Guest Column: The half-million dollar question


Dr. Richard Sullivan

Guest Columnist

The ISU campus is abuzz over the abrupt resignation of President Flanagan after just seven months on the job. The Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Saturday to accept Flanagan’s resignation and to appoint Dr. Larry Dietz to replace him.

I attended that meeting and am excited about the appointment of Dr. Dietz.  He seems committed to the university and is highly regarded by the ISU community.  But I’m having a much harder time wrapping my head around the Board’s decision to award a $480,000 lump sum severance payment to the outgoing President.

Everything we are told about the financial condition of our state, suggests we simply do not have money for, well, just about anything.  Especially anything related to higher education. Pensions are being slashed, salaries for employees are frozen and tuition prices continue their upward climb.  Where did the Board come up with a half-million dollars to pay someone for quitting his job?

To put size of the payoff into perspective, it means Flanagan received $70,000 (in addition to his $29,000 monthly salary) for each month of service to the university.  That same $480,000 would pay my annual salary for nearly a decade.  It would pay the salary of the typical ISU support staff — the ones who really make the university run — for the next 16 years.  And it could pay that underappreciated part-time instructor to teach the Gen Ed course you’re taking for40 years!

Alternatively, that money could have paid the tuition bill this semester for 75 lucky ISU students.  Or, for 10 much luckier students, it could have funded four full years of tuition expenses.

Board Chairperson Michael McCuskey explained after the meeting that the Trustees had to pay Flanagan because he was still under contract for the next two years.  But just moments earlier his Board had told us that Flanagan quit.  If Flanagan voluntarily left his position, why are we paying him?

I know enough about contracts to know that there are consequences for a party that breaks an agreement — and they usually don’t get rewarded for doing so. Can you imagine your landlord paying you for breaking your lease eight months early?

If I quit my job in the middle of the semester, the Trustees would certainly not pay me for the next year and a half while I sit at home on my couch eating Cheetos — unless perhaps I allegedly assault the neighbor kid who mows my lawn.

Of course it’s quite possible that Flanagan was asked to resign to save him the humiliation of being fired. Still, a half million U.S. dollars seems an excessively generous gesture to spare someone’s embarrassment — particularly in these financially lean times.

Perhaps it wasn’t Flanagan’s face the Board was trying to save.  After all, his brief tenure also reflects poorly on the Trustees who hired him. The fact that he fizzled out so quickly might (and should) raise questions about the process and whether the Trustees can be trusted.

McCuskey said on Saturday that there is plenty of talent here at ISU and there was no need to conduct “an expensive” search for a replacement. If this were true, why did they pay a recruiting firm $89,000 to find Flanagan in the first place when the Trustees could have found a better candidate by posting the opening on a bulletin board in the Bone?

What makes this episode even more insulting was the dismissive attitude of the Board’s Chairperson in response to a reporter’s question about the size of the payoff. McCuskey acted as if the question was unreasonable and out of line. His contempt was so palpable that he might as well have given us all the bird — and I don’t mean Reggie.

If you take a half million dollars from the tax and tuition paying public, pack it in a suitcase and hand it to a guy who has been here a semester and a half, the officials responsible should expect to answer for it. Happy-talk from McCuskey about “moving forward” and inanities like “the past is over” are inadequate explanations unless you’re speaking to an audience of five-year-olds.

What is the lesson the Board of Trustee’s action sends to the ISU community? Act in a way that provokes legal action, fail to show up for work, then quit without giving two weeks’ notice and you will get P.A.I.D.

Many will ask: if there is enough money to handsomely reward those who fail to do their job on campus, where is the money for those who faithfully do their jobs every day?

Most students, faculty and staff at ISU are learning and teaching about things like accountability and taking responsibility for your actions. The Trustees, however, are showing us that these rules only apply to the “little people,” and that if you sit at the top of the power structure you need not trifle with things like accountability. Perhaps we ought to gladly teach them a lesson.


Dr. Richard Sullivan is an associate professor of sociology in Illinois State University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology.


