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Report Finds Mismanagement And Misuse In NIU Consultant Hirings

Susan Stephens
NIU's Altgeld Hall

Northern Illinois University President Doug Baker “mismanaged NIU in relation to the improper hiring of several individuals” between June 2013 and June 2015, according to an August 2016 report by the Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General (OEIG) made public today.  

The report, delivered to the NIU Board of Trustees in August 2016, specifically examined the hiring of Ron Walters, Nancy Suttenfield, Ken Wilson, Magaly Rodriguez, and William Pfeiffer as “affiliate employees,” a classification intended for short-term employees whose duties normally would include teaching.

The report also found that:

  • Steven Cunningham, former NIU Acting Vice President for Administration and Director of Human Resources, misused the affiliate employee classification for the appointment and hiring of Walters and Suttenfield.
  • Celeste Latham, Assistant Vice President for Human Resources, misused the affiliate employee classification with regard to the continued appointments of Wilson and Pfeiffer.
  • Executive Assistant Doris Hooker Day improperly used her NIU procurement card for an invalid business purpose when she paid for Rodriguez’s commuting expenses between November 2014 and January 2015, in violation of state and university procedures.

Under the state’s Procurement Code, consultants paid more than $20,000 -- or who are employed for more than a year -- must be hired through a competitive process.  

  • Walters was paid $463, 125 from June 16, 2013, to Dec. 31, 2014
  • Suttenfield was paid $425, 041 from Nov. 1, 2013, to Feb, 21, 2015
  •  Wilson was paid $135, 963 from Feb. 3, 2014, to June 30, 2015
  • Rodriguez was paid $85, 031 from May 16, 2014, to Jan. 31, 2015
  • William Pfeiffer was paid $23, 516 from May 16, 2014, to June 15, 2014.

None of these individuals was employed through the required procedure. The report characterized them as high-level consultants subject to the code and said NIU "repeatedly misclassified" them as affiliate employees to circumvent the code’s requirements.

Affiliate employees were traditionally part-time, short–term hires employed for academic purposes, such as teaching a class. The OEIG said those hired in this case were all full-time, and none taught or otherwise engaged in academic activities.  

The OEIG reported that there were nine individuals in total hired as affiliate employees whose compensation was more than the $20,000 limit. It said it elected to focus on the five highest-paid.

The OEIG also found NIU violated other state and university restrictions on compensation for travel and lodging expenses in dealing with the affiliated employees named in the report.

The OEIG report recommended that the NIU Board of Trustees take whatever action it deemed appropriate with regard to President Baker, and recommended counseling for Latham and Day. It made no recommendation for Cunningham, who had left the university and was no longer a state employee by the time the report was issued.

Both Day and Latham are still employed at NIU. Day is President Baker’s secretary. Latham is Assoc. Vice President for Administration and Human Resource Services. Cunningham is the Vice President for Administrative Services and Chief Financial Officer at the University of Western Florida.

Steven Cunningham’s attorney issued a response to the report that said his client “vehemently refutes and denies the allegations and findings against him,” and requested the OEIG remove the finding that he “misused” the affiliate employee designation, and any related allegations suggesting misconduct.

The OEIG did not recommend any further action and said it considered the case closed.

NIU said in a response attached to the report that it had already made a number of changes based on the findings, including eliminating the affiliated employee classification, resolution of the improper reimbursements for travel and lodging, counseling of Latham and Hooker, process improvements, and preparation of an updated Whistleblower Policy.

President Baker told WNIJ the moves show NIU is working to prevent something like this from happening again.

“We eliminated this rank that was of concern, the affiliate rank, and we re-emphasized the whistle-blower policy, so that if people do have any concerns, that it’s easy for them to blow the whistle and express their concerns in an easy way,” he said. 

President Baker also responded separately to the OEIG in a letter attached to the report. Baker said in the letter that as president he takes "full responsibility" for the “compliance errors.” But he “disagree(s) with any finding that directly or indirectly infers that as President of Northern Illinois University I instructed or implicitly gave general direction to University staff for the effect off disregarding legal requirements governing the hiring of certain employees or engagement of contractors.” Baker requested a “correction” regarding the report’s finding of mismanagement on his part.

Baker reiterated in a mass email to the NIU campus that he took responsibility for what happened and will prevent it from happening again.

Baker told WNIJ that  the improper handling of the employees's situations cited in the report  was not done on purpose. 

“I feel like those were the right steps and I’m disappointed that they felt like we did it in the wrong manner," he said, "but all of that was with good intent and I think actually helped lay the foundation for the institution so we that can weather this tough storm we’ve had from Springfield on the budget in the last couple of years.”

Baker's email included links to a response by NIU Board of Trustees Chair John Butler on behalf of the BOT to the report, and to a Questions and Answers document about the investigation.

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