How to curb Illinois university scandals

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Illinois has nine separate boards overseeing 12 state-owned universities. That’s nine separate fiefdoms. And nine chances for leaders at those institutions to skirt ethics requirements the way outgoing Northern Illinois University President Doug Baker and three other administrators allegedly did.

Maybe you missed what happened recently at NIU. In a capsule: The president of one of Illinois’ top universities is resigning in disgrace because of allegations of serious mismanagement of taxpayer funds. NIU spent more than $1 million and ignored competitive bidding laws to improperly hire five consultants, pay for their travel and lodging expenses, and keep them on staff for too long at exorbitant pay levels, a state inspector general’s report concludes.

The report lands while Baker and his fellow college administrators plead with lawmakers in Springfield to send them more money — and warn of dire consequences if they don’t.

How rich is that.

Baker, who has denied wrongdoing, steps down at the end of June. He’ll collect a six-figure severance on his way out the door.

This editorial isn’t about what Baker and his administrators did or didn’t do. Or about Illinois lawmakers’ abysmal failure to pass a budget and fund the state’s university system.

It’s about Illinois’ opportunity to demolish this state’s Balkanized higher ed bureaucracy and replace it with a streamlined system geared to stronger oversight and designed to boost student learning.

NIU President Douglas Baker

That’s what Illinois had before 1995, when the legislature dismantled what was known as the “system of systems” — four governing boards representing 12 universities — and created more boards to allow greater local control. In the ensuing ego-fest, these boards think not in terms of higher-ed needs statewide, but in terms of growing Local U.

Now it’s time to go back to the future: Make schools accountable to centralized oversight. Streamline procurement and other business operations. Then funnel a larger chunk of cash into classrooms and labs.

“A common refrain heard from stakeholders involved in Illinois higher education is that the higher education system no longer has the capacity to plan initiatives and address big-picture issues,” concludes a 2017 report from Lumina Foundation’s Strategy Labs. “Instead, its decentralized nature following restructuring in 1995 has been blamed for limited accountability and a lack of coordination among campuses.”

The think tank wisely recommends that Illinois develop a Big Picture strategy to better target scarce resources to meet state and regional needs.

No, tighter controls and more oversight won’t curb all abuses. But university presidents and their minions might think twice about, say, doling out huge salaries to consultants if they knew the green eyeshades at a statewide oversight office were peering over their shoulders.

This isn’t just about money. Gov. Bruce Rauner has suggested that Illinois rethink which degrees schools offer, scrub out redundancies and focus resources where students will get the best value for their tuition dollar. Let individual schools build expertise in a few fields, not compete with one another for students in every field.

As we’ve said before, there’s a strong model across the border: Wisconsin’s single, centrally overseen and multi-tiered system of 26 campuses offering 250 majors. Other systems, including New York’s, also could provide lessons for Illinois lawmakers seeking to rebuild Illinois public college system.

Yes, schools need money. And no, the legislature hasn’t done its part. But eventually, money will flow … into the same sprawling and haphazard system that allowed Chicago State University to register an 11 percent graduation rate without raising a statewide howl. That allowed the NIU scandal … and the scandal that will surely follow.

Lawmakers, start to fix this broken system now.

Join the discussion on Twitter @Trib_Ed_Board and on Facebook.

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June 22, 2017 at 03:27PM

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How to curb Illinois university scandals

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