University lacks transparency, should have external review

By Editorial Board

If we can be bold enough to quote President Barack Obama, “Government should be transparent.”

The Editorial Board of the Northern Star believes this statement applies to NIU, not just because it is a state university, but because, ethically, it should strive to set a good example for its students. The Editorial Board applauds NIU for taking action and investigating allegations of a coffee fund within the Physical Plant, but we are sorely disappointed with the lack of information about this and another recent investigation.

According to an email from Paul Palian, director of media and public relations, there was a prior administrative investigation of Robert Albanese and John Gordon, the former associate vice president of Finance and Facilities’ Operations division and the former director of the Convocation Center, respectively.

On July 31, Albanese’s retirement and Gordon’s resignation were announced.

In Resignation and Release Agreements obtained by the Northern Star through the Freedom of Information Act, it is shown that Gordon and Albanese agreed to gag orders that will prevent each from discussing “circumstances which have led to his voluntary and irrevocable resignation.” In an email, Palian said this was a standard clause; however, in this instance, it had the effect of limiting what NIU officials can explain to their loyal students as they are also bound to silence.

We need to hear the truth of what happened with Albanese and Gordon and the investigation into their activities, just as we need to know about the coffee fund investigation, especially as rumors spread around campus.

We need closure. We need to be able to trust that our university did the right thing. As it stands, we can’t know if they did.

Furthermore, the Editorial Board believes an external panel should be reviewing the coffee fund allegations. This is not because the Editorial Board doubts the moral rectitude of the NIU police force, but because the Board believes there is an inherent conflict of interest: both the NIU police force and Finance and Facilities ultimately answer to Eddie Williams, executive vice president of business and finance and chief of operations.

The Editorial Board acknowledges that other universities conduct internal investigations. Thomas Hardy, executive director for university relations at the University of Illinois, said internal reviews are conducted by a number of departments depending on the nature of the potential wrongdoing, including but not limited to Campus Police and the University Ethics Office.

Surely there is another way the alleged coffee fund—and other investigations—can be reviewed. In some cases at U of I, Hardy said university leaders engage external, independent experts for assistance in determining the facts, making recommendations and issuing a report. The Editorial Board believes this is something NIU should try to do as often as possible, and which it apparently can do, as it has called for external review at points in the past.

For example, in 2009 NIU Police Chief Donald Grady underwent a performance review following assertions made against him by the Northern Star. According to an Oct. 13, 2009, Northern Star article, Williams said in a press release that an outside review panel would handle the situation. This panel was led by John L. Nickels, a former Illinois Supreme Court justice, and was composed of others who did not work at NIU.

Couldn’t a similar panel be convened in this instance?

The Northern Star is not accusing Gordon, Albanese or any Physical Plant employees of wrongdoing.

We believe people are innocent until proven guilty, just as we believe any and all government entities need to be as transparent as possible. Our beef is with the university’s legal and chosen inability—or apparent unwillingness, in some cases—to communicate with outside forces about the past investigation and the ongoing one. Case in point: Williams, though an overseer of Gordon, Albanese and the Physical Plant, has refused to answer queries from Northern Star employees. He directs all comments to Palian, which, perhaps unintentionally, shuts out the press and its connection with the community.

Rumors are swirling and various community members, as well as the Editorial Board, feel left in the dark.

If there’s a time to be open with the community, NIU, it is now.