The Board of Trustees of Northern Illinois University voted unanimously Thursday morning to re-approve a separation agreement with former university president Douglas Baker. The board action took place amidst ongoing criticism of how it conducted that process.
On Thursday, prior to the board vote, NIU trustee Charles Philbrick read a prepared statement from Misty Haji-Sheikh, the DeKalb County Board member who successfully sued the NIU board over its violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act (OMA). In deciding that case in November, a county judge ruled the NIU board’s vote to approve the payout to Baker “null and void.”
In her 549-word statement, Haji-Sheikh chastised the university board for alleged shortcomings, insisted that Baker should have been fired for mismanagement and not paid more than $600,000, and urged the board to be more open to citizens concern and criticisms.
Misty Haji-Sheikh said she spoke with the board on several occasions last spring prior to filing her lawsuit, but that, “I felt that my words fell on deaf ears.”
Haji-Sheikh said “many, many, people” reached out to her with concerns over the manner in which the NIU board was handling Baker’s termination. She said some of those people included NIU faculty, staff, students and administration, who did not go public for fear of retaliation.
She said she and many others believe that the NIU board should have required Baker to return the money from his separation agreement, saying that “anyone … found to have mismanaged one million dollars by the Office of Inspector General, should have been fired for cause.”
“I want for you to follow the law. I want you to listen to all of the people who reached out to me, when they didn’t feel they could come to you,” she said. “I want NIU to be the best it can be. That is why I came to you in the first place.”
Prior to calling for a vote on the issue Thursday morning, NIU board chair Wheeler Coleman responded to those criticisms, saying trustees had deliberated “reasonably and in good faith,” with a commitment to their fiduciary responsibility to the university. The board had, he said, complied “with all state laws and regulations and NIU policies,” and he insisted the board made its decision with the best interests of the school in mind.
“The challenging decisions we have to make as trustees will not always be well-received by everyone,” he said.
Coleman noted that while the judge did rule that the NIU board had violated the Open Meetings Act and that the separation agreement was voided, that judge also found the board had done nothing else wrong, ruling in the university’s favor on all other points in the case.
“The claims made against the Board during the litigation involved a variety of counts. In all but one of the court’s findings, the judge ruled in favor of the board,” he said. “Other than the judge’s limited finding that the board’s wording in the agenda item was not sufficient for the board to act on the Presidential Transition Agreement at its meeting on June 15, the judge found that the board complied with the Illinois Open Meetings Act.”
Coleman said the board’s decision also protected the university from needless expense and legal entanglement by arranging a clean break with a man who was a tenured professor.
Under the agreement, Coleman said, Baker “willingly gave up his contractual right to being a tenured faculty member in the College of Business at an annual salary of $225,000.”
“In theory, if he taught for five years, it would total $1.125 million and more than $2.5 million if he taught for 10 years,” Coleman noted. “Instead, he relinquished his tenured appointment for a significantly less amount.”
Coleman said the agreement also, and most importantly, precluded Baker from ever suing NIU, something he said would “divert critical time, money and attention of the University.”
“Under this agreement, Dr. Baker (will) not be able to file any future claims, for any reason, against NIU.”
The NIU board, Coleman concluded, would “continue to move forward and focus its attention on the long-term health and well-being of the University.”
—NIU board chair responds to critics of former president’s separation agreement–