Western Illinois University's governing board has selected an interim leader after giving its outgoing president a two-year exit package worth more than $500,000.
The university announced Martin Abraham would serve as the interim president after Jack Thomas stepped down from the post on Monday.
"Dr. Abraham has a distinguished academic career and outstanding administrative credentials," WIU Board of Trustees Chairwoman Polly Radosh said. "We are confident he will provide solid leadership to the University during this time of transition."
Thomas, who had been president since 2011, announced his departure last month.
“At this pivotal time in our history, I believe the University would best be served by new leadership,” Thomas said in a statement.
“The administrative leave agreement includes extending Thomas' current annual base salary of $270,528 through June 30, 2021,” the board said in a statement. “Thomas also has the opportunity to serve in a tenured faculty position as a Distinguished Service Professor, effective July 1, 2021.”
As a professor, Thomas would be paid more than $200,000 a year, according to media reports. That would make him the university's highest-paid faculty member.
Former state Rep. Jeannie Ives, R-Wheaton, fought to limit golden parachute payouts in public higher education. She said WIU’s deal with Thomas, who was president before the new legislation took effect, violated the spirit of the law.
“This is nonsense,” Ives said. “You don’t want to pay for people who have performed poorly and now are going to be put back on the payroll. At a minimum, just let him go. Do not rehire this man to even teach in higher education at nearly double the cost of his peers at this point. Just tell him to take a hike.”
During Thomas’ tenure, WIU’s enrollment dropped more than 37 percent.
Ives said the hefty severance takes resources away from the university for other quality professors, or for new equipment.
Thomas’ severance deal follows numerous other examples of such high payouts.
In 2017, Northern Illinois University trustees affirmed a severance package of more than $600,000 for former president Doug Baker, even after an investigation found improper spending and other ethical issues around university hiring practices and travel expenses.
Before that, College of DuPage former President Robert Breuder got a severance of $763,000, despite allegations of lavish spending and no-bid contracts to connected businesses. That deal was reversed by another board vote. Lawsuits between Breuder and the college have yet to be resolved.
After Bruder’s initial severance agreement drew fury from taxpayers, Ives worked to limit severance pay. Democratic majorities at the statehouse eventually passed a cap of 20 weeks pay and that was signed by former Gov. Bruce Rauner.
She said Thomas’ deal hints that there could be other such deals with other officials operating under terms of contracts signed before the new law was implemented.
“For them to say ‘well they were already in a contract,’ sorry, I’m not buying it,” Ives said. “The law should have been taken effect at that time. But there always seems to be a special perk.”
The Chicago Tribune highlighted 13 severance agreements Illinois public universities have handed out in recent years. A tally of the 13 such agreements since 2009 total more than $5.1 million.