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WIU president’s “golden parachute” frustrates lawmakers

Thursday, Aug 29, 2019 - Posted by Rich Miller

* Center Square

Lawmakers said a recently enacted state law designed to limit severance packages for outgoing public university officials needs more teeth after questioning university officials this week.

The high-profile instance of former Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas getting two years of salary worth $570,000 to take a sabbatical and then come back to teach at the university for $200,000 a year drew ire from state Sen. Laura Murphy, D-Des Plaines, during a hearing Tuesday. […]

Murphy said she was upset Thomas was getting the equivalent of CEO pay to come back as a teacher despite a new law meant to limit severance pay to 20 weeks. […]

University officials said Thomas’ exit was a transition agreement, not a severance agreement. […]

“I believe that Dr. Thomas’ contract is grandfathered in,” [WIU General Counsel Elizabeth Duvall] said. “It was still an active contract when it was signed (in 2011) prior to some of the laws that you’re speaking to.”

* Public Radio

In recent years, the Illinois General Assembly passed two laws to limit that practice. Senate Bills 3064 and 2159 both were intended to curb a public employee’s ability to receive an unduly large severance package.

State Sen. Bill Cunningham (D, Chicago) helped negotiate both bills. He reiterated their intent during Tuesday’s hearing.

“That intent is, if for whatever reason — and the reason really isn’t all that important — a university decides they want to change their president, that they not offer him or her a golden parachute,” he said. […]

“I think [it] seems pretty clear to anybody who’s paid any attention to this that the Board of Trustees at Western Illinois University sought a way around that law,” he told a panel that included WIU. “If we can’t rely on the board of universities to follow the spirit of the law, maybe we need to figure out a different governing structure.”

The board did indeed get around prohibitions in the current law. So perhaps the law should be revised, but it won’t be easy to tie their hands like that.


  1. - don the legend - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 10:41 am:

    The legislature should reduce WIU appropriation (next year if not this year) by $770,000? At least as a way of expressing their collective angst.

  2. - JS Mill - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 10:46 am:

    I get their point, but what CEO is being paid $200,000? Jaimie Diamond makes hundreds of times that amount after almost breaking his bank.

  3. - Cubs in '16 - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 10:54 am:

    Thomas is given more to take a “sabbatical” than Quincy Vet. Home survivors are being offered. That pretty much sums it up here in IL.

  4. - State of DenIL - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 11:12 am:

    Whew! Jack Thomas is making CTU and AFSCME look like lightweights. Talk about “negotiation skills” /s

  5. - Anyone Remember - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 11:13 am:

    Before complaining about Golden Parachutes, commenters would do well to read the report at this link. Particularly the potential for a law suit.

  6. - Oswego Willy - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 11:14 am:

    ===“If we can’t rely on the board of universities to follow the spirit of the law, maybe we need to figure out a different governing structure.”===

    If you think folks aren’t looking at ways around laws, any and all laws, then you’ve never met a legal counsel.

  7. - Yiddishcowboy - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 11:29 am:

    I guess these GA members would’ve preferred WIU to spend (fill in the blank) times the amount Thomas is receiving to defend against a potential civil rights complaint (that could’ve continued on for years in litigation,thus generating more negative PR for the institution and exposure to liability). In the end, it doesn’t bother me too much what Thomas negotiated and is receiving. WIU obviously (hopefully) performed a cost-benefit analysis and determined it was cheaper (and less damaging PR-wise and monetarily) to provide this resolution than go another route.

  8. - Not a Billionaire - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 11:31 am:

    Springfield owns these places and needs to take direct control then.

  9. - downstateR - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 11:35 am:

    Not a Billionaire

    Like Quincy Veteran’s Home? /snark.

    No thanks.

  10. - Not a Billionaire - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 11:36 am:

    If the state took control of its assets.The attorney General with the full power of the state would have been defending against the suit not it’s impoverished university.

  11. - Not a Billionaire - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 11:50 am:

    I am just saying really that the state owns all these thing while some are classified as business like it is clear inn the financial statements that the state owns all these entities. That means Governors own along with the legislature.

  12. - downstateR - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 11:53 am:

    Not a Billionaire,

    I understand your point; I’m just not willing to abandon a quasi independent structure over one event. Not yet, anyway.

  13. - Yiddishcowboy - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 12:00 pm:

    @NAB: While you are likely correct that the AGO would’ve been defending WIU, the Assistant Attorneys General working the case don’t work for free ya know. Above all, depending on the statute(s) under which a complaint is filed, the prevailing party can request attorneys’ fees and costs. Then there’s the issue of the damages, actual and otherwise, that could be awarded. Just sayin’.

  14. - BigDoggie - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 12:03 pm:

    Sack the entire Board. Then in the future, colleges will think twice before trying to pull BS like this.

  15. - Illinoised - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 12:10 pm:

    Yiddishcowboy is correct. The alternative to the Golden Parachute would have been much more costly for WIU in terms of money and bad press. Their move was prudent.

  16. - Not a Billionaire - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 12:18 pm:

    Right understand both downstateR and Yiddish. I guess my core point is if the legislature wants to complain about this horrible situation they need to own it not just complain.
    As for firing the board it’s volunteer. I don’t see why anyone would want the headache.

  17. - Say What? - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 12:28 pm:

    The U of I has done this repeatedly with both Presidents and Chancellors. One was paid $500,000 annually to “teach” an online course the zero students enrolled in . . . . . .there are MANY similar examples at the flagship U.

