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Opinion

Our view: Northern Illinois University needs new, open leaders

It's clear now why Northern Illinois University officials fought to keep a state agency report into its hiring practices a secret for months.

The Office of the Executive Inspector General's report clearly shows the steps school officials – under the direction of President Doug Baker – took to circumvent state law requiring competitive bidding.

The many employees, students and other community members who depend on NIU are tired of this administrative secrecy and excess. Baker's contract should not be renewed.

Baker wanted to hire his friend, Washington-based consultant Ron Walters, and he didn't want to be bothered with things like state laws that required competitive bidding for what Walters would earn. It turned out to be more than $460,000 over 18 months.

NIU staff hit upon what they thought was a good solution to get around the sometimes cumbersome state procurement code – hire Walters as an "affiliate employee." This designation, meant for instructors teaching non-credit, off-campus classes a few hours a week, paid no benefits but didn't require competitive bidding.

Once they used it to hire Walters, NIU officials – including Baker – did it again and again, making some of the university's highest-paid employees "affiliates." It finally reached the point that one person who had a consulting contract was "hired" as an affiliate employee "just to get him paid."

In all, "affiliate employees" were paid more than $1 million, and received inappropriate free lodging on campus and reimbursement for expenses, without ever having to submit to a competitive bid process. None of them ever taught a single class.

The inspector general office, properly, found Baker guilty of mismanagement.

The university paid almost $190,000 for legal representation of Baker in the probe.

Baker's response: The report is wrong. The violations of the rules were unintentional. He got bad advice from staff – conveniently, those no longer working at NIU.

Meanwhile, the NIU Board of Trustees – which kept this report under wraps for more than 10 months, in defiance of Freedom of Information Act requests – tells us that everything is fixed. Problem solved. Nothing to see here.

Nonsense. Everything won't be fixed until this tailspinning institution has some new, truly transparent leadership.

Baker's response to the report – passionate protests aside – suggests he was either inattentive, willfully ignorant, or not entirely truthful.

Baker’s claim that he didn’t know the school was paying a “consultant” more than $100,000 and allowing him to live in an on-campus dorm rent-free for more than a year is either a gross oversight or not true.

Our take from the state investigative report years in the making is that Baker and Walters were at the epicenter of power at NIU for more than a year, with others asked to make their desires reality.

On Walters' recommendation, the university hired Nancy Suttenfield as chief financial officer – again as an affiliate employee – paying her more than $425,000 over 15 months. The fee for the headhunting agency that found Suttenfield was more than $60,000, again too high, and should have been run through a competitive bidding process. To get around that, the school used money from the NIU Foundation.

What did the school get from these backdoor hires? As much scandal as progress. Huge sums were spent without any competition, which usually leads to waste – and today the school bemoans that it needs more state funding.

NIU was and is in the midst of a difficult period in its history. It needs leaders to be committed to transparency and following the rules, not those prone to excess and secrecy. 

Baker should go when his contract expires in 2018, if not sooner.

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