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Union Calls for Criminal Investigation of WIU Leaders

Rich Egger

The University Professionals of Illinois (UPI) has asked the McDonough County State's Attorney's office to conduct a criminal investigation of the Western Illinois University Board of Trustees, University President Jack Thomas, and other officers of the institution.

John Miller, statewide president of UPI, told Tri States Public Radio the complaint is in response to the recently released recording of the June 28, 2018 closed door meeting of Western’s BoT.  The Illinois Attorney General’s office ordered the university to release the audio after ruling the BoT and administrators violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act during the meeting.

“The whole underlying thought of what occurred in that meeting and what appears to be such an extreme violation of the Open Meetings Act, we just did not want to leave that set,” Miller said.

Minutes after adjourning the closed meeting, the Board held a public meeting to authorize the layoffs of two dozen faculty members – including seven tenured teachers -- and two other employees in academic affairs. 

Miller said UPI is concerned about the lack of transparency from WIU’s leaders. And he said the union wonders whether the BoT and administrators violated the law during other closed door meetings too.

The 2017-18 WIU BoT and WIU President Jack Thomas. Seated (left to right): William Gradle, Yvonne Savala, Cathy Early, Carolyn Ehlert Fuller. Standing: Lyneir Cole, Roger Clawson, WIU President Jack Thomas, Todd Lester, Steve Nelson. All except Nelson were in the room for the June 28, 2018 meeting (he was no longer a board member).

“These discussions are designed to be in the public so that the public can understand. When you close and you hide conversations and decisions and the rationale for decisions in closed session and those are not expressed, you cannot hold anybody accountable,” Miller said, who previously taught in WIU’s Department of Communication.

“Remember, the Board of Trustees (members) are public officials. They’re appointed by the governor (and) approved by the Senate.  They hire and fire the president and so forth down the line. And so there’s no accountability if there’s no transparency.”

UPI represents faculty, academic staff, and other employees at seven public universities, including WIU. 

Western’s administration declined to comment on UPI’s complaint.

Miller said violating the OMA is a misdemeanor. He said those found guilty of violations can be sentenced to up to 30 days in jail and fined up to $1,000.  But he said UPI is not interested in such punishment.

“Our concern is the lack of transparency so that there’s no accountability. To us, that’s the biggest issue, especially when we see the decisions that the institution is making that don’t seem to be in the best interest of the institution, the community, and the region.”

WIU has been struggling with its finances due to declines in state funding and student enrollment, problems that were exacerbated by the two-year state budget impasse. 

WIU faculty last spring approved a “no confidence” vote against the university’s administration. Over the summer the administration announced a new academic realignment plan. Faculty members said they were not involved with creating that plan.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.