But we didn't realize how unprecedented it was until we read the results of a Chicago Tribune study of what other university and community college administrators and professors recently received to part ways with their employers.
The Tribune outlined the most expensive severance packages, and awarded Thomas and WIU trustees this troubling distinction:
"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," wrote reporter Dawn Rhodes in a report that appeared in the Dispatch-Argus-QCOnline.com on July 3.
How generous? She noted that Thomas, who stepped down as WIU president on June 30, 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."
So not only is the final bill going to be costly; we don’t know how big it will be. Making matters worse is that terms of the agreement do not prevent Thomas from taking six-figure outside jobs to enrich the WIU compensation package he is guaranteed to receive.
Ultimately, the liability for the contract lies with taxpayers, who will pay now and later, thanks to the more generous retirement Thomas will "earn" going forward.
The deal also will have a snowball effect on other salaries for a university that still will have to struggle -- even with a recent modest infusion of state funds -- to overcome past state funding deficits and declining enrollment.
As William Thompson, head of the faculty union, told Rhodes, “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.”
We don’t know what trustees may have been thinking when they were negotiating this deal.
When contacted by the Tribune, WIU Board chair Polly Radosh and East Moline’s Greg Aguilar, who was chair when trustees approved the contract, deferred questions to WIU spokeswoman Darcie Schinberg. She said via email, “The board determined the final agreement to be acceptable. Deliberations regarding the agreement cannot be further discussed as this is considered a personnel matter.”
Schinberg also declined to comment further when we emailed her about the Tribune report.
Not everyone is as upset about the Thomas deal as we are. For example, Christopher Pynes, head of the faculty senate, told Rhodes, “That’s the cost of doing business sometimes.”
If so, we should redouble our efforts to change how business is done. To their credit, Illinois lawmakers tried to do so with this year's Government Severance Pay Act that limits payouts to 20 weeks of an employee’s salary and requires schools to ink deals that deny severance if an employee is fired for misconduct. Because Thomas will remain as a tenured WIU faculty member and was not fired or accused of misconduct, the act doesn’t apply to him.
We urge lawmakers to use Thomas' deal to address that and other loopholes in the new law.
Unfortunately, that won't do a thing about the Thomas deal that WIU and Illinoisans appear to be saddled with for the long haul.
The best we can hope for is that trustees will learn from it as they work to accomplish the most important duty before them: finding a leader who will make Western Illinois University the first, best choice for Illinois’ brightest and best students.