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Editorial: If laws can't end buyouts like WIU's, boards must

Editorial: If laws can't end buyouts like WIU's, boards must

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Western Illinois University got a well-deserved blistering from a panel of Illinois senators over the huge payoff its governing board awarded ex-President Jack Thomas in June.

Members of the Senate Higher Education Committee, meeting in Chicago last week, called the buyout a "golden parachute" and an "appalling" abuse of public funds that violates the spirit of a year-old state law aimed at ending the costly practice.

For our money, those who drafted this bad deal and the WIU board members who approved it got off too easy for what Sen. Laura Murphy, D-Des Plaines, the panel's vice chair, appropriately called a "gross misuse of taxpayer dollars” during an interview with reporter Graham Ambrose.

It was not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless, that WIU General Counsel Elizabeth Duvall offered a spirited defense of what she characterized as a transition package rather than a severance package crafted for Thomas, whom she said wasn't actually fired. She's correct. He resigned as president, but remains on the university's payroll.

But that's a distinction without a significant difference when it comes to what this bad deal will cost taxpayers in the long and short run. Still, the difference was apparently enough to allow WIU trustees to get around the government Severance Pay Act lawmakers passed in 2018 to block public employees from receiving excessive severance packages.

Duvall also argued that new law didn't apply to the Thomas contract since it was inked in May 2011, so the hefty severance package was grandfathered in. But as Murphy noted, this deal was “still wrong” whatever it's called and whenever it was made.

The Thomas buyout was especially eye-popping. Platinum parachute might be a better description for a deal that boggles the mind given that it was awarded by trustees struggling to grow declining enrollment and to recover from a crippling state budget stalemate.

Consider that the ex-president who presided over WIU during the biggest enrollment decline in its history will return as a faculty member with few responsibilities — he's required to teach one class per semester — at a generous salary after he completes an equally generously paid sabbatical. In all, Thomas is guaranteed to make more than a million dollars in about three and a half years.

“The whole concept of hiring someone who was underperforming doesn’t make any sense to me,” Murphy said, “Where do you see a CEO of any company in this country come back as a manager?”

She has a point. The corporate world is famous for handing out golden parachutes, but there's usually an understanding that the old leader will be gone once the check is signed.

Unfortunately, Illinois higher-education institutions have a long history of making bad decisions that cost taxpayers their hard-earned dollars and rob colleges and universities of scarce education dollars better spent elsewhere. 

That's why Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago,  worked to negotiate the 2018 bills he said were supposed to end such buyouts. But Thomas's platinum parachute underscores just how hard it is to write laws that can effectively restrict generous severance payouts when boards and government bodies are intent on handing them out.

We applaud senators for trying, again, in a quest that has so far proven impossible. But we suspect that costly exit packages will be eliminated only when government bodies, including university and community college boards, put taxpayers and the institutions they serve first, and refuse to make such terrible deals.


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