of one person, you can illuminate what’s happening,” he said. “If you tell their story and their evolution every day … you don’t necessarily have to go into cafes and get dozens of sound bites.”
History professor Jason Stacy said Florida will need to be placed in context as a contested state. “There has to be a degree of focus in the questions we ask,” Stacy said.
Budzban grew up in Florida, and is well aware of the state’s volatile history. He said former governor Charlie Crist was photographed with President Barack Obama shaking hands. “They did one of those guy-hugs, the awkward lean into each other thing,” Budzban said. “Two years later, Crist runs for Senate. Marco Rubio pulls out the picture and destroys his career. A sitting governor doesn’t get the nomination and loses as an independent. Just that moment with Obama was enough to destroy his career as a Republican in Florida.”
It’s also possible that a constitutional crisis arises, given the rapidly changing news around the Trump administration, Budzban said. His meeting with the faculty members took place in December, 10 days before the U.S. House impeached President Trump.
That’s the kind of unpredictable political climate that will become a microcosm for the division in the country, Budzban said.
“Let’s face it, we aren’t going to be sitting around on election night wondering where Illinois’ electoral votes are going to go,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for our students.”
It’s not the only reason Budzban decided to step down as dean. He has been working for years with a national nonprofit called the Algebra Project, organized by “Freedom Summer” coordinator Bob Moses. For more than 20 years, Budzban has been working with Moses on educational equity work, and expects to take over more of it now that Moses’ health issues have caused him to step back a bit, he said.
“Educational equity in terms of a civil rights issue is arguably the biggest issue in this country,” Budzban said. “The quality of a K-12 education in this country varies wildly, primarily on the basis of socioeconomic status.”
For much of the country, Budzban said, the property appraisal of a home is the biggest indicator of whether the children in that home get a quality education.
“We have high schools that are palatial campuses with the highest technology possible and the educational infrastructure that a private college would have,” Budzban said. “Then you have local rural schools that can’t afford to buy textbooks. That issue of inequality in terms of educational experience is the key civil rights issue of our time.”
Budzban will be working on the Algebra Project and writing a book about Moses after he steps down as dean, in addition to the documentary. “There are a number of creative projects I’m very passionate about,” Budzban said. “I want to get involved in national politics and educational policy.”
Obviously none of that was compatible with staying on as dean. But what about teaching?
“It’s not clear if I will retire and do projects without being immediately connected to the institution, or have a role in the faculty,” Budzban said. “I still want to work and stay connected to SIUE.”
After June 30, however, his attention may be focused on Florida.