Here in Redbird Country, staff and students at Illinois State University grew accustomed to a school president so recognized and beloved that his last name was frequently shouted by cheering students at home basketball games in the hopes that he would offer a wave in their direction.
So when Al Bowman announced his retirement in December 2012 after almost 10 years at the helm of the university of about 20,000 students, the school’s trustees knew they had work to do to find a successor worthy of the job.
In Timothy Flanagan, they thought they’d found their guy. With more than three decades of experience in higher education and an apparently successful presidential gig at a smaller public school in Massachusetts on his resume, Flanagan, 62, was seen as the leader who could bring a fresh vision to the campus, officials said.
But last month, barely seven months after he started, the new president resigned. Under a separation agreement with the board, Flanagan walked away with a $480,418 check, and all parties agreed not to comment on the resignation outside of a four-sentence news release issued by the school.
Now, officials hope to move on from what newly appointed President Larry Dietz called an “expensive blip” in the university’s otherwise good reputation in the state.
But some students and staff still have questions about Flanagan’s departure, his contract, the payout and what led to the firing—and recent rehiring—of a grounds employee after an alleged disturbance on the university president’s lawn during Flanagan’s tenure. Students have carried signs on the campus quad with messages like: “Would you pay me to drop out?” and “Flanagan check = 10 full rides.”
“We have a lot of questions, but all those rotate around fairness and accountability,” said Chris Roehl, 22, a senior from Orland Park, among a throng of students who are part of a group called “I Paid for Flanagan 2014.”
When institutions commit to large salaries for their executives, payouts such as the one Flanagan received are “unfortunately” common when those contracts end early, said Michael Poliakoff, vice president at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, who has researched education policy.
“There does seem to be a very strong tendency to do whatever (boards of trustees) can to avoid something that is either going to involve them in long-term litigation or to create (a) bad public impression,” Poliakoff said.
According to Flanagan’s contract, he could’ve been let go by the board without pay if he’d been fired for cause—which in the contract is described as “material acts of dishonesty or disloyalty,” lying, conviction of a crime, use of drugs or alcohol abuse, or violation of any board policies or procedures. ISU’s board did not feel it had cause to fire Flanagan without resulting in litigation that would’ve cost more than the settlement, said Michael McCuskey, board chairman. Rather, his resignation was the result of a mutual agreement.
“It didn’t work for him, it didn’t work for us, and we’re moving on,” McCuskey said.
Big payouts have occurred at other Illinois schools.
In 2012, University of Illinois President Michael Hogan resigned under pressure but held on to a professorship with a $285,100 starting salary. His chief of staff, Lisa Troyer, also resigned and received $175,000. The school also agreed to delay Hogan’s departure long enough to receive a $37,500 bonus. Also in 2012, two senior administrators at Northern Illinois University who resigned while under investigation for misconduct were paid nearly $80,000 total.
McCuskey, a federal circuit judge who lives in Champaign and presides in Urbana, said the money used for Flanagan’s settlement came from a contingency fund separate from state money or tuition payments. The money in the fund comes from a variety of fee payments, including from Burger King, Subway and other franchises that lease space on its campus, as well as parking tickets and fines from late bill payments, he said.
“You can criticize the amount and say it should’ve been used for something else, but it didn’t cost taxpayers, it didn’t cost students, and we decided that was the best use of that contingency fund,” McCuskey said. “We’ve moved on because of it, and we’re very happy.”
Flanagan and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Because of the clause in the separation agreement that restricts the board from discussing the resignation, trustees who talked to the Tribune for this story declined to provide details about what led up to it.
But some offered vague clues about Flanagan’s short tenure.
Not long after he moved to campus from Massachusetts, board members started hearing criticism, McCuskey said. He wasn’t, for example, holding the kinds of meetings expected of him or responding to emails, McCuskey said.
Jay Bergman, a trustee who lives in Joliet, said board members talked with Flanagan about some “nonserious” concerns at a retreat in November but declined to further characterize what they were. “At that time, we tried to discuss in a positive way any concerns we had,” Bergman said.
Meanwhile, an alumnus who sits on the ISU alumni board of directors said he noticed the president skipping basketball games and other sporting events, or leaving them early if he did attend.
“Not everybody’s a sports person, but when you have an opportunity to interact with many alumni and students in a very positive environment, you would think he would’ve relished that opportunity,” said Tim Pantaleone, a 2007 ISU graduate.
Flanagan’s performance became a matter of public scrutiny after a December incident that occurred on the university president’s lawn.
