Northeastern Illinois University campus
Northeastern Illinois University campus Credit: Zol87/Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

Northeastern Illinois University was at the center of an embarrassing kerfuffle earlier this year when word got out that it had extended tenure to a faculty member with a PhD from a California diploma mill. At the unaccredited Pacific Western University (subsequently sold, moved, and renamed), you could complete your doctorate in a quick two years for a flat fee of $2,595.

NEIU provost Lawrence Frank told the Sun-Times that justice studies professor Theophilus Okosun was granted tenure on the basis of his exceptional teaching, not his degree. The school has a rarely used rule that allows the PhD requirement to be waived for extraordinary teachers, so his tenure may be only arguably egregious. But here’s the really zany part: Frank also said that as late as last year the powers that be at NEIU hadn’t realized that PWU wasn’t accredited.

If that’s true, Okosun isn’t the only one whose job ought to be in question. And he’s not. On November 23, a seriously agitated NEIU faculty senate passed resolutions of no confidence in both Frank and university president Sharon Hahs.

The Okosun incident was just one of a number of events that drove NEIU history professor Zachary Schiffman, who’d seldom been active outside his department, to initiate the senate’s extraordinary vote. Convinced that the school’s future is at stake and outraged by what he calls blatant discrepancies between the administration’s rhetoric and its actions, Schiffman asked the faculty senate—of which he’s not a member—to consider the no-confidence vote at its October 12 meeting. But faculty groups aren’t generally known for rushing into action; the proposal was discussed and set aside in two subsequent meetings. In the meantime the NEIU student government went ahead with its own resolution. As reported by the student-run Northeastern Independent newspaper, on October 26, by 11-1 with one abstention, the student senate voted no confidence on Frank while giving Hahs its thumbs up, 10-2 with one abstention.

Now the faculty senate has outdone that. With 19 of 20 senators present, 11 voted no confidence on Frank and 12 on Hahs; seven abstained on both counts, and Frank got a single vote of confidence. Since abstentions aren’t counted, the motions, Schiffman says, passed “overwhelmingly.” The only objections were procedural, he adds. Faculty senate vice chair Gregory Anderson, a physics professor, says, “My impression is that some of the people who abstained feared retribution.”

The faculty resolution asserted that the administration has “taken actions which negatively impact academic affairs . . . failed to respect the essential principles of shared governance . . . and failed to take responsibility for the decline of morale on campus.”

Meanwhile, faculty contract talks—under way for the last two and a half years—continued last week under the guidance of a federal mediator. Psychology professor Therese Schuepfer, who heads NEIU’s union, local 4100 of the University Professionals of Illinois, says that two additional negotiating dates (November 30 and December 7) were set after an 11-hour session on the same day as the faculty senate’s vote. Schuepfer notes that the three outstanding issues are workload, compensation, and procedures for sanctioning and terminating faculty members.

The faculty hasn’t had a raise for two years and is the lowest paid at any state university in Illinois. But Schiffman says money isn’t his main issue; his biggest problems have to do with shared governance and teaching loads. NEIU, Schuepfer says, is giving more work to nontenured instructors—who teach as many as eight courses in a two-semester school year—and attempting to move away from individualized and small-group instruction by tenured faculty. “The administration is fundamentally changing the nature of the institution,” Schiffman argues, “by . . . turning the faculty into mere tuition generators.”

What’s more, the administration is supposed to take the faculty’s judgment into account in its decisions. But for the last two or three years it’s “routinely trampled on that,” Schiffman says, ignoring the recommendations of its own faculty departments and committees. Among the current regime’s controversial decisions: closure of the Adult and Women Student Programs office, set for February. Sociology professor Michael Amato says AWSP provides “critical” counseling, guidance, and support services to women, who comprise about 60 percent of the student body. Although AWSP will be absorbed into the dean of students’ office, Amato maintains that the administration has “no coherent plan in place to ensure there is no disruption in those services.”

Other bones of contention include the administration’s approval of ROTC classes and, as I reported here in 2008, a policy proposal that would’ve stifled free speech on campus.

Schiffman, who’s been at NEIU for 23 years and chaired his department for eight of them, says it was the increasing likelihood of a strike that finally convinced him to speak out. “My colleagues for a long time had been much more alarmist than me. They were saying [NEIU] was changing for the worse, and I was thinking that since it’s a fairly large institution it has a stability and momentum that’s hard to disrupt. I basically just taught my courses and did my research and kept a low profile. I would never have dreamt of talking to the board of trustees or addressing the faculty senate.”

But in September, when it looked to him like contract negotiations were breaking down, Schiffman asked the board of trustees to intervene. “I thought a strike would be a tragedy, and it seemed to me that things were drifting willy-nilly” in that direction.

Schiffman is a union member who’s walked the picket line, but he thinks the school has yet to recover from a “disheartening” strike over compensation and workload that took place in 2004, under the previous president, Salme Steinberg. Frank is a holdover from Steinberg’s decade-long term; Hahs came on in 2007.

The administration claims that tuition increases are needed to make up for higher costs—”and yet at the same time,” Schiffman says, “they were awarding themselves large raises.” He cites a $40,000 bump Hahs gave the university’s in-house lawyer this year and her own 17 percent salary increase—amounting to more than $43,000—in 2009. Meanwhile, undergrad tuition ($6,240 for 2010-’11) has gone up 62.5 percent since 2005-‘6. “There seemed to be a disconnect between the administration’s rhetoric and their spending habits,” he says.

In a press release responding to the faculty senate vote, Hahs is quoted as saying that times are “very difficult” and “tensions are high” at NEIU because of the contract negotiations. “I have expressed my commitment to working together with the Faculty Senate to address our issues,” the statement continues, “and I stand by that commitment as we move forward.” As of press time, NEIU hadn’t answered further questions.

NEIU graduates only about 20 percent of incoming freshmen within six years, but Schiffman describes it as a “high quality, very inexpensive school that offers small classes and individual attention to non-traditional students.” During the two minutes he was allotted to speak to the board of trustees, he said “it was a very bad sign for them to be hearing from someone like me. Because I basically minded my own business and did my own work. If I felt obliged to stand before them, that was a sign of crisis.”

In what’s generally understood to be a strategy for getting a university president fired, the senate is now planning to give the entire faculty a chance to voice their confidence or lack of same in Hahs and Frank. No date for the vote has been set.