State university officials were grilled by lawmakers Tuesday. At issue is a record of lucrative severance packages for outgoing administrators.
The questions came in response to the ouster of Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas. He resigned earlier this year, but is on paid leave and will even get to return to the school as an English professor, making either 75 percent of a future salary, or as much as $300,000 dollars per year.
It was all negotiated in his 2011 employment contract, which state Sen. Chapin Rose (R, Mahomet) calls a “golden parachute.”
“How does somebody go from being a president, making a large salary, go back to being a professor making the same salary?" he asked a panel of public university lawyers and trustees at a hearing in Chicago. "That, in my mind, is probably a slap in the face not just to the taxpayers that we’re all talking about here, but a slap in the face to the professors at Western."
State Sen. Laura Murphy (D, Des Plaines) grew frustrated with the panels as she questioned them.
“What a gross misuse of taxpayer-funded dollars. It’s appalling to me," she said.
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.
WIU will continue to pay Thomas' $270,528 salary and benefits package until 2021, when his paid leave term will expire.
General counsel Elizabeth Duvall told lawmakers the former president's contract was "grandfathered in," and is not applicable to the more recent state laws targeting golden parachutes.
She explained Western's Board of Trustees was put in a difficult spot during Thomas' ouster.
“They were just trying to make the best of the situation that they currently had at the time," she said.
Cunningham disagreed, and sparred with Duvall for a time during Tuesday's hearing. He believed WIU's board had purposely circumvented "the spirit" of what state lawmakers approved.
“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."
Sen. Rose said the larger issue at hand is a longstanding culture surrounding higher education administration officials.
“Professors become deans, deans become presidents, presidents retire, they go back to being professors,” he said. “The question is whether that model is still operative in today’s day and age.”