College presidents' pricey perks coming to an end

CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) - They were paid six figures and are accused of mismanaging millions. Now, two financial officials with the College of DuPage are out of jobs. But they are not alone.

Top executives at public colleges throughout Illinois are getting big salaries, and benefits such as country club memberships and personal drivers.

But FOX 32's Dane Placko investigated, and those pricey perks are coming to an end.

"Universities and colleges are engaged in this sort of salary and benefits arms race," said State Senator Bill Cunningham.

Cunningham says it was a wakeup call. He and other lawmakers were stunned earlier this year when the College of DuPage agreed to give its outgoing president Robert Brueder a severance package of $763-thousand dollars, as required by his contract.

That prompted Senate Democrats to prepare a report detailing all the benefits and perks being given to presidents at Illinois’ 55 universities and community colleges.

"Where they all try to outdo each other, paying higher salaries and attaching more and more special benefits to it. And at some point when you're operating a public entity that's dependent on taxpayer dollars and tuition dollars, You have to say enough is enough," Cunningham said.

The report found base salaries for college presidents in Illinois range from $105-thousand to $651-thousand dollars.

But that often skyrockets when the perks kick in.

Many presidents get car allowances, including Carl Sandburg Community College President Lori Sundberg, whose contract calls for more than $20-thousand dollars a year to pay for her car.

The University of Illinois provides a car and driver for its president's business trips.

Many colleges also offer country club memberships.

Former Eastern Illinois University president, William Perry, got free memberships at two local golf courses worth a total of over $12-hundred dollars a year.

"The taxpayers should not be asked to pay for a country club membership. If the university has a donor base, that donor base should pay for the country club membership." Cunningham said.

One of the biggies is housing.

Many presidents get a stipend in their contracts, including Harper Community College President Kenneth Ender who gets $32-thousand dollars a year to pay for his home.

Others provide a house for their presidents, including Illinois State, which recently spent more than $175-thousand dollars to update this property.

Western Illinois has spent over $17-thousand dollars just for utilities at their president's home since 2013.

Closer to home, Chicago State University provides its president with this spectacular mansion on historic Longwood Drive in Beverly.

Through freedom of information, FOX 32 learned the college has paid more than $32-thousand dollars just for landscaping and sprinkler service alone since 2013.

"I don't know that selling the home would be fiscally the best thing for the university to do," said Chicago State spokesman Tom Wogan.

Wogan points out the president's home also hosts university functions, including fundraisers and can be used as a recruiting tool as the school searches for a new leader.

"We have a responsibility to pay competitive wages to get top level talents, because that's to the benefit of the university. But we also have a responsibility to the taxpayers," Wogan said.

In the last decade, tuition and fees at Illinois colleges has jumped 84 percent, which is driven in part by a massive increase in administrative costs.

Cunningham says it simply can't continue.

"Middle class families cannot afford that anymore. we are putting so much debt, so much financial debt on our young people that we're reaching a tipping point, where really the future of public higher education is in question," Cunningham said.

Also, FOX 32 didn't even mention the bonuses, pension sweeteners and golden parachutes mentioned in the report.

The legislature is looking to take several steps, including capping the length of college president contracts and severance, and requiring that all contracts be posted publicly.