By Shane Nicholson
DeKALB — The Northern Illinois University Board of Trustees will vote Thursday on a contested $600,000 severance package for former university President Doug Baker.
Last month, DeKalb County Judge Bradley Waller threw out the payment to Baker, saying the board did not appropriately notify the public of the terms in the package. A notice before the board meeting described the agenda item as “Presidential Employment – Review and Approval,” which Waller said was too vague.
“No ordinary citizen could possibly have had any reasonable expectation that he or she knew that the agenda item discussion was to focus on anything more than a review and approval of the president,” Waller said.
Baker’s severance comes on the back of his departure from NIU following a damning state investigation into hiring and payroll practices under his watch. In May, an Office of Executive Inspector General (OEIG) investigation found Baker’s administration had repeatedly circumvented state laws to hire and reward friends and former coworkers with positions at NIU.
Baker defended his actions repeatedly in interviews and in blog posts to the NIU website. But the OEIG stood behind its findings that Baker had “mismanaged Northern Illinois University by allowing the improper hiring of individuals.”
The severance was first awarded in June after a closed-door meeting of the NIU trustees. The $600,000 was paid in full July 15, the school said.
However, DeKalb resident Misty Haji-Sheikh filed to halt the payment after the backroom deal was revealed.
“I’m a little sad that we had to go this far, because NIU was told that all the board had to do was retake the vote and this would never have gone to court,” Haji-Sheikh told WNIJ. “And so I’m sorry for the fees and the problems that this has caused, but it wasn’t up to me to take this to court when they had an option of taking a vote.”
NIU officials claim the board followed state law and the university’s own guidelines. They say voiding the severance agreement could open up the school to lawsuits over breach of contract.
Baker’s patronage hires cost the school hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries and compensation. In addition, a $470,000 investigation commissioned by Baker in 2014, meant to stem the tide of queries into his administration’s practices, yielded only an oral report of “recommendations for improved reliability of financial reporting and compliance with laws, regulations and policies.”
The firm retained by Baker to complete the investigation is party to a lawsuit filed by the university’s former controller, claiming Baker targeted for termination employees who questioned the president’s hiring practices.
The NIU Board of Trustees received the OEIG report in August 2016, nearly 10 months before the report became public. State investigators said NIU administrators had “committed a pattern of circumventing procurement requirements and violating employment policies and rules” after Baker took office in 2013, in “an effort to meet President Baker’s directives to select high-paid consultants (one of whom was a friend), and pay for travel and lodging, without restrictions.”
The board will vote at Thursday’s meeting on whether to confirm the severance payment. A status hearing in the case in DeKalb County is set for Friday. R.