Akst: More tarnish for a sterling school

A Daily Chronicle story Tuesday about Northern Illinois University police officers working under new (perhaps temporary) leadership at both departmental and university levels was upbeat.

“We’re off to a good start in the right direction,” said Bill Nicklas, NIU associate vice president for institutional planning and sustainability, speaking also as the new, temporary, acting director of public safety at NIU.

“What I saw [Monday] morning was positive.”

It’s too soon to declare a bright new day at NIU.

In fact, one of the most convoluted local stories in recent memory (which is why it’s drawing such negative attention) reveals only one conclusion thus far: NIU’s reputation has suffered again.

Here’s a condensed sequence of events:

Oct. 28, 2011: NIU police officer Andrew Rifkin is fired after an NIU student tells university police that Rifkin had sexually assaulted her two weeks earlier.

Rifkin was charged with felony sexual assault the next month.

Nov. 2, 2012: Robbin Stuckert, DeKalb County presiding judge, ruled that NIU police intentionally withheld witness statements favorable to Rifkin.

Rifkin’s lawyer said the case should be dismissed because police didn’t share witness statements (saying the woman said sex with Rifkin was consensual) with prosecutors.

Nov. 5: Clay Campbell, DeKalb County state’s attorney, said he asked the Illinois State Police to investigate the NIU police.

Because Campbell faced re-election the next day (he lost), some claimed his request was politically motivated.

Nov. 8: 13 NIU police sergeants publicly defend Lt. Kartik Ramakrishnan, the officer who mishandled witness statements (placing them in Rifkin’s private personnel file rather than an investigative file).

The sergeants said Ramakrishnan passed a polygraph test showing the mishandling was a mistake, not intent to hide evidence.

The sergeants also said NIU Police Chief Don Grady has “incontrovertible integrity and commitment.”

Nov. 9: NIU appoints Nicklas temporary acting director of public safety. Nicklas reports directly to NIU President John G. Peters.

Saturday: Nicklas places Grady on paid administrative leave pending an investigation and announces NIU’s intent to fire Ramakrishnan.

Here are some questions we need to see more fully and publicly addressed.

Why wasn’t every document in this case – no matter what file it was in – sent to the state’s attorney?

Perhaps a rhetorical question, but incontrovertible integrity or not, how long will NIU maintain that Grady’s stormy tenure is worth $206,000 a year?

Salary.com (based on HR data this month) says the median expected salary for a typical U.S. sheriff or police chief is $96,462.

A Nov. 9 NIU Today article said Eddie Williams, chief of operations and executive vice president of Finance & Facilities, recommended the temporary restructuring of public safety reporting to Nicklas to Peters to “provide a more direct and concerted management focus of the Department of Police and Public Safety during this interim period.”

The NIU police previously reported directly to Williams.

Why does he now think he shouldn’t oversee the police department? What does “direct and concerted management focus” mean?

The last item on my list isn’t a question, but here goes: It’s a running joke on campus that every time the “castle crowd” tweaks the organizational chart, administrators (already the highest paid people at NIU) get paid more money.

That needs to stop.

Nobody is laughing.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern
Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com.

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