Union member discusses BOT violation

Steven Barnum , News editor

Western Illinois University is still trying to rid itself of the controversy surrounding its 2018 violation of the Open Meetings Act.

The Board of Trustees (BOT) met on June 28, 2018, to discuss funds and potential layoffs – both of which are prohibited to talk about behind closed doors. Whenever the subject matter involves taxpayer money, the discussion should take place in a public setting. The board was required to release the audio recording of their private meeting, which was made available to the public in November.

Even though Western released a statement admitting guilt to the violation, several additional meetings took place in private from 2016 to 2018, creating speculation that the act was violated more than once. Specifically, Western has been accused of scripting public meetings, discussing finances behind closed doors and failing to release the minutes to closed session meetings.

Bill Thompson is the Chapter President of University Professionals of Illinois. He represents the faculty and academic staff at Western, in addition to several other universities His job duties stretch from negotiating contracts and resolving conflicts. He explains that the BOT is not allowed to discuss anything related to the budget behind closed doors. Exceptions to this law include real estate transactions or personnel matters like an individual’s job performance.

“We had long suspected that they were violating the act,” Thompson said. “One reason why we thought that is that they typically don’t say anything in public. We also noted that they didn’t talk about contract reductions in open session, so that was another clue.”

In the meeting, the board can be heard scripting their plan to layoff and reduce the contracts of certain faculty members. After Thompson and the union suspected that the BOT discussed matters that should be public, they filed a complaint to the Public Access Counselor (PCA), a unit within the attorney general’s office that enforces the Open Meetings Act. After looking into the incident, the PCA determined that the board did violate the law. In addition to releasing the audio, the BOT also had to undergo training on what they are allowed to discuss in private.

“What’s important for us is not that they were going to lay off more people, but that they had talked about the layoffs previously. It’s the public’s money so we should be ale to see how the money is being spent. We thought that this reflects poorly on their lack of accountability,” Thompson said.

Thompson thought it was clear that the board discussed cutting the funding to Tri States Public Radio long before they made a public announcement. Jonathan Ahl, the former general manager of the station, said he was unable to attend meetings with the BOT regarding the cuts, which will take effect March 1.

With all of the matters discussed in private, Thompson says it was most surprising to know that the legal counsel in the room did not warn the board of wrongdoing. Starting on July 12, 2018, Elizabeth Duvall took charge as the new attorney, who Thompson believes is a positive addition to the university.

“She seems to be doing a really good job,” Thompson said. “I don’t believe she lets them talk about those pubic matters behind closed doors anymore.”

He has also noticed a different tone to the meetings, reflecting positive changes.

“The administration is being much more cooperative with us than they have been in the past,” he said. “It’s sad that it had to come out like this, but it’s important that the public hold officials accountable for what they do and that’s what this act is really all about. Transparency is necessary, so when information is cut off, that’s harmful to the public. Unions are a check and balance, so we feel that we acted accordingly. This was not a personal vendetta.”

Thompson understands the motivation behind the decisions that the Board of Trustees made behind closed doors on June 28. He says that deciding to lay off faculty members before the fiscal year eliminates an additional year of tenured employment for certain faculty members.He also references the financial situation that the state of Illinois is enduring. The university is facing a $14 million deficit next year, coupled with a lack of commitment in higher-education funding; however, Thompson is optimistic that new governor J.B. Pritzker will offer more financial aid than the previous administration.

“We want to know the final proposed number of layoffs now before the governor gives his budget address,” he said. “If the budget isn’t flat and enrollment holds steady next year, then that would seem to suggest that fewer people need to be laid off.”

The state’s budget crisis has forced the university to be aggressive in making cuts during the last couple of years. After unveiling a plan to expand academic degree programs in a 2017 press release, the university now plans to lay off dozens of faculty members and eliminate nearly 20 majors. The board’ surgency and decisions to discuss such matters in private may have been directly impacted by the budget impasse.

One of the domino effects of the incident was the resignation of then-chair Cathy Early. Additionally, five other members have left the board, but it has not been confirmed if they are all directly related to the controversy.

“Our union made board reform our priority. We knew this board was violating this act. We negotiate contracts with these people and we have to be certain that they are following the rules. If they’re willing to break these rules, then what other rules might they be willing to break?” Thompson says. Thompson envisions how the BOT can improve when it comes to the meeting process.

“Their meetings could be set up so that they give people more time for public comment,” he said, “like during different periods of the meeting so that people couldcomment on stuff that’s happening in front of them. I also think that the trustees should be more specific and aggressive in their questioning. There’s still not a lot of discussion that goes on in there about the future of the institution.”

Thompson says that the BOT should consider themselves as the trustees of the students, faculty and people of Illinois, as opposed to an arm of the administration. He thinks the best way to accomplish this would be to get to know the opinions of the faculty and staff.

“I think they were really shocked last year when we had the vote of no confidence. If they went out and talked to the faculty, then they would have known,” Thompson said.

In the bigger picture, Thompson adds that he doesn’t think that the university has ill intentions when it comes to the treatment of the faculty. He is appreciative of the health insurance benefits that the college has to offer, as well as the six-week maternity leave, which he says is rare.

He is also supportive of their recruitment process, which has expanded from the small-town demographic to students from the Chicago suburbs and outside of the United States. This strategy could help get enrollment back on track during a time when rural Illinois is shrinking and the school can no longer rely on students who prioritize proximity. In a town where the university is critical for the local economy, Mayor Mike Inman is often heard saying, “So goes Western, so goes Macomb.”