26 Responses

  1. Erin Diamond

    What a well-written article! Shame on the Board of Trustees for such a breach in our trust. I am so incredibly disappointed in this total debacle. The students, faculty, staff, and all Illinoisans are owed an apology and an explanation for this frivolous farewell gift to a 2nd rate guy who did nothing for our University.

  2. Dan S.

    You should look at Lakeland College in Sheboygan, WI a similar incident happened with their president. 7-8 months in he resigned

  3. Tawni R.

    I had Dr. Sullivan for a class in the sociology minor–brilliant guy. So well written. I am glad to know that there are distinguished, reputable ISU professors who too are concerned with the politics and finances associated with our university. Thank you for taking a stand from a faculty perspective, Dr. Sullivan!

    • Karen Huelsman

      I want to thank you for your stellar assessment of the ISU president’s situation. I think the Board of Trustees has committed a serious breach of its own ethics statement. I found that on the university’s website, but could not find email addresses for the trustees.
      In part, the Ethics Statement reads: The activities of the Board and those of its employees shall be consistent with the principle that there shall be no conflict between the private interests of a public official or employee and his/her official duties. Each member of the Board and each employee shall conform to the following guidelines:
      6. Not grant or make available to any person any consideration, treatment, information, or favor beyond that which is general practice to grant or make available to the public at large.

      The “public at large” can’t catch a break in Illinois.

  4. Mike Ricketts

    Excellent article. Shame on the board of trustees. While none of us know all of the circumstances around this, we all know enough to see when a clear violation of ethics has taken place. As an alumni and FORMER donor, I ask the board: what message of fiscal responsibility and values are you sending to students, staff and alumnI? Every one of you who voted for this should resign.

  5. Kate

    Thank you, Dr. Sullivan for writing this, and thank you to the Vidette for publishing it! As a staff employee at ISU, I have taken all of these events to heart- what led up to the resignation and eventual payoff, and the lingering questions Dr. Sullivan brought to light. Sometimes I feel that ISU is so over-eager to show their “decent society” face to the world that they don’t care who they run over and what message is being sent to get there. A dictatorship of positive press that smothers the truth.

    Make no mistake, what happened here is NORMAL in most university settings. It is standard. Once you get to a certain position, you can raise cain until someone tells you that you must resign or they will fire you. Granted, at lower positions (something more like a department chair), they will find a way to compensate for your contract that isn’t as excessive as this, but it happens every day. I’ve heard of it and seen it happen in my own department multiple times and I’ve only worked at ISU for a few years. the Flanagan payoff is disgraceful and a huge smack in the face to the faithful employees who actually come to work WITH THE STUDENTS OF ISU AS THEIR PRIORITY.

    What troubles me most is the progression of events that led to Flanagan’s resignation and eventual payoff: Patrick Murphy was wronged and went up his chain of command to find help from someone who would address the wrong that was committed. Several people who should support him as their employee just brushed him off, ignored the issue, and hoped to God it would go away. Eventually he had to go outside of ISU to get (at the very least) some recognition that wrongdoing had occurred.

    THAT. That. THAT is ISU and almost every other university in America. Complicity is King in academia. Not hard work, not stalwart educational tenets, not the students or their best interests, not the faculty and staff who come to work to foster a community of learning and growing. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. If I keep quiet, this will go away and I won’t have to stick my neck out for anything or anybody and I’ll be safe at home with my paycheck.

    See this Pantagraph article for more details about what I’m saying:

    Why do you think Joe Paterno got away with his grievous crimes for so long?

    Yeah. Think about that.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have worked in corporate offices for years and could always see through the flimsy explanations for why the boss could take six weeks of vacation with his family on a boat made of gold but they “couldn’t afford” to cater a Christmas lunch for 30 people. I’m sad to say that you come to expect that as a worker bee, even a worker bee trying to improve. It means, “We only have money for the things we care about and that ain’t you.” Face-saving money. Whose face? You decide.

