Three class days were cancelled to cut costs during the budget impasse, and union leaders are planning a rally to protest the school’s financial straits — but Northeastern Illinois University was planning to pay former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett $30,000 to speak at its commencement ceremony.
Those plans changed after a few university trustees objected — and the Sun-Times began asking questions. Northeastern said late Monday that a donor came forward to pay the five-figure speaking fee.
But at an April 6 board meeting, trustees approved an honorary degree for Jarrett — while learning that a contract had already been negotiated and signed to pay her $30,000 for her May 8 speech.
Just the day before, the school’s interim president said the university was in a “state of emergency” amid the 22-month budget impasse.
Hearing of Jarrett’s contract on April 6, at least one board member uttered “wow,” according to audio of the board’s meeting.
Another asked whether there could instead be a donation in her honor to a student scholarship.
“We could certainly try to negotiate that, but the contract has been negotiated and signed,” a board member said, while later arguing that not getting high-profile speakers to come to the university would send a message to first-generation minority students that their commencement is somewhat “lesser” — while saying that would be a “classist and elitist argument.”
Another board member called the decision to pay that amount “disturbing” in light of the university’s financial state. Still the board approved the honorary degree — with the payment already contracted. Three members voted no.
The Sun-Times asked the university for information about the contract on Monday afternoon and was told the information couldn’t be confirmed until later this week. But after the newspaper obtained audio of the board meeting and asked for additional comment, the university released a statement Monday evening saying it had found a donor to pay Jarrett.
“Since last week’s Board of Trustees meeting, we have identified a generous donor who will cover the cost for our Commencement speaker,” spokesman Mike Hines said in an email. “Valerie Jarrett is a role model for many of our graduating students as well as prospective students. We are pleased that she has agreed to be our Commencement speaker.”
When asked to elaborate on the donor or the timing, Hines said he didn’t “know the answers.”
Additionally, the university’s board last week approved an “expenditure recommendation” of $98,000 to executive search firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates to search for a new university president.
Asked for comment on that approval, the university said it couldn’t comment on the search for president or the $98,000 approval.
At the board meeting, faculty member Erick Howenstine spoke on behalf of 500 faculty members, arguing the university should postpone the national search for president until “the state appropriations have stabilized.”
And the university’s original plan to pay Jarrett was already raising concerns among lawmakers.
“I’m not certain that’s the best use of funds, especially when it’s public funds,” State Rep. Mark Batinick, R-Plainfield, a member of the Illinois House Appropriations — Higher Education Committee, said on Monday of payments for commencement speakers. “If it’s a private university, it’s one thing, but a public university that’s struggling, you would think someone would step up and graciously do the commencement.”
There have been legislative efforts to try to stop universities from paying commencement speakers. Last year, Rep. Reggie Phillips, R-Charleston, introduced a bill that would bar commencement payments at Illinois universities, noting speakers get paid from $30,000 to $50,000. Some Democrats called that a way of micromanaging public universities’ budgets. The measure, which he said would make sure the limited state dollars would go to directly to benefit student educations, died in the Illinois House after its third reading.
Northeastern last week said it is canceling three days of classes, implementing employee furloughs and closing all its campuses those days to cut costs as its state funding dries up. The Northwest Side university had already implemented a weeklong furlough program during spring break last month to save money on salaries affecting about 1,100 employees and 10,000 students.
Class cancellations are scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday and May 1. A union representing more than 500 faculty and academic staff planned to rally alongside students on Tuesday — in an attempt to blame university cuts on Gov. Bruce Rauner. Democratic gubernatorial candidates State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, and Chicago Ald. Ameya Pawar planned to attend.
A partial budget expired on Jan. 1, leaving state universities with little room to function. Employees have been laid off, furlough days have been forced and vendor payments delayed. Many students reliant on financial assistance are unable to pay their tuition.
The Illinois House last week approved a “lifeline” appropriations bill to help fund social service agencies and higher universities. The Illinois Senate may take up the measure when it reconvenes the last week of April.
Jarrett could not be reached for comment on Monday.