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Northeastern Illinois University

The first Black woman hired to lead Northeastern Illinois University has accused two board members of trying to force her out in “retaliation” for her refusal to give scholarships to three ineligible students – including the wife of a board member.

Ashlee Rezin

First Black woman to lead NEIU accuses board of discrimination and ethics violations

The first Black woman hired to lead Northeastern Illinois University is on her way out from the campus on Chicago’s North Side — but not before directing serious accusations at two board members who pushed for her removal.

In an email obtained by WBEZ, NEIU President Gloria Gibson told a top state official that the university’s board discriminated against her “based on my race and gender.” Gibson also accused the two board members of trying to force her out in “retaliation” for her refusal to give scholarships to three ineligible students — including the wife of a board member.

Using her personal email account, Gibson leveled those charges in December against the then-chairman of the NEIU board, Jim Palos, and another board member at the time, Charles Serrano. In an email to Illinois Deputy Gov. Martin Torres, Gibson wrote that she had filed grievances against board members and that NEIU’s ethics officer advised her that none of the three students should get scholarships.

The previously undisclosed email from Gibson to the top Pritzker aide for education came soon after university officials announced that Gibson would be leaving NEIU at the end of June, according to public records obtained by WBEZ.

Asked about the letter from Gibson, a spokeswoman for Pritzker replied only that the administration “takes seriously any allegation of wrongdoing.” The governor’s office also said Pritzker’s appointees to university boards “operate independently,” making their own personnel decisions.

A spokesman for NEIU said Gibson declined to comment for this story. But in a statement posted on the NEIU website, Gibson made clear the decision to leave was not her own.

“While I am disappointed that the Board of Trustees has decided not to renew my contract beyond June 30, 2023, my commitment to Northeastern Illinois University is as strong as ever,” Gibson wrote on Dec. 1.

Both of the board members Gibson accused in her email are no longer trustees.

In January, the governor did not reappoint Palos to the university’s board at the end of his term. Contacted by WBEZ, Palos denied the charges that Gibson leveled in the letter, saying he and others pushed for her removal because they thought NEIU would benefit from new leadership.

“She had the same race and gender when she was hired as when we decided to not renew her contract,” Palos said of Gibson. “So if we were biased against her based on race and gender, we wouldn’t not have hired her, right? There’s not a person on that board who is bigoted in any way.”

Palos is on the board of the Chicago charter school network that lobbied him and Serrano to give scholarships at NEIU to their students at the start of the current school year. Palos said he spoke with Gibson about the matter but added, “I have never insisted that a particular action be taken.” He also provided a letter to WBEZ from the university’s ethics officer from September in which the officer essentially cleared him of any “ethics concerns” and shared her expectation she would “close this matter” soon after talking with Serrano, too.

Serrano declined to comment on the letter Gibson sent to the governor. But he told WBEZ he felt he had done nothing wrong by calling a university official on behalf of his wife, who wanted to enroll in a graduate class but was erroneously listed as an international student. He also defended trying to get scholarships for the charter school students.

Serrano stepped down from the NEIU board last month, after pushing unsuccessfully for Gibson’s immediate dismissal. He said Gibson had done a poor job, citing falling enrollment and a budget deficit.

“I just hope that, somehow, something comes about that is positive at Northeastern after Gibson,” Serrano said.

“An action to misuse University funds”

In the email to the deputy governor Torres on Dec. 22, Gibson wrote, “I am writing to inform you that I have filed two grievances against the Northeastern Illinois University Board of Trustees. The first pertains to discrimination/hostile work environment. The Board created a discriminatory hostile work environment based on my race and gender.”

She said the other grievance was for the retaliation she faced after resisting pressure to grant the three scholarships sought by Serrano and Palos, who are both Latino.

“I reported to my ethics officer that Trustee Charles Serrano submitted a list of three students to be considered for a scholarship for which they were not eligible,” Gibson wrote. “One of the names on the list was his wife.”

Gibson wrote to the governor’s office that Palos “insisted” on giving scholarships to the other two students listed by Serrano.

“I reported these actions and my refusal to participate in an action to misuse University funds to my ethics officer,” Gibson wrote. “She advised that no scholarships be given to any of the students as requested by the board members. Shortly thereafter, I was told by Chair Palos that my contract would not be extended as the ‘University decided to move in a different direction.’ ”

The next day, Deputy Gov. Torres wrote Gibson back in an email, thanking her “for providing an update on the circumstances below” and asking for a copy of the grievances that she filed. He repeated that request to Gibson in another email on Jan. 11.

A few days later, Gibson provided the deputy governor with her cell phone number and the following day she wrote to him that it appeared she had missed a call from him.

The governor’s office told WBEZ it did not have copies of the grievances from Gibson.

The original email to Torres did not provide further details about the three students who sought the scholarships or why Gibson concluded that they were not qualified for scholarships.

A monthslong chain of emails and text messages

But documents obtained by WBEZ through a public records request to NEIU show Gibson and the board’s ethics officer stymied efforts last year to provide scholarships to two students who had graduated from Intrinsic Schools, a private group that runs charter campuses in Chicago with public funding. Palos also is a board member of Intrinsic Schools.

