https://www.chronicle.com/article/Western-Illinois-U-Chief-s/246531Western Illinois U. Chief’s Final Days Were Ugly. His Exit Package Isn’t.
Before Jack Thomas announced last week that he would resign as Western Illinois University’s president, he secured a generous exit package that breaks with several of higher education’s national norms and allows him to return as a professor at a higher base salary than he made as president. He just had to agree not to sue the university or bad-mouth anyone.
The terms of Thomas’s employment agreement, which the university provided to The Chronicle, were crafted during a period of significant unrest at Western Illinois. Following years of enrollment declines and hundreds of layoffs, including tenured faculty members, calls were growing for Thomas’s ouster. But some people detected racial overtones in the vitriol aimed at the university’s first black president, and the agreement that the Board of Trustees reached with Thomas is designed in part to thwart any future litigation that he might have considered based on claims of discrimination.Thomas, who had been on a rolling annual contract since his appointment eight years ago, negotiated a deal that grants him two years of administrative leave at his current base salary of $270,000. During that period, he also will receive annual annuity contributions of $27,000, life insurance, and health insurance.
It is not uncommon for a departing president to earn a yearlong, paid sabbatical or its equivalent, but a two-year payout with no clearly stated responsibilities is novel. Raymond D. Cotton, a Washington lawyer who represents college presidents and boards in contract negotiations, described Thomas’s agreement as “extremely generous.”
“Here’s the message that sends to me,” Cotton said. “‘We love you, we’re giving you all this money, but don’t come back here. You’ve got two years to find something else.’ But it’s extremely unusual; the norm is one year.”
In terms of dollar amounts, payouts for college presidents with significant deferred-compensation plans or multiyear contracts are often far larger than what Thomas will earn. In 2016, for example, Baylor University paid Kenneth W. Starr, the former president, more than $4.5 million in severance, part of which the university said went toward buying Starr out of a tenured professorship.
Thomas’s agreement is unusual in several respects. The agreement sets up a potentially awkward scenario in which Thomas, who has applied unsuccessfully for other presidencies, could be named a college president elsewhere while still on “administrative leave” from Western Illinois. As long as he does not earn more than $350,000 in gross income from another position, Thomas is entitled to the two years of salary and benefits granted to him under the agreement’s administrative-leave provisions.
Agreements of that kind are typically designed as a bridge, compensating a president for a year while he or she finds a new job. Even the most generous of agreements, Cotton said, typically reduce payouts once the president starts a new position, providing the difference between the payout and the new salary. The prospect that Western Illinois, an institution under significant financial strain, will pay out two years of salary to another university’s president would be “very embarrassing,” Cotton said.
“I certainly would not recommend it for that reason,” Cotton said. “It doesn’t look good for either institution, quite honestly.”Good Reference Guaranteed
After two years of paid leave, Thomas’s agreement allows him to return to Western Illinois as a tenured distinguished-service professor, earning a minimum of $300,000 or 75 percent of the new president’s salary, whichever is greater. That too breaks with national standards. Far more common is an arrangement under which a former president earns as much as the highest-paid professor in his or her department or, in some particularly generous cases, the same as the university’s highest-paid faculty member. Thomas’s deal dwarfs both of those.
At Western Illinois, the highest-paid faculty member is an accounting and finance professor who earns $139,000 — less than half of Thomas’s distinguished-service-professor salary. The highest-paid professor in the English department, where Thomas would presumably be assigned, earns $105,000.
As a professor, Thomas would be required to teach two courses per year.
Greg Aguilar, who signed the agreement as the board’s president, was not made available for comment. He agreed, through a university spokeswoman, to talk with The Chronicle next week about the university’s path forward — not the contract.
“The terms of the agreement have been provided,” Darcie Shinberger, the spokeswoman, said in an email to The Chronicle. “There is nothing more to add.”
Polly Radosh, a trustee and a former sociology professor at Western Illinois, said that the board “did what we thought was best for the institution.” She would not comment on whether the board was concerned about a lawsuit or if the specter of racism gave Thomas more leverage in negotiations.
“Dr. Thomas has been one of the most underpaid university presidents in the state,” she said. “You have to put all those things in perspective, but I can’t tell you about the deliberations.”
Radosh also would not comment on whether Thomas could have stayed on as president if he had wanted to, saying only that “the decision was his” to leave. She said that the university’s significant financial problems, including a two-year state-budget impasse, would have challenged any leader.
“Factors pile up, and they get in the way of moving forward,” Radosh said. “It’s like in football. There may be 15 injuries on the team, and because the injuries are crippling the team, the coach gets blamed. That’s what’s going on here. We need a new direction.”
Under the president’s agreement, the university is precluded from making “disparaging comments about Thomas’s tenure or productivity.” Thomas, in turn, agreed not to disparage the university.
If prospective employers contact the university about Thomas, the board’s president will respond “by emphasizing his accomplishments,” the agreement states.
William A. Thompson, president of Western Illinois’s chapter of the University Professionals of Illinois, a union that represents faculty members, said that the agreement sets the stage for better pay for professors.
“It’s certainly a generous settlement,” Thompson said in an email. “UPI looks forward to negotiating with the board later in FY 2020 regarding improvements to our members’ compensation based in this same spirit of generosity. This generosity to leadership bodes well for the return of faculty and staff who were laid off in 2018 and 2019. Just as we share in the bad times, we expect to share in the good ones, too.”
Under the agreement, Thomas has greater opportunities to earn money through consulting than Western Illinois professors, who are prohibited from spending more than 20 percent of their time on such work. He has no such cap.
Thomas is exempt from that regulation, Shinberger said, because “he will not be a faculty member” while he is on leave. But nor will he be the president. So, what exactly is Thomas?
“His title will be university administrator,” Shinberger said.
Thomas had agreed, in May, to join the faculty’s union in taking a 2-percent salary reduction. He isn’t planning to do that now.