    I have never encountered an environment so opposed to the truth as I have here. So many things that happen in administration are favors (or back-stabs) behind closed doors. It’s frightening, that as an institution of learning, this is the norm. As a state entity, we are supposed to adhere to a level of transparency and it’s safe to say that’s not happening “officially.” But we can read between the lines.

    The good part? There are people who work at ISU who come to work thinking of the students, who seek the truth and speak it (Dr. Sullivan, for one!), who actually embrace and live the codes our university claims to live by. Think of Al and Linda Bowman: they meant it. They lived it. Students, there are people who work at ISU that you will never meet and yet they have helped to foster you through your education. Not just because they get a paycheck, but because they care about the bottom line: your experience.

    Despite the dismal events that brought him to the Presidency, I have hope that Larry Dietz can be the type of President ISU will be proud of. Clearly they should have made that choice from the outset and only eaten the $89,000 dollars of the search instead of the $480,000 Face-Saving Fund That Somehow Only Exists When Things Are About To $#!% The Bed.

    Thanks again, Dr. Sullivan, for reminding us all to think critically and not just float over things that don’t directly affect us.

    • Reinstatepatrickmurphy

      Thank you, Kate, for speaking in defense of Patrick Murphy. I realize this excellent article by Dr. Sullivan isn’t about that, but it’s a very integral part of the whole story.
      The silencing of Murphy immediately after an assault ‘against him’ (with 5 witnesses) has been harder on him than most know. Murphy moved to BN for that job and just wanted to serve his alma matter. As an alumni, I’m disturbed by the whole story – but like you, Kate – mostly by the part about Murphy.
      Reinstate the highly qualified Murphy.
      It’s never too late to right a wrong.

  6. ISU Alum

    To add to this, as an alum who is nearing the threshold of my career where I can truly afford to donate to my alma mater, a situation like this and the poor handling by the trustees (not only the expensive failure of the search process but the large payout) makes me second guess even considering it. Sorry ISU, I’d rather not have any of my dollars being spent due to mismanagement.

    Additionally, the trustees could have handled their response a little better, as noted in the article. It would have gone a long way had the chairperson humbled up and accepted some responsibility for all of this.

  7. Bob

    The students and faculty should petition for Flanagan to donate that money back to the University, regardless of how likely it would be to succeed.

  8. Chris

    As a contract employee it would be impossible to fire Flanagan. The only possible option is that the board offered Flanagan the severance package to agree to resign. If only 100 students decided not to go to ISU because of Flanagan’s reputation it would cost the University far more than what it cost to get rid of Flanagan. In the end the board is attempting to save money for the school. It is not ideal, but lets not forget that this is Flanagan’s fault, not the board.

  9. Bob

    While I share the angst of everyone else over the large payout to Flanagan, it’s important to critically analyze what’s going on here. I’m an employment lawyer and deal with these situations all the time so I may be able to shed some light on this.

    Flanagan wasn’t an employee at will. His employment was governed by a multi-year contract under which Flanagan would act as President for salary and benefits measured in the multiple millions of dollars. If his contract is like most it required Flanagan to behave himself but didn’t anticipate the precise situation encountered here. The situation the Trustees are confronted with is particularly difficult because it falls into a gray area of conduct. On the one hand there’s the assertion of a physical assault. On the other hand, Flanagan denies it. The truth is likely somewhere in between: there’s no doubt Flanagan behaved boorishly but it’s not at all clear he did anything illegal.

    All of this presents a problem for the Trustees, because Flanagan’s behavior might not be in breach of his contract. Even if he may be in breach, it might require protracted litigation to establish it. Litigation is extremely expensive, and there are no guarantees of success. Thus the Trustees could opt to charge Flanagan with breach, which would result in expensive litigation that the University might well lose. If the University were to lose, the University itself would likely be in breach of the contract and end up owing Flanagan a lot more than $480,000. That’s the reality.

