Our View

Our view: $600K severance for former Northern Illinois University president a waste

Baker stepped down at the end of June amid backlash from a report from the state Office of Executive Inspector General, which concluded he mismanaged the university by improperly classifying the positions of several highly paid consultants to bypass state collective bidding requirements. He was replaced by acting President Lisa Freeman. State Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, who referred to Baker’s severance agreement as a “golden parachute” for the former administrator, called on NIU to reject the agreement. “Our higher education institutions need to stop throwing taxpayer dollars at university administrators who mismanage public funds and fail to comply with state laws,” Cullerton said in a news release. “Common sense dictates if someone is under investigation for violations made on their watch, we shouldn’t be looking for ways to reward them with states funds.”

We hope some people show up at the Northern Illinois University Board of Trustees meeting Thursday to share their opinions on the $600,000 severance deal the board gave former President Doug Baker.

That’s probably what the board was trying to avoid when they were as vague as possible about the agreement on their June 16 board agenda. They approved this agreement after seven hours in closed session. It covers a full year of salary and benefits at $450,000, and another $137,000 for Baker to not serve as tenured faculty in the college of business, a provision of his contract that would have paid him $225,000 a year.

But the agenda for the NIU board meeting where the agreement eventually was approved didn’t mention any severance agreement, let alone share its terms with the public beforehand.

So a DeKalb County judge found that the board violated the Open Meetings Act and the agreement is null and void.

That ruling might have been more meaningful had NIU officials not paid Baker $570,000 worth of benefits months ago. Good luck getting it back now.

We would urge the board to reduce the value of the payout to Baker, as others including state Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, have.

But it’s hard to see how Baker would cooperate. He made a deal, and agreed to leave. If NIU tries to renege, Baker could argue that he wouldn’t have agreed to leave under less generous terms or that he’d like that $225,000-a-year faculty job now, thanks.

The golden parachute was the capstone of Baker’s legacy of lavish spending on administration. In fact, it was improprieties in the hiring of high-paid “consultants” outlined in a report by the state Office of Executive Inspector General that prompted him to resign in the first place.

The report, which NIU officials kept under wraps for about nine months, went public in May. It outlined how Baker hired five consultants as though they were part-time instructors, then had the university pay them more than
$1 million over two years
. The bogus hiring classification allowed the university to avoid rules requiring open bidding.

In June, Baker said the state report was a distraction and it would be better if he resigned. This after NIU paid almost $200,000 for legal representation for him in connection with the investigation.

If there is a way to reduce the cost of this agreement, NIU trustees should take advantage. The board also must be more transparent in the future – events have proven that keeping details from the public will end badly for public bodies.

We hope that this will be the last time the university, whose leaders frequently complain about the lack of state funding for higher education, will throw away so much money with so little benefit. We would rather see new programs, facilities, professors –even repairs to the chipped and broken paving stones all over campus –than another nickel thrown away on severance, legal fees and bogus consultants.

The payout to Baker is about what the average American earns in a decade. The public has had enough of big payouts to make public-sector managers go away.