CHICAGO — Even in the context of recent big exit packages for Illinois college leaders, the terms of Jack Thomas' departure from Western Illinois University are generous.
After stepping down as president at the Macomb-based school on Sunday, he now will be on leave for two years while continuing to receive his $270,528 salary, plus benefits. Then he'll be allowed to return as a professor, teaching two classes per year, for a salary well above that of any other faculty member at the school -- though there appears to be some internal confusion about exactly what that salary will be.
He'll also be allowed to work outside jobs on top of his Western gig, potentially adding another six-figure salary to what the university is paying him for the next three years.
This comes after the state legislature passed a law this year designed to rein in higher education payouts, and as Western has been beset by plummeting enrollment, layoffs, budget cuts and a falling credit rating.
"He did much better than the university did," said James H. Finkelstein, professor emeritus of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia, who has researched public university presidential contracts and reviewed Thomas' new deal. "The university has created a multimillion-dollar future liability for itself."
Thomas announced he was ending his presidency at Western's June 14 board meeting, when trustees had been scheduled to review his contract and job performance. It is not clear what, if any, action they planned to take. Gov. J.B. Pritzker had appointed an entirely new board in March.
Western, like most state universities, has sputtered in recent years. Enrollment plummeted from a high of 13,602 students in 2006 to 8,502 last fall -- a drop of more than 37 percent. There have been multiple rounds of furloughs and layoffs, including in March, when 132 employees were let go.
Thomas said reduced public funding, the state's budget impasse, population declines in the region and students increasingly leaving Illinois for college have contributed to Western's woes.
"Without a doubt, I have had to make some difficult decisions -- including ones that have sometimes been very unpopular, but nevertheless were always made with the best interests of the overall University's future at heart," Thomas wrote in a campus announcement.
After his two-year administrative leave ends, Thomas can join Western's faculty as a distinguished service professor on July 1, 2021. He would be required to teach one class per semester.
Thomas has a doctorate in English literature and criticism, and taught English at other schools before moving into upper administration, according to his CV.
Exactly how much he'll make as a faculty member is unclear. University officials gave conflicting information, depending on how they read the contract language.
The contract states Thomas would be paid for the faculty job "at a rate of compensation equivalent to 75% of the Fiscal Year 2021 salary paid to the university president but not less than $300,000.00."
University spokeswoman Darcie Shinberger said that means Thomas would earn at least $300,000 as a faculty member. Faculty Senate President Christopher Pynes disputed that, saying the $300,000 refers to the minimum salary of the next university president -- which would make Thomas' pay around $225,000.
Board Chair Polly Radosh also said trustees were "working with the understanding that the third year compensation was 75% of the $300K number," but she acknowledged the clause is not clearly written.
Thomas could not be reached for comment. It was not clear if he had an attorney.
Either way, Thomas, 58, will earn more than Western's highest-paid professor did in 2018, state data show, and is entitled to do so for as long as he chooses to teach.
A $300,000 salary is comparable to the pay of other college presidents, academic deans, and professors in medical disciplines, according to a public salary database maintained by the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
Even the lower of the two possible figures, $225,000, is nearly a 42 percent jump over Western's highest-paid professor. Susan Martinelli-Fernandez, the dean of the arts and sciences college, earned about $159,000 last year, according to the database. The English department chair at Western, Mark Mossman, earned about $119,000.
Radosh and Greg Aguilar, who was board chair when trustees approved the deal, deferred questions to Shinberger, who would not elaborate on the trustees' reasoning.
"The Board determined the final agreement to be acceptable," Shinberger wrote in an email. "Deliberations regarding the agreement cannot be further discussed as this is considered a personnel matter."
Pynes, head of the faculty senate, said he had no problem with Thomas' deal but reiterated that his salary would be the lower of the contested figures.
"That's the cost of doing business sometimes," Pynes said. "He resigned his position as an administrator; he did not resign his tenure."
You have free articles remaining.
William Thompson, head of the faculty union, said: "The board allocating such a generous severance signals to us that the bad times are over and the good times are here. We expect to see similar generosity when we go and start salary negotiations for faculty."
Finkelstein and Judith A. Wilde, public policy professors at George Mason, said the agreement does not "even come close to meeting any of the best practices that we see today in a modern university presidential contract."
One piece of the contract that raised their eyebrows was that Thomas can earn up to $350,000 per year from outside jobs that "do not conflict with his responsibilities as an employee of the university" during his leave and through his first year as a professor.
The ability to take on outside work isn't unusual. But Wilde and Finkelstein said that compared with other contracts they have studied, $350,000 is a high cap to set on outside earnings. And they said it is unusual that there are no stipulations allowing Western to deduct what it owes Thomas from whatever he earns elsewhere.
"But what if he gets $340,000" in salary from a different job? Wilde said. "The university still has to pay."
The professors also flagged as unusual that Thomas can receive an $8,000 relocation allowance; that he received two years of administrative pay instead of one; that the university is going to continue to pay for his benefits; and that it includes a survivors' benefit clause that would give any promised compensation to Thomas' estate were he to die.
Payouts for outgoing public college and university leaders and faculty have been hotly contested in the state for years, and spurred legislators to try to stop them.
The Government Severance Pay Act, enacted this year, limits payouts to 20 weeks of an employee's salary and requires schools to incorporate contract language denying severance if an employee is fired for misconduct.
Western officials argue this law does not apply to Thomas because he was not fired, nor is he leaving the university.
State Sen. Tom Cullerton of Villa Park, who was chief sponsor of the legislation, said Western is flouting the spirit of the law.
"They obviously have found some type of loophole that allows them to skirt the law," Cullerton said. "But they know what the law is and they saw what we wrote last year, and they found a way through some legalese to take care of one of their friends."
Thomas is the fourth public university leader in the state to step down since fall 2016. The presidents of Chicago State, Northern Illinois and Southern Illinois also left their posts amid controversy and all received six-figure severance packages.
Thomas Calhoun Jr., who resigned after just nine months at Chicago State, was paid two years' salary -- $600,000 -- by the Far South Side institution, which had declared a state of financial emergency.
Doug Baker resigned from NIU in June 2017 with a $617,500 severance following a state report accusing him of mismanaging school finances.
Randy Dunn stepped down from SIU last summer amid a dispute between the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses over state funding. He received six months of his salary, totaling $215,000. His contract also allowed him to join the Edwardsville faculty as a visiting professor for a $100,000 salary.
There have been several other high-profile examples in recent years.
In 2015, College of DuPage ousted President Robert Breuder with a $763,000 severance package after questions were raised about his spending of taxpayer and donor money.
The scandal surrounding Breuder roiled state legislators. Months later, they issued a scathing report attacking pricey perks given to school leaders. In 2015, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a law prohibiting community college boards from giving outgoing presidents more than one year of salary and benefits.
Thomas left the job after eight years. He previously served as Western's provost.
As Western struggled, scrutiny of Thomas' leadership intensified. The faculty senate voted no confidence in the administration in March 2018.
"The inability to stem the enrollment tide, the constant cuts and constant threats of cuts and layoffs -- unfortunately, the situation outstripped his skills and abilities and it was time for new leadership," Pynes said.
Martin Abraham, who was to be hired as provost the day Thomas resigned, instead is serving as temporary president until trustees can appoint an interim leader.