The severance package for former Northern Illinois University president Doug Baker is now null and void, according to a court ruling Wednesday.
A DeKalb County judge ruled that the NIU Board of Trustees violated the Open Meetings Act. Judge Bradley Waller said in his decision that the board did not adequately notify the public of the terms of Baker’s more than $600,000 severance package.
Waller also said the board agenda item “Presidential Employment – Review and Approval” was vague enough where it couldn’t be clear enough to the public whether that could mean “termination” or “severance terms.”
“No ordinary citizen could possibly have had any reasonable expectation that he or she knew that the agenda item discussion was to focus on anything more than a review and approval of the president,” Waller said.
Following a closed session in June, the Board accepted Baker’s resignation and awarded him a severance package worth more than $600,000. An NIU spokesperson confirmed the package was paid in full July 15.
Misty Haji-Sheikh brought the matter to court as a DeKalb resident after the NIU Board of Trustees meeting in June.
“I’m a little sad that we had to go this far, because NIU was told that all the board had to do was retake the vote and this would never have gone to court,” Haji-Sheikh said. “And so I’m sorry for the fees and the problems that this has caused, but it wasn’t up to me to take this to court when they had an option of taking a vote.”
Haji-Sheikh sought and was granted a temporary order in early August, which restrained NIU from taking further action on Baker’s severance package. It was extended in September to the Wednesday hearing.
“I believe that everyone should follow the law, and so that was my whole intent behind this,” Haji-Sheikh said. She also serves on the DeKalb County board.
Haji-Sheikh is also a student-at-large at NIU. She says she loves the school and brought up the issue initially because she wants to help make the university the best it can be.
“There are certain things as leading from the top down,” Haji-Sheikh said. “In this case, a student cannot be the leader of the university, which would be bottom up. It must come from the administration. So the only way I know of making it better is making the administration better, and so my one little part of that was the Open Meetings Act.”
NIU officials say they believe the university complied with Illinois OMA law and new amendments to NIU law. They say they will review the ruling and assess options before deciding how to proceed.
NIU officials have said that nullifying Baker’s severance package could expose the Board to potential lawsuits for breach of contract.
Haji-Sheikh wants the court to void Baker’s severance package and compensate her for attorney’s fees. Waller did not rule on that during the hearing on Wednesday.
Haji-Sheikh’s lawyer Charles Philbrick says both sides may have grounds for appeal, since the judge also ruled against Haji-Sheikh’s argument that NIU violated university law.
A status hearing for the case is scheduled for Dec. 8.