Conflicts of Interest and a “Memo of Frustration”: A Community College Foundation Finds Itself in a Mess

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College Foundations

April 13, 2015; Daily Herald (Chicago, IL)


It’s NPQ’s position that it is best, wherever possible, not to do business with board members. If, for some reason, it is just the undeniably best possible option to do so, great care must be taken to document how you made that determination. Bidding the job well is probably a good procedural step, especially when and where required.

But at the College of DuPage Foundation, six of its currently 20-member board have done work under contract with the foundation. (It would have been eight, but two of those in question, both attorneys, have recently resigned the board.)

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“The contracts that have been given to individuals who later may have become foundation board members—or who were then foundation board members—have all been competitive,” said college trustee Dianne McGuire, talking to members of the press at a meeting called for the media. But trustee Kathy Hamilton comments, “Some $200 million in no-bid contracts for insiders is quite enough to know that the relationship will require new thinking.”

One of the contracts in question was for more than $630,000 and was not bid out. The contract went to Herricane Graphics, of which board member Carla Burkhart is president, to design signs for COD. In the contracts, Burkhart is repeatedly and inaccurately referred to as an architect. (For her part, Burkhart has said she never claimed to be an architect. COD officials say they used boilerplate contracts, and one of them included an addendum indicating Burkhart’s work wasn’t architectural in nature.)

Susan Lang Berry, the president of the foundation, made a plea to the media that could not have been less relevant under the circumstances:

“We have so many wonderful people who are volunteering their time to the foundation…As different questions have been asked and different things have been published, we have felt that the primary focus has been taken off the good works that they do and the good work of the foundation.”

Right—which is why you have to avoid even the perception of conflicts of interest.

This particular set of problems has followed a number of others at the College itself. First, President Robert Breuder, who had already received a pair of no-confidence votes from faculty, lost a $20 million state grant, already appropriated in 2009, after he sent a politically flatfooted email to the board that explicitly suggested that the school create an immediate reason it needed the money, which was then publicized by a watchdog group, For the Good of Illinois. To be fair, the long history of the money’s lack of use as described by Inside Higher Ed must have been deeply annoying to the community college, but, well, you can be the judge…

From: Breuder, Dr. Robert
To: ~Board of Trustees
Subject: Board Item
Date: Friday, May 09, 2014 10:09:49 AM

Attachments: 10.A.2) Construction of a Teaching and Learning Center.pdf
FW_ Quote for Gov. Quinn Press Release (163 KB).msg

I am in a bit of a quandary.

We have been working with the Governor’s Office (seemingly forever) to secure our $20 million. Initially the money was to be used for our Homeland Security initiative. When we accomplished our Homeland agenda without state funding, we changed the focus to building demolition. With that initiative soon to be history we need an alternative. I needed to identify a project that would help release our state funding. My idea: a Teaching and Learning Center.

Several Board members want to weigh in on the need for such a facility. I have no problem with that; however, not being able to say how we would use the state’s money (perhaps no real need) could lessen our chances to break the money loose at this time (the political moon is rising).

A building that focuses on teaching and learning is politically attractive; more so than let’s say a student center, PE facility, etc. At COD, general purpose classroom space is our greatest need. (See attached Board agenda item.) A need that will expand with continued enrollment growth. My having to dance around the issue of how we would use the money attenuates our ask. When I introduce Governor Quinn at commencement, I want to help our cause (getting the $20 million released sooner rather than later) by thanking him for his commitment in front of 3,500 people. There are many voters in our District. Please keep November 4 in mind. The limited state dollars for capital projects will go somewhere in this heightened political season. Why not College of DuPage?

In the attached press release you can see how I have had to dance around how we would use the money. It was a less effective quote than it could have been.

And lastly, who better to know what physical space needs we have than the people who deliver services every day? There is always the option of telling the Governor we want the money, will bank it until we figure out how to use it, and then build something. And is it not better to match money than to provide 100%?

Bottom line: I need some room to breathe on this matter so I can enhance the likelihood we get the $20 million, soon.


Breuder has called this missive “a memo of frustration,” and there may be many people who have been toyed with by Illinois’s paying habits who might sympathize. This paragraph in the Inside Higher Ed article says volumes about where that frustration might have come from:

“Illinois has billions in public debt, which forces the state to prioritize among projects that have been appropriated state funds. Glenn Hansen, president of DuPage’s faculty association, said DuPage had been treated ‘like all the other community colleges’ in the state.”

Illinois, as many of our readers know, does have a reputation for allocating and contracting but then holding nonprofit money to manage its own cash flow.

Then, in January, COD trustees further irked the taxpayers by voting a $762,868 buyout package for Breuder, who is now due to retire next March. We won’t go too much further into the various subpoenas, board coups, and an allegedly embezzling radio station employee that have fallen like acid rain on the college’s reputation.

Meanwhile, trustee McGuire said she and others “will probably suggest a policy” once their review is done, but this article says it is “unlikely the proposed policy will prevent foundation members from receiving contracts from the college in the future.”

Lang Berry defends such a policy by saying that the vendors only entered into their (board) volunteer roles after their companies were doing business with the college. (Insert editorial sigh here.) “The people who work for the college are very passionate about the college and want to give back,” Lang Berry said. “To exclude them would be detrimental.”—Ruth McCambridge


  • Fred T.

    “The people who work for the college are very passionate about the college and want to give back,” Lang Berry said LOL If I had a dollar for everytime I have heard this at meetings. Most board are self perpetuating seeking out and electing board members that THINK as they do. From what the article states and does not state, it appears that this board has been failing the college and more importantly the students for their NOT DOING THEIR JOBS. The students and taxpayers should sue these people and make sure their names are published so the world can see who NOT to recruit for any position in the future.

    The college or state should bring in an ousider to review the processes and governamce that the organizations has in place, and provide specific direction to what needs to be done to restore ethics and transparant governancy to this organization.

    The unfortunate result of these poor policies and board failed practices, is that IF there were any ethical employees or ethical board members they left realizing. Probably realizing that the majority of the board members condoned and continued to all this debacle to continue.

    The board members will wash their hands of any responsiblity and go out and join another board. It will be the students, and teachers that will carry this debacle with them in the future.

  • Jordan Saunders

    Just one quick comment – the school newspaper has complete editorial control at COD. We have a faculty advisor but are never told what to print or not to print in The Courier by the administration or Board members or President. Thank you.

    One other comment about the note below – it will be the students, teachers and OTHER DEDICATED WORKERS left behind to clean up the mess. Not just students and faculty.