28.4.09

WHO YOU KNOW. WHO KNOWS YOU. The Northern Star releases an investigation of nepotism at Northern Illinois University.

The Northern Star has received numerous persistent tips over the years about the nature of specific individuals receiving or occupying their respective positions.

Steve Cunningham, assistant vice president for human resource services, said he is aware of questions concerning connections among employees.

“I hear about it internally,” he said, referring to complaints of children working in the same realm as a parent, or friends of administrators in high-paying positions. “I’ve certainly heard over the years, ‘Why this?’ ‘Why that?’ There’s very legitimate concern for inquiry.”

Many administrators said the number of connected individuals is not uncommon.

A university is typically one of the “giant employers” in smaller communities, said Board of Trustees Chair Cherilyn Murer.

The story, in five parts, provides substance for those complaints. The paper provides a link at the end of each part to the next part. Follow the links.

It alleges no wrongdoing. Northern Illinois has been less subject to serial administrators than many neighboring universities. The academic programs are solid. The presence of extended family members bothers some observers.

Brad McMillan, the executive director of the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service at Bradley University, believes any employees who are related and working in the same area of a state employer creates a problem.

“We think there should be a complete ban on anybody hiring family in their sphere of influence,” McMillan said. “There’s clearly an appearance of impropriety there that needs to be avoided. It’s hard to argue that when there’s a direct line up the chain and there’s a family member hired in that chain that there’s not personal benefit.”

If you take that seriously, that's the end of hiring spouses, trailing or otherwise, particularly within the same discipline.

There's disagreement, including among local elected officials, over whether the within-family hires are wrong.

State Rep. Bob Pritchard (R-Hinckley) was not previously aware of some connections among families at NIU.

“I’ve never supported the notion. It’s definitely a bad practice,” Pritchard said. “I never thought it appropriate to hire family members for anything but a summer or temporary-type job.”

At the state level, Pritchard is familiar with connections in the workplace.

“It’s not unusual for office holders to encourage their kids to apply,” Pritchard said. “I suspect that maybe knowing someone opens some doors.”

Pritchard felt these types of hires could negatively affect morale.

“It’s wrong,” he said. “Those are the kinds of allegations that make people lose confidence in an organization. It raises judgments about the people approving those kinds of decisions.”

State Sen. Brad Burzynski (R-Clare) also did not know of the employee connections.

“I wasn’t even aware that Eddie had kids on staff,” Burzynski said. “I have to assume that they’re qualified.”

NIU employs large numbers of family members, President Peters said.

“The key is fairness, rules and attracting the best people you can,” Peters said. “We’ve had to make accommodations.”

McMillan advocates clarity in state hiring.

“Some of the recommendations we are making talk about when taxpayer money is involved in hiring a state employee. There needs to be clear job descriptions and qualifications,” he said.

There are situations where the hiring of family or friends is not necessarily a bad thing, according to William Tolhurst, an associate professor of philosophy.

“Nepotism is not always wrong,” Tolhurst said. As far as personal businesses go, “if someone hires only relatives, it may be bad for business, but it’s his business,” he said.

But at the state level, it is different, Tolhurst said. For state jobs, like working at NIU, candidates are hired on the basis of qualifications, he said. NIU is an equal opportunity employer.

One, however, within which ordinary networking enhances applicants' chances.

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