President’s legal fees should be spent elsewhere


President Baker can’t put out the fires he has started

By Ian Tancun

With NIU in the midst of financial uncertainty, the university has been implementing cost-cutting practices for the past couple years. At the same time these cost-cutting initiatives have been made, NIU has paid thousands in legal fees to outside counsel for President Doug Baker as a result of an Office of Executive Inspector General investigation, according to a May 1 Northern Star article. The substantial legal fees associated with the investigation are concerning, especially during NIU’s financial hardships.

Illinois lawmakers have not been able to agree on a state budget for two years and we are headed into the third year without state funding. NIU received $48 million in state funding for 2017, which is less than the recommended amount, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

Baker says NIU is in a difficult situation, having lost a large percentage of its operating budget since 2015 because of the reduced state appropriations. He says his administration is working as aggressively as possible to get a stable and predictable budget so NIU can move forward. He does say that certain reductions have been made.

“We’ve reduced the size of the institution largely through attrition, and we’ve reduced our spending on almost everything else that we can,” Baker said. “I think we’ve protected the core of the institution and the ability of the faculty and staff as best we can, given the magnitude of those cuts. So I think we’ve been good stewards of the resources.”

The law firm Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo PC was hired by Baker to represent him in the OEIG investigation. As of March 28, NIU has paid Mintz Levin $189,145.46 for its work in the investigation, according to a May 1 Northern Star article.

I agree that reducing university spending is necessary, which is why I don’t see the need to hire such an expensive law firm to represent him in the OEIG investigation. The legal bill is not one that Baker will incur. The money to pay for the legal services comes from state appropriations and tuition payments, according to the article.

Baker chose to hire Mintz Levin because he already had a good relationship with the firm despite its hourly rate being $322 more per hour than NIU typically pays. If somebody tells me in advance they’re paying for my dinner, I’m not going to order lobster. I’m going to order the most reasonably priced item on the menu, so as not to take advantage of the person picking up my tab.

Department of Communication faculty members were asked if they’d be willing to give up their office phones last year, according to an April 6 Northern Star open letter.

The fact that faculty members were asked to do so to save money for the university clearly indicates money is scarce and that NIU is trying to scrounge for every penny possible.

In light of the current financial crisis — which will result in employment reductions, according to Baker’s April 28 Budget Update — it seems as though every effort should be made to be mindful of cost when seeking outside counsel.

I’m confused why the Board of Trustees would approve the hiring of an outside law firm that with such an expensive hourly price-tag.

Baker said it was “appropriate for the president to have appropriate legal counsel,” and because tuition funds are part of the operating budgets for the university — which includes legal defense fees — he said it was an appropriate use of fees, according to the May 1 article.

I respectfully disagree with Baker. While payments for legal counsel are considered part of operating budgets, in reality, they are not crucial to the day-to-day operations here. NIU paying $189,145.46 to Mintz Levin is not something students will directly benefit from.

I think there are many other expenses on campus that should take priority, as they actually affect the day-to-day lives of students.

During the rainstorm on March 30, I slipped and nearly fell while walking down the stairs in Wirtz Hall. The ceiling has a substantial leak and needs repair. The Chick Evans Field House closed early because of a lack of funds, according to an April 10 Northern Star article. Faculty members are losing their office printers or having to pay out-of-pocket for office supplies because NIU says there are no funds available for such purchases, according to the open letter.

But most importantly, some staff members have lost their jobs to save money for the university, according to Baker’s April 28 Budget Update.

In 2016, a former instructor of mine made $38,009.52 as a base salary, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s salary and benefit database.

Using this salary as a reference point, the money used to pay Mintz Levin could pay the yearly salary for four instructors and still have $37,107.38 left over. That is surely enough to pay for the toner cartridge one of my professors was denied access to.

I can think of several other uses for my tuition payments that are more urgent than paying legal fees to defend against an allegation of possible misconduct.

“When you [ask if] money that’s being targeted toward payment for attorneys [could] be used for something else, well of course it could,” said Faculty Senate Speaker Greg Long. “But without having the inside knowledge of exactly what’s being done or why it’s being done, I’m very certain at this point particularly that the president and the Board of Trustees are certainly operating within … boundaries of what they’re allowed to do.”

I want to be clear Baker has not, as far as I know, been found guilty of any misconduct, and while I appreciate his service to NIU, I am troubled by the fees NIU has paid for his legal counsel. These are issues I would strongly recommend the Board pay close attention to, particularly as NIU heads toward an uncertain future because of a continued lack of financial resources.