With Northeastern Illinois University facing a worsening financial situation that soon led to unpaid furloughs, the cancellation of three school days and layoffs of 180 employees, the state college’s $294,500-a-year interim president headed to Washington in January to attend President Donald Trump’s inauguration — a nearly $4,500 trip.
Records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times show Richard Helldobler stayed four nights at the Grand Hyatt in a room that cost an average of more than $740 a night — $2,972.42 in all.
In addition, his round-trip airfare ran $459.70, three cab rides totaled $90.92, and Helldobler and another university official used two $475 tickets to the Inaugural Heartland Ball held by the Illinois State Society, a private group of people from Illinois now living in Washington that’s headed by former downstate U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller.
Altogether, the tab for Helldobler’s D.C. trip came to $4,473.04.
Also sent to Washington for the inaugural was Suleyma Perez, Northeastern’s executive director of government relations. Her tab: $3,309.33.
The bills were paid for by the Northeastern Illinois University Foundation, which is run by the university’s vice president of institutional advancement. The foundation raises money from private donors and spends it “to advance the interests and welfare of the university,” according to its mission statement.
To cover the costs of the Washington trip, Helldobler tapped “the president’s discretionary account” that the foundation maintains, records show.
Though the foundation might otherwise have spent the money on something that more directly met its stated aim of playing “a vital role in ensuring that the university remains highly affordable while retaining the highest academic standards,” Northeastern spokesman Michael Hines defends Helldobler’s and Perez’s trip to the Trump inauguration.
“This is private funds . . . not something that involves taxpayer money,” Hines says.
Asked why Helldobler went to the inauguration, Hines says many Northeastern students “were fearful and feeling marginalized” at the time, including Muslims, gay and transgender students and “Dreamers” — undocumented foreign nationals who came to this country as kids and were allowed to remain in the United States under former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.Hines says that, while in Washington, Helldobler “introduced himself to Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Sen. Mark Kirk, Rep. Danny Davis, Congresswoman Robin Kelly and state Sen. Mattie Hunter, and he used the opportunity to advocate for Northeastern’s students.”
Helldobler and Perez attended Trump’s inauguration with tickets from U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., according to Hines.
A couple of days after returning to Chicago, Helldobler again traveled to the nation’s capital. This trip — paid for with funds from the taxpayer-supported university — was for Helldobler to serve for two days as an interviewer for an American Council on Education fellowship program. It cost Northeastern $951.01.
The two excursions to Washington in January were among six out-of-state business trips Helldobler took in his first six months as interim president, records show.
Northeastern — which has put a freeze on spending, nearly drained its $40 million in reserves and now has the second-lowest credit rating of any public university in the state, behind only Eastern Illinois — paid a total of about $7,000 for the other trips besides the inauguration. That travel involved conferences between October and April for “professional development,” the records show, including:
• A $1,544 trip to Washington in April for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities’ National Capitol Forum on Hispanic Education.
• Another conference in Washington in March. The cost for that trip included $975 for registration, an $886.26 hotel bill and $359.90 for taxis, meals and other expenses.
• A trip to three cities in Texas in late February and early March that included a conference in Austin and a meeting to “network with an alum/donor.” Expenses included a $362.25 stay at a hotel in Austin, $461.39 for flights and other expenses of $472.28, mostly to rent a car to meet the alumnus. University officials say the American Council on Education reimbursed Northeastern for the hotel and part of the airfare.
• A $1,288.74 trip for a conference in San Antonio, Texas, in October.
Helldobler declined to be interviewed.
He’s been interim president since Oct. 1 under an 18-month contract to lead the university, which serves about 10,000 students at its main campus on North St. Louis Avenue on the city’s North Side and at four other sites.
Helldobler has blamed the just-ended state budget standoff for the financial problems at the school, which reported total undergraduate and graduate enrollment last fall of 9,500 full- and part-time students.
In a story June 29, The New York Times quoted him saying, “We’ve done as much as we can possibly do to manage what is really a politically manufactured budget crisis.”
He made a similar argument in a written statement provided through Hines, saying, “Through no fault of our own, Northeastern Illinois University has been starved of state funding, forcing me to make some painful decisions on furloughs and layoffs. I am acutely aware of the pain this has inflicted on individuals and families throughout the Northeastern community. As interim president, it is my duty to ensure that I do all I can to protect and preserve this community and to put it in the best position to recover and flourish when the state’s fiscal health stabilizes. That work requires face-to-face interactions with elected officials, alumni, donors and especially my fellow university leaders from across the country.”
Helldobler has been in the hot seat since the Sun-Times reported in April that the school had signed a deal to pay $30,000 to former Obama White House adviser Valerie Jarrett to speak at its spring commencement.
Though Jarrett originally was to be paid with taxpayer funds, records show Northeastern officials expressed concern about how that might look at a time of financial crisis. They got a rich alumnus to agree to let them pay Jarrett instead out of a donation he’d made to the university in 2014. But Jarrett then agreed to repay most of her fee, keeping $1,500 for travel expenses.
The Sun-Times reported a week ago that Northeastern has used a combination of taxpayer and university foundation funds to pay a total of more than $300,000 in fees to speakers for graduations and other events in recent years.
Northeastern’s trustees recently voted to hire a search firm to look for a new president, with one trustee saying reports about Jarrett’s appearance had hurt Helldobler’s efforts to avoid a search and be named to the post permanently.
In addition to his $294,500 salary, Helldobler gets a $35,000 a year stipend because “he agrees to use his personal residence periodically for ceremonial and entertainment purposes,” according to his contract.
If the university’s board replaces Helldobler before his contract runs out next March 31, it would have to pay him the full amount promised under the deal. He would be allowed to return to his former role as provost and vice president of academic affairs, which paid him $192,000 a year.