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DeKalb Times

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Embattled NIU president beset by calls for possible ouster

Business

By Michael McGrady | Jun 13, 2017

Baker
Douglas Baker

Government watchdogs, legislators and the media are questioning the continued tenure of Northern Illinois University's president in the wake of an investigation that determined he had mismanaged the university.

The Illinois Office of the Executive Inspector General (OEIG) report says Doug Baker and his staff got NIU to pay five improperly hired contractors more than $1 million after identifying them as part-time instructors.

Faisal Khan, the CEO and president of the government oversight group Project Six and former legislative inspector general for the Chicago City Council, told the DeKalb Times that there is no defending Baker's actions.

“It is obviously troubling when a university that is funded by both taxpayer dollars and student dollars decides to circumvent rules that have been in place for a long time,” Khan said. “The people that circumvent these very rules are in charge of the university, like President Baker is. To that fact, it isn’t just disappointing. I just hope that there will be some type of accountability for this conduct. Again, these are students' dollars that are being wasted here, and students can’t afford it. It is as simple as that.”

Rep. Bob Pritchard (R-Hinckley) called the report damning.

“The OEIG investigation stands on its own merits,” he said, but added that oversight appears to now be in place.

“The board of trustees is much more engaged than when these issues took place and continues to evaluate and oversee the university management,” he said.

Sen. Dave Syverson (R-Rockford) was also contacted for comment but said Pritchard’s comments would reflect his own.

Eleni Demertzis, a spokesperson for Gov. Bruce Rauner, described the report as troubling.

“We are deeply concerned regarding the findings of this report,” she said in an email. “At this time, we are currently reviewing the findings to determine further action.”

An OEIG spokesperson also declined to comment.

According to the report, Baker ordered staffers to improperly classify several consulting positions in order to circumvent state regulations surrounding competitive bidding. Three administrators who worked for Baker also committed improprieties, violating ethics rules for hiring consultants, the report said.

The university was also found to have spent several thousands of dollars on employee travel and lodging, which is not allowed.

Upon taking his position, Baker vowed to instill “ethically inspired leadership” during his tenure.

The OEIG’s report is just one of the recent troubles for NIU. The Edgar County Watchdogs contend that Freedom of Information Act requests show that a former financial officer ordered staff to delete emails to her to “protect themselves” from legal ramifications.   

The DeKalb Times attempted to contact Baker and NIU's board, but neither responded except via a press release.

“As President of the University, I take full responsibility for these compliance errors,” Baker said in a letter to Chad Fornoff, the executive director of the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission, according to the release. “However, the report fails to recognize that my decision-making was made in good faith reliance on recommendations by senior staff from the operations, legal and human resources functions, and that I maintained an open communication line with the Board of Trustees with regard to my intention to address the then-present operational concerns with the assistance of qualified professionals with the requisite strategic skills to provide such assistance.”

Baker also argued that he disagrees with the findings of the report and wants a “correction."

Trustees received the full report in 2016. The OEIG report released to the media in May 2017 is redacted in part.

The editorial boards of the Chicago Sun-Times and the DeKalb Daily Chronicle have called on Baker to step down and asked that the board install a new leader who offers more transparency.

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