NIU board to vote on $600,000 severance package for former president

NIU board to vote on $600,000 severance package for former president

The Board of Trustees at Northern Illinois University granted a $600,000 severance package to outgoing university President Doug Baker, who resigned following a state investigation into his management of the university. But after a court struck down that agreement, the board is set to vote again.

The Northern Illinois University Board of Trustees will vote Dec. 7 to approve or deny a $600,000 severance package to former university President Doug Baker, who left his office amid a patronage scandal.

A DeKalb County judge ruled Baker’s severance null and void Nov. 22 because the NIU Board of Trustees violated the Open Meetings Act, failing to disclose a meeting agenda for the closed meeting that granted Baker his severance. Misty Haji-Sheikh, an NIU graduate student at large and member of the DeKalb County Board, filed a lawsuit in June to place an injunction on Baker’s severance.

In June, Baker resigned from his post after a state investigation into his management of the university became public. The report revealed NIU paid a combined $1 million to at least five people the university hired as though they were part-time instructors to avoid competitive bidding requirements.

Investigators said in the report that NIU administrators “committed a pattern of circumventing procurement requirements and violating employment policies and rules,” in the two years after Baker took office in 2013, in “an effort to meet President Baker’s directives to select high-paid consultants (one of whom was a friend), and pay for travel and lodging, without restrictions.”

The NIU Board of Trustees first received the report in August 2016, roughly 10 months before the report became public and Baker resigned.

“If they’re [giving this severance] because they just want to avoid an investigation and a lawsuit, I don’t think that sends a good message to taxpayers,” said state Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, who sits on the state’s higher education committee. “Taxpayers should be upset by this.”

Unfortunately for taxpayers, expensive “golden parachutes” are not uncommon in Illinois higher education, even for administrators such as Baker with questionable track records.

In 2015, the College of DuPage Board of Trustees approved a $763,000 severance package for President Robert Breuder. During Breuder’s tenure at the College of Dupage, the college hid more than $95 million in spending – including hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to businesses connected to college leadership, his membership to a private shooting club and nearly a quarter million dollars in alcohol listed on ledger lines as “instructional supplies.”

The Chicago Tribune called the $763,000 payout “one of the largest severance packages for a public employee in state history.”

In 2016, too, Chicago State University paid university President Thomas Calhoun Jr. a $600,000 severance despite just serving nine months of a five-year contract.

The administrative bloat – and the high cost it carries – in Illinois’ higher education system has been a burden for taxpayers and students. Beyond just gifting golden parachutes, more than half of Illinois’ 2,465 university administrators received a base salary of $100,000 or more in 2015. These inflated salaries lead to inflated retirement costs – in that same year, more than 50 percent of the state’s $4.1 billion spent on public universities went to retirement costs alone. This diverts money that could and should go toward students, all on the backs of taxpayers.

State lawmakers can make several reforms to prioritize students over administrators in higher education.

But the NIU Board of Trustees can take a positive step Dec. 7 and vote to deny Baker’s severance, in what would be a clear win for taxpayers and a welcome deviation from the state’s track record of misguided higher education priorities.

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