According to witness statements in ISU police reports, grounds supervisor Robert Patrick Murphy and a crew of workers arrived at the university residence the morning of Dec. 5 to rake after an earlier aeration of the lawn. Flanagan’s wife was “apparently upset with the plugs of soil created by the aeration,” thus prompting the crew to clean them up, according to a Jan. 27 letter to the board of trustees from Champaign attorney Glenn Stanko, who is representing Murphy.
According to the police report, Flanagan exited the house shortly after the crew started working that morning, shouting “Where is he?” and “screaming obscenities into (Murphy’s) face and flailing his arms, which (Murphy) estimated was approximately one inch in distance from his face.”
The report says “saliva struck (Murphy) in the face, neck and clothing as T. Flanagan spoke and both of T. Flanagan’s arms struck his torso.” The report also says Flanagan yelled at Murphy that he was “incompetent, incompetent, you are (expletive) incompetent.”
Five days after the incident, according to the letter from Stanko, Murphy was told he was being fired. Murphy, through Stanko, declined to comment for this story.
In an email to the board addressing Stanko’s letter, Flanagan invited trustees to call him to discuss the letter if they wished and said the note contained “a great deal of exaggeration” and “material misstatement of facts. In addition, important and highly relevant information was omitted.”
The incident was reported to ISU police Feb. 27. According to documents from ISU, Flanagan visited the police department the next day and talked with ISU police Capt. Nichol Bleichner. According to her report, he asked about how police would investigate the incident.
“(Flanagan) got really quiet and then said ‘Did I yell at an employee and shouldn’t have? Yes. Is this wrong? Yes. An employer should not speak to employees this way,'” according to the police report.
In March, Flanagan was charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. Last week, he appeared in a McLean County courtroom to respond to the charge. There, in a black suit and tie, he stood quietly beside his attorney, who pleaded not guilty on his behalf. Flanagan declined to speak with reporters after the hearing.
McCuskey said the incident did not prompt the board to seek Flanagan’s resignation. Rather, he said, it was an “accumulation” of concerns.
“It’s what I describe as a thousand paper cuts,” McCuskey said, adding: “If nothing else had happened, (Flanagan) would still be here.”
Flanagan, after all, had been the top choice by all involved in a thorough presidential search process, McCuskey and Bergman said.
The board in January 2013 hired Greenwood/Asher & Associates, which had done work for ISU in the past, and paid the firm $89,000 for help with the search. The board formed a search committee of more than 20 faculty, alumni, department deans, students and staff. When the committee pared a pool of candidates to four finalists, all were invited to the student union in Normal for open meetings where the public could ask questions and then fill out comment cards to be reviewed by the board, McCuskey said.
In a summary of the evaluations collected from participants, Flanagan was rated top among the four finalists in perceived communication and interpersonal skills.
“There was no question that President Flanagan came in the lead in many categories,” McCuskey said. “He’s very affable, and it looked like a perfect choice.”
McCuskey said the search involved background checks and the calling of references, including some calls he made to Framingham State University. McCuskey said no one involved in the hiring knew Flanagan personally.
“We were very comfortable, and I was very comfortable, we had done our job and had the right person,” said Bergman. “Unfortunately it just didn’t work out like that.”
At Framingham, a public school of about 6,100 students , Flanagan was credited with creating new academic programs, securing millions in capital, establishing “record-setting levels of fundraising and private support” and launching the school’s first comprehensive campaign, ISU officials said in a release announcing Flanagan’s hiring.
Several Framingham board members declined to comment for this story.
Flanagan’s resume lists a Ph.D. in criminal justice from the University of Albany and a ranking among the most-cited authors in criminal justice journals. Before starting at Framingham in 2006, he was a vice president at State University of New York at Brockport, where he worked for eight years.
Back in Normal, Flanagan and his wife are believed to still be living in the university president’s house, a modest two-story home with a circle drive that abuts a golf course. According to the separation agreement, the couple is permitted to stay until May 31.
He is due back in McLean County Court on May 28.
Dietz, the new president, was one of the four finalists in the presidential search last year. Formerly a vice president at the school, Dietz has been spending his first weeks in office responding to questions about what he described at a committee meeting in Springfield as “turbulent times” for the campus.
“But it’s a diversion from a solid track record,” Dietz told legislators who grilled him April 3 about the $480,418 check for Flanagan.
Almost immediately after being appointed president in March, Dietz began a review of Murphy’s dismissal, said Jay Groves, a spokesman for the university. Soon after, the president determined that Murphy “deserved another opportunity,” Groves said.
Murphy, an ISU alumnus, was hired as a curator for the campus arboretum and started his new job Thursday.