EDITORIAL: Another golden parachute for a university president floats right past new law

State college and university trustees must be cautious in how they spend public money when top administrators walk out the door.

SHARE EDITORIAL: Another golden parachute for a university president floats right past new law
Former Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas, right, who stepped down on Sunday talks with then-WIU President Al Goldfarb in 2011.

Former Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas, right, in 2011.

AP File Photo/The Dispatch, Paul Colletti

The problem with golden parachutes in the public sector is that the employee gets the gold and you, the taxpayer, get the hard landing.

Time after time in recent years, top officials in the world of public education have been handed hefty payouts, for no reason that we can see, as they have walked out the door. Even when they’re being pushed out.

We’d hoped we’d seen the last of that when, earlier this year, the state Legislature and governor enacted the Government Severance Pay Act. It limits parachutes to 20 weeks of an employee’s salary. It also requires that school and university contracts spell out that there is no severance if the employee is fired for misconduct.

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But the law covers only new contracts, and it didn’t kick in at Western Illinois University on Sunday when Jack Thomas stepped down as president. Thomas is to be paid his usual $270,528 annual salary, plus benefits, for two years while he is on leave.

After that, he can return as a professor with a salary significantly higher than any other faculty member on campus while teaching just two classes a year.

And while on leave, collecting his full salary, Thomas is free to work other jobs to puff up his income by as much as $350,000 more a year.

That’s a terrific deal — way too terrific — for the outgoing president of a public university that has suffered greatly from falling enrollments, furloughs and layoffs. Last fall, Western’s enrollment was 8,502, a drop of more than 37 percent from 13,602 students in 2006. Three months ago, the university laid off 132 employees.

Unlike many other cases of questionably generous payouts, Thomas was not accused of mismanagement. But his golden parachute follows a pattern in Illinois in which top educational administrators are rewarded with severance deals all out of proportion with their objective performance.

  • In 2012, former Chicago Public Schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard, whose tenure coincided with the city’s first teachers’ strike in 20 years, walked away with a $291,662 payout well before his two-year contract expired.
  • In 2015, former Illinois State University President Timothy Flanagan was paid at least $480,418 to leave after serving just 10 months as president.
  • In 2016, Robert Breuder got a $763,000 severance package after being booted as the president of the College of DuPage.
  • In 2016, Thomas Calhoun Jr., got a $600,000 severance package after just nine months as president of Chicago State University.
  • In 2016, Phyllis Wise, then chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was set to get a $400,000 payout and a tenured professorship at $300,000 a year in exchange for stepping down. The offer was rescinded when the media caught on to it.
  • In 2017, Northern Illinois University gave its president, Doug Baker, a severance package worth more than $600,000, though he was resigning over a scandal involving misspent funds.
  • In 2018, Randy Dunn was paid $215,000 in severance and offered a position as a visiting professor, at an annual salary of $100,000, after stepping down as president of Southern Illinois University.

Maybe we’ll see less of this nonsense as the new Government Severance Pay Act kicks in.

But, as we’re seeing again at WIU, there is something about academia that loathes fiscal responsibility.


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