Local Officials Question Transparency Efforts At NIU

Oct 25, 2012

The coffee-fund investigation at Northern Illinois University is now playing out in the court system. The school recently placed eight employees on administrative leave.

Those employees were charged in connection with a secret bank account. The probe was launched over the summer after the fund’s existence was revealed in a local news report. It came on the heels of separation agreements for two former administrators. The university has issued public statements about recent events, but some in the community question whether the school is being open enough with the public.

DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell doesn’t hold back about his concerns regarding Northern Illinois University. In a recent interview with WNIJ, he said he feels the school is reluctant to address certain safety issues in and around campus over fears of bad publicity. Another concern cited by Campbell is transparency.

“In my view, I’ve felt a distinct reticence on the part of the university to be open and honest about some of these situations that are going on” Campbell said.

For example, Campbell said he initially learned more about the coffee-fund investigation and the administrative shake-up through news reports than from the university itself. The coffee-fund probe was led by the campus police department. It involved looking into claims that NIU workers were selling university scrap metal and putting the money into an unauthorized bank account that university officials said they eventually shut down. The findings of the investigation were eventually turned over to Campbell’s office, which announced the charges last week.

In addition to the eight current employees, another person charged in the case is Robert Albanese. He and another administrator left NIU in July after they signed separation agreements amid allegations of misconduct that were unrelated to the coffee fund investigation. Though some details surfaced in published reports, NIU did not provide specific information regarding the allegations, citing confidentiality clauses.  

As for Campbell’s statements about the university, they come as the Republican runs for reelection. His opponent, Democrat Richard Schmack, says Campbell is off-base in his criticism of NIU, especially when it comes to the coffee-fund probe.

“All public entities could benefit from an increase in transparency. But no public entities, be it the university or a police department, should be revealing information about ongoing investigations before those investigations are complete” Schmack said. 

To some people, it might appear that Campbell is trying to score political points before an election. But he’s not alone in voicing dissatisfaction with administrative openness at NIU. Republican State Representative Bob Pritchard, who represents the DeKalb-area, is running unopposed in the fall election.

Pritchard says recent events have him worried about the amount of information being relayed to the public by school administrators.

“I share a concern that the public has expressed to me about the coffee fund issue and other issues that never seem to bring closure, and are always left hanging without, really, a finality to them” Prtichard said.

The interviews with Pritchard and Campbell were conducted prior to the charges being announced. Both men acknowledged that the coffee-fund investigation isn’t closed and that elements of it need to remain confidential while the matter is being dealt with. But when the case is closed, Pritchard says he wants the university to show that it was thorough in addressing the matter, and that the public isn’t handed a whitewash.

In addition to concerns raised by the two elected officials, the campus newspaper published an editorial saying recent events deserve more transparency. The editorial also said that for the sake of appearances, the coffee-fund should have been investigated by an outside party.  

Kim Griffo is executive director of the International Town and Gown Association, which helps institutions of higher learning build stronger relationships with their respective communities. 

Generally speaking, she says it can be a struggle for university administrators to try to be transparent, while protecting the school’s best interests.

“Presidents are beholden to boards of trustees and, a lot of times, the trustees or the regents don’t live in that particular town. They’re in other cities and are not in direct communication with the city at large or the community at large” Griffo said.

Still, Griffo says, when dealing with sensitive matters, it’s better for universities to get out in front of the situation and provide as much information as possible. She says keeping the public in the dark can have a damaging effect:

“There are several universities in both rural and urban settings that have suffered consequences because of lack of communication and transparency” Griffo said.

Griffo says those consequences include extra challenges in securing state funding. She also says a strained relationship between a university and its community can hamper economic development. 

When it comes to recent events at NIU, specifically the coffee fund probe, the university says from the beginning it has provided regular updates through the NIU Today website. The media relations department says it has also gone to great lengths to be accessible to reporters.

However, top administrators, namely university president John Peters, have not come out in the way of a public appearance to address the matter. He also declined to comment on the transparency issue during a recent interview with WNIJ when talking about his planned exit next year. Peters' departure is not in any way tied to the investigations.

NIU spokesman Paul Palian says while school leaders haven't been holding regular news conferences to provide updates, the information that does come out includes a lot of their input.

"Administrators are very engaged with the situation. They are involved in the process of putting together not only statements, but also dealing with what goes in the administrative side of things" Palian said. 

Palian adds when it comes to criminal investigations, administrators aren't given all the details and can only provide information as it comes to them.

As for the perception issue, Palian says they are aware of it. He says the only way they can ease concerns in the community is to educate people about what's being done to inform the public.

"What we're seeing now is a process being played out. More information is becoming known as a result of the investigation. Many of the facts have yet to be determined in these matters. So educating people about the process, it is a process" Palian said.

Whether that will be enough to satisfy critics remains to be seen.

*WNIJ is owned by and licensed to Northern Illinois University.

Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