    So it’s easy for me to see what drove the decision and I can’t fault it. It is perfectly reasonable, though, to ask how the search committee wound up finding, and the Trustees hiring, Flanagan in the first place. Maybe the process was flawed and there was something in Flanagan’s background that should’ve raised a red flag. On the other hand, I have to tell you, having served on search committees myself, that no matter how careful and diligent you are, a wackadoo can still slip through the cracks. A guy who’s been nice and normal his entire career can lose it after he’s hired — in countless different ways.

    The Flanagan problem is very unfortunate, and embarrassing, but I think the University was likely a lot smarter to put this whole thing behind it rather than take its chances in litigation and simultaneously keep the situation alive as a distraction for years to come.

    I repeat, I share your angst. I don’t like it one bit. But I’m guessing the Trustees feel that way too. And one more thing — getting Flanagan out of the way, even with the contract buy-out, demonstrates a genuine commitment to the sort of collegiality everyone seems to want. Flanagan walked the plank. Let’s not forget that.

    • R Sullivan

      Bob, I understand the legal cost-benefit analysis calculation you present but, frankly it’s a tiny ledge for the Board of Trustees to stand on. Flanagan’s contract was published today at the It may be of interest to those who haven’t seen it. There appear to be several obvious paths to removing Flanagan without having to pay him anything – assuming he was guilty of conduct unbecoming a president (which isn’t the same as being criminally charged) or assuming that he resigned as the Board of Trustees have officially claimed.

      Perhaps Flanagan walked the plank, but a lot of us would do that if we had a half-million dollar parachute strapped to our back. Flanagan is no longer the issue — he has his money. But if the Board of Trustees is being righteous in its actions (spending the students’ money to avoid _potential_ legal costs and their own embarrassment) maybe they should follow this through to its logical conclusion and fall their swords by resigning to demonstrate their commitment to the University and taking responsibility for problems that occurred on their watch. One or more Trustees “walking the plank” would put the meat into the claim that they have the best interests of the university at heart. There is nothing noble about making the difficult decisions if other people are the ones who suffer the consequences.

  10. Rachel

    Thank you Dr. Sullivan for this amazing article!! You have said what MANY of us have been thinking since this crazy situation started. I am a current student at ISU and feel that it is just ridiculous that someone who has literally done NOTHING for our university gets paid for not doing his job. To add to my disappointment that my (and many other student’s) tuition was just handed away to a man who breached his contract and then quit, I as a senior received an e-mail stating that ISU would like every senior to donate $20.14 as a “senior gift” that will be going to help with financial aid. EXCUSE ME?!?! Like Dr. Sullivan said- that money could have paid for 10 students ENTIRE FOUR YEAR TUITION. So my advice to ISU- stop paying people who are not doing their job and focus on helping students, because after all isn’t that what a university should do?!

  11. S

    Shame on the board of trustees. All donors should become former donors. What a disgrace to ISU.

  12. Proud alum

    What a mess. I am glad the board of trustees acted swiftly and that President Flanagan is gone. No one could have predicted this bizarre series of events. I am and will always be proud of ISU and would never punish the university by withholding a donation. What is to be gained? I suspect ISU broke the contract for good reasons and decided it was best to pay now to avoid expensive long term legal battles later. I think they acted in the best interest of the university even though there was a high price to pay.

  13. blgstc

    Article does a great job of relaying what many of us are thinking.

    Will we being seeing any of this drama noted in the promotional materials sent out to prospective students?

    Will be keeping that 1/2 million dollar “adios” package in mind next time I write a check to cover ISU: tuition.



    “If I quit my job in the middle of the semester, the Trustees would certainly not pay me for the next year and a half while I sit at home on my couch eating Cheetos — unless perhaps I allegedly assault the neighbor kid who mows my lawn.”


  15. Reinstatepatrickmurphy

    The group of students on the quad is ………wow… inspirational – restores some faith…….

  16. Christopher DeGrandis

    Great Comments on a great srticle. Keep this story alive!

    Timothy Flanagan was formally charged with disorderly conduct. But look a little deeper irregardless of the litigious climate in which we live. Therefore any free thinking like-minded person will elect the protection of alleging their opinion herein. With that said, it does not take much effort to interpret the amount of money disgraced former Illinois State University Timothy Flanagan chose to pocket.