  18. - Chris - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 1:22 pm:

    “what CEO is being paid $200,000? Jaimie Diamond makes hundreds of times that amount ”

    Jamie Dimon’s salary (not bonuses) is $1.5m for 2019. For running a company with 250,000 employees, and something close to 100 million customers.

    WIU has about 1,500 employees and 8,500 students.

    So, yes, given the difference in the size of the organizations, it is not unreasonable to call that “CEO pay”. I wouldn’t, but I’m not likely to use business people as an unflattering comparison to university leaders.

    Now, you want to compare coaches salaries, and the appropriateness of universities being in the sports-entertainment business, I could get into that. But it has almost nothing to do with the post subject.

  19. - major andre - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 1:27 pm:

    Can’t a university just hike tuition to cover these costs? Didnt the GA just increase MAP grant funding to help cover tuition hikes? All is well. What could possibly go wrong providing generational wealth to public employees in the midst of a higher education funding crisis?

  20. - Yiddishcowboy - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 1:33 pm:

    @NAB: So true. Good point re the GA complaining without more.

  21. - DoingHumanThings - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 2:22 pm:

    I’d also like to remind everyone that the old Board of Trustees were the ones who got WIU into this mess with Dr. Thomas. The new board (who were just appointed earlier this summer) had to very quickly figure out how to make things work without breaking the law or getting sued.

  22. - Yerp - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 2:26 pm:

    @Chris - re: coaches salaries…maybe at some schools, but at Western, the President and 3 VPs each make more than the head football coach, and a whole bunch of administrators and a decent number of faculty make more than either of the basketball coaches.

  23. - Anonanonsir - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 5:18 pm:

    ==“If we can’t rely on the board of universities to follow the spirit of the law, maybe we need to figure out a different governing structure.”==

    Kinda reminds me of JB’s comment from a few months ago:
    “Our university presidents know where efficiencies can be brought and where they’re underfunded,” Pritzker said.

    Expect university administrators and boards to police themselves. Brilliant.

  24. - Flapdoodle - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 6:56 pm:

    Interesting how simple issues like this seem when viewed from the bleacher seats.

    A previous BOT bolluxed Dr. Thomas’s performance review, giving him a raise and extension despite a faculty no confidence vote and a strongly negative faculty review of his performance (the average scores are an open secret on campus, but they are a personnel matter and shouldn’t be discussed publicly). The same BOT
    violated OMA by trying to cover up Dr. Thomas’s implementation of personnel and program cuts without following contractually stipulated procedures, with the BOT chair resigning in some disgrace and at least one trustee openly admitting that both the BOT and Dr. Thomas were trying to accommodate then-Governor Rauner’s wishes.

    As WIU’s administrative, financial, and enrollment problems became more widely known, Governor Pritzker removed all members of the existing BOT and began appointing new ones. When it became apparent that nominees to the new BOT were inclined to hold Dr. Thomas accountable for shortcomings in his job performance, a member of the previous BOT (who had resigned because of a conflict of interest) released emails between a distinguished emeritus faculty member and a newly nominated trustee, accompanied by insinuations that there was a race-based conspiracy against Dr. Thomas. Governor Pritzker chose to withdraw that nomination and one other. Local business concern over the local economic effects of WIU’s difficulties, until then expressed mostly behind closed doors, finally broke into the open with the “Fire Jack” movement, which drew further accusations of racism.

    The so-called transition package negotiated by Dr. Thomas is unpalatable in the extreme, given the objective facts of his administrative performance. It was also about the only way WIU’s tangled affairs could begin to be sorted out and progress toward rebuilding be made.

    And progress is being made. Though WIU does not yet have a full BOT, Acting President Martin Abraham (originally hired as Provost) has actively reached out to town and gown constituencies and a more positive climate is emerging. Some ill-considered past decisions have been reversed, others postponed for additional study. Previously discouraged faculty members with whom I have spoken are now more hopeful. It will be a long road back, but people are beginning the journey.

  25. - Not Really Suprising - Friday, Aug 30, 19 @ 8:33 am:

    “BigDoggie - Thursday, Aug 29, 19 @ 12:03 pm:
    Sack the entire Board. Then in the future, colleges will think twice before trying to pull BS like this.”
    They actually did that once already. The entire Board was wiped “clean” since JB took office and 2 or 3 of the newly appointed Board members have already been replaced since then. So the old Board in its wisdom gave Thomas the contract that set the stage for this generous separation agreement and the new Board negotiated and approved the specifics. Not sure if that says more about that quality of Board members WIU is pulling or simply how badly the more recent Board wanted to get rid of Thomas while avoiding litigation.

  26. - a priori - Friday, Aug 30, 19 @ 12:22 pm:


    A summary of the faculty evaluations for every WIU president and provost since 2007 is publicly available. So there is no secret — open or otherwise — about those averages (or others) if you know where to look. The faculty committee that conducts the survey does a considerable amount of work to make sure it is done properly and is reviewed before it is made public. But let’s be clear, there is no secret about the evaluations.

  27. - Flapdoodle - Friday, Aug 30, 19 @ 2:20 pm:

    @ a priori 12:22 — Interesting, didn’t know that info was publicly available. As to the faculty committee that conducts the evaluation survey, my hat’s off to them for the fine job they do. By no means did I intend to suggest anything nefarious about the committee and its work.

    @NRS 8:33 — By the time the so-called “transition agreement” was finalized, the BOT du jour just wanted to move on without exposing WIU to an expensive lawsuit (which was just about guaranteed). When you have a tooth that badly infected, you pull it, and endure the short-term pain so you can get on with the healing.

Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.

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