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Local

NIU Board of Trustees sued over Baker's severance agreement

Matthew Apgar - mapgar@shawmedia.com
NIU President Douglas Baker fidgets with his glasses at a Board of Trustees meeting on Thursday, June 15, 2017 in the Board of Trustees room at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.  Baker announced his plans to step down as President effective June 30 to alleviate NIU from what Baker called a distraction caused by a report released from the Office of Executive Inspector General which found that Baker severely mismanaged funds.  Baker hired friend and state of Washington resident Ron Walters as a part-time employee with a salary of $425,041, making Walters the third highest paid employee of the college behind Baker and football coach Rod Carey.
Matthew Apgar - mapgar@shawmedia.com NIU President Douglas Baker fidgets with his glasses at a Board of Trustees meeting on Thursday, June 15, 2017 in the Board of Trustees room at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Baker announced his plans to step down as President effective June 30 to alleviate NIU from what Baker called a distraction caused by a report released from the Office of Executive Inspector General which found that Baker severely mismanaged funds. Baker hired friend and state of Washington resident Ron Walters as a part-time employee with a salary of $425,041, making Walters the third highest paid employee of the college behind Baker and football coach Rod Carey.

DeKALB – DeKalb County Board member Misty Haji-Sheikh has filed a lawsuit against Northern Illinois University's Board of Trustees, with the intent of voiding the severance agreement that would pay departing President Doug Baker about $600,000.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in DeKalb County Court, says the board violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act by failing to post an agenda that adequately described the item "Presidential Employment (review and approval)" during its June 15 meeting.

"The agenda did not describe the substance of any proposed changes to President Baker's contract," the lawsuit reads. "Nor did it specify what the subject of any employment review night be. Nor did it mention that the Board would appoint a new president, Dr. [Lisa] Freeman."

Freeman, the university's executive vice president was approved as interim president at this morning's meeting, but has said she won't pursue the permanent position.

The suit also says the board didn't follow its traditional meeting format, instead holding an open discussion of the agreement after a seven-hour-long closed session, thus preventing any public participation.

"... The Board's conduct strongly suggests that the Board intended to and took steps to vote on the severance agreement without any input whatsoever from the public," the lawsuit reads.

Gregory A. Brady, general counsel for the Board of Trustees, said that new amendments to NIU Law, which became effective at the start of the year, regarding final action of a president’s contract do not apply to Baker’s employment agreement, which started in 2013.

“[This] applies to final action by the board on the formation, renewal, extension or termination of presidential employment contracts that are entered into, amended, renewed or extended after January 1, 2017,” Brady said.

According to the lawsuit, Haji-Sheikh is requesting an injunction barring the implementation of the severance agreement, a declaration that the board violated the Open Meetings Act, a declaration that the severance agreement be null and void, and that the board refrain from future Open Meetings Act violations.

“From my layman’s reading of the raw, to me it seems they did not follow the law,” Haji-Sheikh said. “Therefore, as a good institution and an institution that I love, they need to be following the law just like all of us.”

Haji-Sheikh also stressed she is not seeking money from the university with the lawsuit.

The suit also says the Board of Trustees failed to provide Baker's annual performance review, and failed to factor it into his severance package.

Baker will step down Friday after the release of a report from the Office of the Executive Inspector General said he mismanaged the university by hiring several highly paid consultants and improperly classifying their employment to skirt state comptetive bidding requirements for the positions.

His severance agreement, which some have dubbed to be a "golden parachute" for the departing president, includes a full year's salary of $450,000, plus applicable benefits, and $137,000 to not serve as on the faculty of the College of Business. His contract had entitled him to work in the College of Business for $225,000 a year after his tenure as president.

He may also receive up to $30,000 for "reasonable expenses," according to the transitional agreement.

Haji-Sheikh is taking graduate classes at NIU, and her husband, Michael Haji-Sheikh, is an NIU associate professor of electrical engineering who has been outspoken about his opposition to Baker.

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