NIU president’s alleged ethical lapses too serious to overlook

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If a scorching report by a state ethics watchdog is correct, Doug Baker should no longer be president of Northern Illinois University.

According to the Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General, Baker and his subordinates deliberately skirted the rules to hire at least five highly paid consultants, one of whom was a friend of Baker’s. At least two of the individuals also were consultants at the University of Idaho during Baker’s tenure as provost at that school, where one of the consultants worked as “chief inspiration officer.”

EDITORIAL

Northern Illinois University’s Altgeld Hall. | Provided photo

Ignoring the rules of responsible money management is unconscionable at a time when public higher education is under fire in Illinois, struggling with stiff budget cuts and unpredictable state funding. Anything that smacks of misuse of scarce dollars gives ammunition to critics who say, wrongly, that public universities can easily tighten their belts without risking a reduction in quality.

The OEIG report, released Wednesday, said NIU officials paid over $1 million to five consultants over about two years while categorizing them as part-time “affiliate” instructors, positions usually involving short-term non-credit instruction — often off-campus — that don’t have to go through the competitive bidding process required by the Illinois Procurement Code.

Two of the consultants were among the highest-paid individuals at NIU. The university also improperly paid tens of thousands of dollars for travel and lodging for the consultants, who did no teaching, and NIU paid for all five workers to live on campus for free, the report said. Baker has denied the allegations.

“NIU has repeatedly misclassified high-level, highly paid consultants as affiliate employees, for the purpose of circumventing the Procurement Code’s requirements,” the OEIG report said. “ … [Baker] mismanaged Northern Illinois University by allowing the improper hiring of individuals into the affiliate position.”

NIU’s Board of Trustees, which has the final say on hiring or firing a president, seems inclined to sweep this under the rug, even though the OEIG report quotes Chairman John R. Butler saying he felt the accounting “was wrong on all levels.”

In a statement Tuesday, Butler pointed to “policy reforms” put in place during the investigation, which began in 2014. But no policy reform can satisfactorily address a deliberate decision — not an innocent oversight — by a university president to ignore the rules.

Perhaps the board might be leery of an expensive legal battle. But if the OEIG report is correct, the board needs to part ways with Butler without offering a cushy high-dollar buyout, as happened in recent years at Chicago State University, the College of DuPage and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Since Baker became president in 2013, NIU’s enrollment has continued a steady decline. Recently, the school announced layoffs and deferred maintenance in the face of an expected $35 million budget deficit. That makes spending nearly $190,000 for an outside lawyer to defend Baker during the OEIG probe all the more painful.

In a 2014 interview with the Sun-Times Editorial Board, Baker said “ethically inspired leadership” is one of the three pillars needed to support NIU student success. To hear the OEIG tell it, that pillar has crumbled.

If the OEIG is correct, NIU needs a new leader. It’s the trustees’ job to make that happen.

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June 2, 2017 at 06:41AM

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NIU president’s alleged ethical lapses too serious to overlook

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