Cash-strapped Northeastern Illinois University — which came under fire for agreeing to pay former Obama White House adviser Valerie Jarrett a fat fee to speak at graduation in May — has paid more than $260,000 to 28 other speakers since 2005, records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show.
Most of that’s come out of taxpayer funds that support the state university on Chicago’s North Side, which cut short its school year and recently announced it would lay off 180 employees because of the state budget crunch.
The university’s interim president had agreed to pay Jarrett $30,000 to speak at commencement. After the Sun-Times reported that, the longtime top aide to former President Barack Obama agreed to forego most of the fee — keeping $1,500 she said was to cover her expenses.
The university had paid a total of $46,000 to other commencement speakers in the past five years, even as other state universities declined to pay fees to graduation speakers, the Sun-Times reported in April.
The newly obtained records show Northeastern has spent far more than that to lure high-profile speakers to speak at other times during the school year since 2005 — a total of $262,172.86.
The highest-paid? The married political consultants Mary Matalin and James Carville, who together got $82,000 to speak at Northeastern’s main campus on North St. Louis Avenue in February.
That event was paid for out of a fund created with a donation to the university in 2014 by a wealthy alumnus. The expenses to bring other speakers to the university, though, were charged to NEIU or the university’s foundation, the records show.
Northeastern is grappling with financial problems that prompted Moody’s Investors Service, the Wall Street bond-rating agency, to downgrade the state school’s bond rating on June 9 two notches deeper in “junk” status — making it costlier to borrow money. Northeastern now has the second-lowest credit rating of any state university in Illinois, behind only Eastern Illinois.
Northeastern decided to lay staff off this summer after taking other cost-cutting measures that included cancelling three days of classes and ordering a weeklong, unpaid furlough during spring break for its employees.
Announcing the layoffs last month, Richard Helldobler, Northeastern’s interim president, blamed the cutbacks on “financial starvation from Springfield.”
In internal emails obtained by the Sun-Times, Helldobler and one Northeastern trustee acknowledged the Jarrett revelation wouldn’t help.
“I am sensitive that some of you were concerned about the optics of the cost of Ms. Jarrett’s speaking fee given the state’s budget crisis,” Helldobler wrote to the university’s trustees on April 10. “While I remain committed to giving our students a quality commencement experience befitting their special day, I wanted you to know I heard your concerns.”
Helldobler had hired Jarrett and agreed to her fee without notifying trustees, records show.
One Northeastern trustee, George Vukotich, responded to Helldobler’s email two hours later, saying the deal with Jarrett hurt his chances for getting the “interim” tag removed from his title. Helldobler was chosen last July as interim president, and his contract expires next March 31.
Amid the controversy over Jarrett’s contract, Northeastern board agreed to spend nearly $100,000 for an executive search firm to seek a new president.
“I know it was in your rights to make the decision without consulting the board, but I think the challenge was that one of the reasons individuals were asking for your regular appointment and to skip the search was to save money,” Vukotich wrote April 10 to Helldobler and fellow trustees. “When it came out what Mrs. Jarrett was being paid it did not go over well and weakened that argument.”
Asked about the emails after a board meeting earlier this month, Helldobler declined to comment.
Vukotich says he felt that Jarrett — a lawyer who formerly was a Daley administration official and CEO of the real estate and development company the Habitat Company — is wealthy enough that she “did not need to charge.
“Some individuals thought we should get whatever speakers we could,” Vukotich says. “Others thought we should save money, given the situation” with the university’s finances.
According to emails written by Helldobler, Daniel L. Goodwin, a Northeastern alum who’s an Oak Brook real estate executive, agreed to let Jarrett’s speaker’s fee come out of a $300,000 fund that he established in 2014 for speakers to be brought to the school. The payments to Carville and Matalin earlier this year are the only expenditures to date from that fund.
Records show Goodwin agreed to allow his earlier donation to also be used to pay Jarrett after Helldobler directed an aide to approach him with that request.
“Tell them it will be better for Ms. Jarrett from a public relations standpoint,” Helldobler wrote in an email. “The media is all over the price given the state budget crisis. If we can say we pay it with private funds will be best.”
Goodwin wasn’t available to comment, according to a spokeswoman for his company.
In addition to Carville and Matalin, NEIU records show another 26 speakers were paid a total of more than $185,000 over the past 12 years. In 18 cases, the money came from university funds, the school’s foundation paid three other speakers, and Northeastern officials say they could not find records of funding sources for speaker fees prior to 2007.
Asked about the money spent on speakers, Michael Hines, a Northeastern spokesman, says, “These public speaking engagements allow the university to fulfill its mission and demonstrate its commitment to its communities.”
They frequently were presented as being part of Northeastern’s “Presidential Lecture Series.”
One speaker, Chicago journalist Bill Kurtis, who appeared at Northeastern in 2014, had the university donate his $500 fee to a charity, the Children’s Hunger Fund.
Under most of the contracts, the university also agreed to pay for airfare, ground transportation in Chicago and hotel accommodations.
In a couple of cases, Northeastern agreed to cover first-class airfare, including for author Michael Cunningham, who also received a $12,500 speaker’s fee to come from New York to Northeastern in 2006. University officials say they could not locate records to show how much taxpayers had to pay to cover travel expenses in those cases.
WHAT SCHOOL PAID SPEAKERS
• Teresa Woodruff, Northwestern University Women’s Health Research Institute director — $4,000, April 13, 2017
• Falguni Sheth, Emory University professor — $500, Feb. 9, 2017
• James Carville, Mary Matalin, political consultants / TV analysts — $82,500, Feb. 2, 2017
• Kunal Mehta, entrepreneur/author — $3,500, Feb. 4, 2016
• Karen Lewis, Chicago Teachers Union president — $1,000, Jan. 21, 2016
• Omar Yamini, author $1,500, Oct. 24, 2014
• Will Allen, urban farmer/author — $10,000, Oct. 21, 2014
• Bill Kurtis, journalist — $500 (to charity), Oct. 17, 2014
• Carlos Alberto Torres, UCLA professor — $5,151.36, Oct. 14, 2014
• Mary Gaitskill, novelist — $3,500, March 27, 2014
• Rebecca Skloot, author — $15,000, Oct. 29, 2013
• Jose Hernandez, former astronaut — $9.171.50, Oct. 24, 2013
• Kwame Dawes, poet/actor — $2,500, April 11, 2013
• George Everly Jr., co-founder, International Critical Incident Stress Foundation — $5,000, Nov. 3, 2011
• Jane McGonigal, game designer — $10,000, Oct. 27, 2011
• Reza Deghati, photojournalist — $5,000, March 10, 2011
• Ken Auletta, media critic, The New Yorker — $13,500, Oct. 28, 2010
• Dolores Huerta, labor leader/activist — $6,000, April 23, 2009
• Ana Castillo, novelist — $10,000, Oct. 7, 2008
• Claire Messud, novelist — $7,850, Sept. 27, 2007
• Charles Rosen, pianist— $7,000, April 12, 2007
• Michael Cunningham, novelist — $12,500, Oct. 11, 2006
• Khaled Hosseini, novelist — $5,000, Oct. 25, 2005
• Jane Goodall, primatologist/author — $17,500, Sept. 9, 2005
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