Today the Executive Ethics Commission (EEC) publicly released the final report of the Office of the Executive Inspector General (OEIG) regarding its nearly three-year investigation into the university’s use of the affiliate employment classification in 2013 and 2014. Until now, Illinois state law and the OEIG investigation process have required that this matter be confidential. As such, I have not been able to be as transparent as I would have preferred, but I am now able to directly address this issue.
First, by way of context, I want to reflect on the state of affairs when I arrived on campus in the spring of 2013. The FBI, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Education and the Illinois State Police had recently searched the NIU Police Department; seized computers and records; and were actively investigating the university.
The executive vice president and chief of operations in the former Division of Finance and Facilities had taken a leave of absence related to those investigations, and the leadership and oversight of the Department of Police and Public Safety had changed. We were also confronting significant strategic, structural and financial challenges related to student recruitment and retention, state support of public higher education and pension obligations.
Faced with those circumstances, and charged by the Board of Trustees to change the culture and direction of the university, there was a need to quickly engage outside experts skilled in culture change and financial management for an unbiased and comprehensive assessment.
As we filled those roles, I sought the expertise of senior staff, including the human resources and legal departments, to ensure we appropriately proceeded. I relied on the information I received and acted in good faith. At no time did I intend for myself, or any of my staff, to violate any polices or procedures. I sincerely believed that all decisions were in compliance with the applicable requirements.
The individuals hired made significant contributions to NIU, and helped lay a firm foundation upon which we have built these last few years.
In July 2014, we were notified through an OEIG complaint that there were concerns over hiring five individuals as affiliate employees. Once aware of this, I worked with the board to seek clarity and make corrections. Upon consideration and review, we took decisive action to revise policies related to hiring and compensation, eliminated the affiliate classification, and took steps to correct travel and housing expenses that were deemed inappropriate under applicable requirements. We also took steps to strengthen our whistleblower policy, and made it more visible so that it is easier to bring forward concerns if people have them.
Separate from these efforts, the OEIG began its own investigation approximately three years ago. Its final report was presented to the NIU Board of Trustees in August 2016. They concluded that internal university policy in the application of the affiliate classification, as well as the Higher Education Travel Regulations and University P-Card Policies and Procedures, had not been followed. They recommended that the board take appropriate action with the president on resolution and for two employees to receive counseling. At no time did the OEIG recommend suspension, dismissal or fining any party involved. Ultimately, the board felt that the corrective measures relating to policy, process and training personnel taken throughout the previous two years were suitable.
I concur with the report’s findings that there were no violations of the state’s Ethics Act, and I appreciate that they not only acknowledge the numerous steps we’ve taken but also that recommend we continue. However, I disagree with any implications that there was intent to circumvent NIU’s guidelines or state regulations. Still, I take responsibility for the mistakes identified, and I have worked diligently since these issues were brought forward in 2014 to do everything in my power to keep them from happening again.
The EEC solicited a formal response from me in April 2017 on this matter, and I obliged: I asked that if the OEIG report were to be released that my response be made public as well, which has taken place.
With this matter concluded and the corrective measures in place, I look forward to being able to devote my full attention to the issues facing our university and to ensuring that NIU will continue to fulfill its vital mission with an emphasis on preparing students for success after graduation.