    First, naivety aside, the public should always consider an individual’s free will to elect or reject “choice” throughout the negotiation process. For example Flanagan could have deliberately salvaged some integrity and respectability becoming of a state employee by requesting a prorated settlement.

    An annual salary of $350,000 and Flanagan’s 229 days of service as president of the university credited between August 15, 2013 and March 22, 2014, results in pre-tax daily income of $958.40, and a total prorated and pretax salary of $219,589. In addition reasonable notice (30 days) to discontinue both residence in the president’s campus home as well as usage of university car are steps appropriate and becoming of an ex-president interested in restoring integrity.

    Flanagan chose not to take the path of choice to insist on a prorated setlement figure, instead complying with his hubris and the greed of his legal counsel to maximize his settlement to more than $480,000, more than twice the respectable prorated figure. No doubt this was a settlement sought by Flanagan for the purpose of maximizing the potential dollar amount given the language in his contract, without regard to what his choice represents to the detriment of the public who pay his salary in taxes (at least in part), and with regard to self and attorney interest.

    Although Greenwood/Archer & Associates were hired to find viable candidates to interview for the presidential post, there is a lot to be said that an average, free-thinking person found out just as much and likely more about him during his University of Illinois service.

    For example, last September Martha Coakley ordered a special investigation by the state treasurer into the alleged misspending of university funds by a junior administrator. Specifically Assistant for Alumni Relations, Robert Walmsley, was fired from Framingham State University in June 2013.

    The university inexplicably failed to report knowledge of the missing funds for over three months. The news broke in late August 2013. The news disseminated like a parody of how state universities feel entitled to hide public information. The parody starred the Framingham State University director of human resources and a campus policeman. Aptly, HR tried to conceal the identity of the alleged over-spending employee and specifics about the six-figure balk, behind the tailor-made “matter of national security” line that has come to define unjustified concealment in higher education: “Its a personnel matter.” Meanwhile, campus police, who reports directly to university human resources and not the state police barracks, named Walmsley and more details about the spending gaff.

    All news coverage reported that an employee, three months removed of getting fired, spent as much as $167,000 on the university’s professional charge card system. Human Resources and general council Rita Colucci added that they (Walmsley) may not have spent the entire amount. In fact the case file shows that Walmsley spent none of it. Having reached April 2014, an unprecedented ten months removed from incident without any update on one of the largest scale grand larcenies by a university in recent history, it is reliably conclusive there is no file.

    Lets get real, $167,000 is a suspiciously large sum of money for a junior administrator to rack up. This is particularly true for someone like Walmsley, whose job was to solicit funds from alumni to fund university endeavors, while under the very high scrutiny and deep surveillance, in due consideration of Framingham State University’s poor financial track record, which had led to audits and accounting investigations by the commonwealth of Massachusetts.

    Suspicions are abound on who spent these monies. Examination of recent criminal charges filed against former Framingham State University President Timothy Flanagan, who happened to officially leave Framingham State University in June 2013, reveals much to be desired.

    Keep in mind that months before Timothy Flanagan left Framingham State University, he hired Vice President of Academic Affairs (VPAA) Linda Vaden-Goad, who was under investigation by the state of Connecticut for egregious discrimination of a professor at Western Connecticut State College (See Appel v. Spiridon, Rinker, Vaden-Goad). Vaden-Goad was since found liable both professionally and personally for illegally accessing and reading the medical records of Art Professor Rosalie Appel, a frankly heinous and disturbing invasion of privacy that Vaden-Goad committed without permission from Appel. Vaden-Goad used Appel’s medical records to form the basis of instituting a mandatory psychological evaluation by a university appointed psychologist as one of several retaliatory measures that escalated into Appel’s unlawful termination. Vaden-Goad, like Flanagan, was researched for her qualifications and chosen because the administration thought she was a good fit for Flanagan. This ought to clarify what Flanagan is willing to overlook in the the character of one of the highest administrative positions: discrimination.


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