George W. Reid—the man recently hired to run the day-to-day operations of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, at a taxpayer-funded salary of $190,000—has an impressive resume that includes a litany of top academic posts.
Less flattering are the press reports and public documents touching on his tumultuous tenure at Kentucky State University, a historically black liberal arts school of about 2,800 students that Reid ran from 1998 to 2002.
Among the issues outlined in these reports:
- Reid presided over an administration that came under fire from the state’s auditor, which found in 2000 that KSU didn’t “assure the security of cash and records,” had “the highest default rate for Perkins loans” among Kentucky’s public universities and didn’t “effectively manage the time and attendance of its employees.” (Perkins loans are government loans for “needy” college students.)
- The Kentucky attorney general found the school, while Reid was in charge, violated or “subverted” the state’s open records law several times in responding to document requests from local reporters, legal records show.
- Reid used university funds to cover personal items that included a trailer hitch for his boat and a cat scratching post, and when this came to light, he reimbursed the school more than $1,600, according to media accounts that cited school documents.
There’s more tumult, including lawsuits filed by Reid against the school and a local newspaper, a no-confidence vote by faculty and a forced exit from KSU in 2002 after his board of regents renewed—then voided—his contract.
We asked Carrie Hightman, chairwoman of the IBHE—a governmental agency that helps “coordinate and regulate” colleges and universities in Illinois —whether she knew about the problems and, if so, why Reid was brought on board.
“I’ve read what you’ve read,” she said of the numerous news articles written on Reid a decade or so back.
Hightman said she also spoke with his previous employers—before coming on board in late December, he worked at the Maryland Higher Education Commission as assistant secretary of planning and academic affairs—and she and her colleagues found that Reid is “a respected professional in higher education.”
So what about the Kentucky upheaval?
In a nutshell, Hightman said the difficulties from Kentucky State were not about Reid doing anything wrong so far as she can tell, but shaking things up and ruffling feathers along the way, thereby drawing fire from critics.
Reid told the BGA he “inherited” a troubled system at KSU and made vast improvements not only in the education arena, but also in athletics, finances and student enrollment.
“I was a turn-around president, I turned around an institution that was failing,” he said, pointing to audits that charted improvement in the areas of finance and oversight, enrollment gains and big money he raised from donors.
As for the questionable KSU expenditures, Reid said he had an arrangement that allowed him to use university funds for all kinds of spending, and he’d settle up at a later time if he needed to reimburse. (A university spokeswoman said she could not confirm that.)
Reid said he should be judged on his decades-long career, not just a few years.
Either way, this is a critical juncture for higher education in Illinois.
Confidence in our government-run system—and in the leadership—has been shaken in recent years by revelations that clout played a role in student admissions at the University of Illinois.
Tuition continues to rise at many institutions, making college unaffordable or very difficult for lots of students and parents.
And just days ago a report from a state watchdog slammed another public agency—the Illinois Student Assistance Commission—for hiring a politically connected company that recommended investing millions of dollars in a bank that ended up failing.
The IBHE had its own troubles when former state Rep. Judy Erwin, Reid’s predecessor, was found to have done political work for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign while on the clock for taxpayers. She resigned this past summer.
Let’s hope Reid is part of the solution here, and whatever happened in Kentucky was akin to a bad grade on an otherwise stellar report card.
This story was reported and written by Robert Herguth, the BGA’s editor of investigations. Contact us with tips, suggestions and complaints at (312) 821-9030, or at email@example.com.