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Our View: Separation agreements raise more questions

The separation agreements Northern Illinois University reached with two high-level administrators in July naturally leave the public with more questions than answers.

Why did the university find it more expedient to pay Associate Vice President of Finance and Facilities Robert Albanese and Convocation Center Director John Gordon to go away rather than get to the bottom of misconduct allegations against them?

What was going on at the Convocation Center and the Finance and Facilities Department that both had to go? Were public property or funds involved?

The university should provide answers to those questions. Instead, it has done everything it can to keep it quiet, leaving us to wonder.

When the two administrators left, the official line from NIU was they resigned for personal reasons. The timing was a coincidence.

The separation agreements Albanese and Gordon reached with the university read a little differently, though. It showed they had been placed on paid leave a day apart in mid-July, and both left the university July 31.

The agreements showed both faced “serious and substantial allegations of misconduct” that could result in their firing, but the university agreed to stop that administrative process.

The administrators received cash and benefits worth more than $80,000 combined, and the agreements also settled any and all claims either side might have against the other, for all time.

The agreements also explicitly stated neither side was to talk to anyone about university operations. The lawyers took care to include “news media” in that clause, too.

It appears “personal reasons” in this context meant “something embarrassing we’d like to sweep under the rug.” Speaking about the unnamed allegations, NIU Associate Vice President Steven Cunningham said there hadn’t been any finding they were true at the time the agreements were signed.

These types of severance agreements are fairly common in the private sector, where privately held companies have no obligation to publicize their finances, and divulging details about internal operations could harm the reputation of the business or give competitors an edge.

We understand the desire of administrators to protect NIU’s reputation, but a public institution such as NIU is different and must be accountable to the public.

This is the same department where Physical Plant employees, since 2005, deposited more than $13,000 in proceeds from selling scrap materials from university projects into an off-the-books account called the “coffee fund,” a situation university officials said will be investigated.

It’s also a department that handles large amounts of real property and public money during a time when a lot of big-ticket building and renovation projects have been under way to make things better for NIU students.

The questions surrounding the dismissals are legitimate, and given the circumstances, they merit answers.

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