Records show the two students came from families whose household incomes exceeded the limits for recipients of the full scholarships they were hoping to get from NEIU.

In a series of emails and text messages throughout last summer, then-board members Palos and Serrano discussed getting the scholarships for the two unidentified students with two administrators for Intrinsic Schools.

In one of the emails, sent last June, a charter school administrator told Serrano she was expecting to receive “good news” that the two students “will be fully funded, as promised, at NEIU.”

In July, Serrano wrote, “I’m doing my best,” and that he hoped that in 2023 he could get more students from Intrinsic Schools into NEIU “without having to pay.”

But by August, with deadlines to enroll looming, an Intrinsic administrator wrote Serrano that one of the students and the charter school’s officials were feeling “super nervous.” She added, “I didn’t realize the money had not been allocated to the students yet.”

While Serrano blamed the “bureaucratic process” at NEIU, the charter administrator expressed deep disappointment in the outcome: “You told us you had secured funding for both students, after we shared their household incomes with you, so that is what we communicated to the students. It is not ok that [one of the students] is registered for classes and ready to start at NEIU and doesn’t have the scholarship he was promised.

“We’ve been hearing guarantees for a while now with absolutely no evidence that this will happen for either student,” she told Serrano, adding that the process “reflects very poorly on all of us” and would result in “two very upset families.”

Records show Intrinsic officials had told Serrano in June the prospective students came from families with annual household incomes of $100,000 and $86,000. The cutoff for the scholarships they were seeking was an annual family income of $60,000.

On Aug. 18, then-Board Chairman Palos asked NEIU President Gibson for an “update on the Intrinsic students,” and Gibson replied that the scholarships would not be available to those students.

“I am respectfully sharing with you that the NEIU Ethics Officer has directed me to not initiate any efforts to provide scholarship funding to potential students who do not qualify for such funding,” Gibson wrote. “All student applicants must follow the normal financial aid process.”

Palos and Serrano told WBEZ they met with the university’s ethics officer, Natalie Brouwer Potts, and discussed the scholarship matter with Mary Patricia Burns, the board’s outside attorney. Both former NEIU trustees said the ethics officer cleared them of the accusations from Gibson.

Palos provided an email from Sept. 1 in which Potts told the board’s attorney she had “no remaining concerns with respect to” Palos and that she would meet with Serrano to discuss the issue.

Potts wrote, “Further, this will not be an investigation meeting with Trustee Serrano; just one in which I give my advice as Ethics Officer and we move forward.”

Potts did not return messages, and Burns declined to comment.

An alleged violation of open meetings act amid Gibson’s ouster

A native of East St. Louis, Illinois, Gibson was hired at NEIU in 2018 with an annual salary of more than $300,000 a year. Her initial contract was for three years, but she received a one-year extension in 2021. The board of trustees approved another two-year extension for Gibson at a meeting in June, according to minutes of that session.

Palos and Serrano were among the trustees who voted to give Gibson that extension. But the relationship apparently soured soon after that. According to a Nov. 30 email, Palos sent Burns, the outside attorney, a statement “communicating the board’s decision to not renew President Gibson’s contract.” In the statement, the board said Gibson would remain on the job until June 30, 2023. Serrano was blind copied on Palos’s message.

But in a lengthy email also sent on Nov. 30, Serrano wrote Palos and Burns that allowing Gibson to stay on six months was inadequate — and he called for firing Gibson immediately. Serrano wrote that keeping Gibson on any longer was “a failure of our fiduciary responsibility and sends a message to all that are part of the NEIU family we are not able to do what is best for the future of NEIU.”

Serrano wrote that the board had “unanimously decided not to renew her contract” after learning more about NEIU’s “finances, recruitment and the abysmal figures of our retention.” Serrano also wrote that Gibson presided over a campus work culture that was “toxic” and dysfunctional.

He added, “I plead that we reconsider this action, this irreversible decision with grave consequences … There are options to this decision that will commence to repair the atrocities of this management, which has lead [sic] us to a 4.5 million dollar deficit for this fiscal year, and is leading us to over 11 million dollar deficit for the coming year.”

The board called a special meeting to discuss the situation on Dec. 16, records show, but it was canceled.

In her email to Pritzker’s office on Dec. 22, Gibson alleged that the NEIU board violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when board members informed her in November that they rescinded her contract extension “by a unanimous vote.” Gibson noted, “There is no public record of any Board meeting reflecting that purported decision.”

Major changes to NEIU’s board

Serrano resigned from the university board in February, days after NEIU gave WBEZ documents pertaining to the internal disputes between board members and Gibson. In a letter explaining his resignation, effective Feb. 1, Serrano did not mention Gibson by name but said he was disappointed the December special board meeting did not occur.

“I have been deeply concerned of the developments at NEIU since the fall of last year,” Serrano wrote in the letter, which was obtained by WBEZ. “I have been also frustrated with the lack of movement in resolving these issues that are critical for the stabilization of NEIU.”

Serrano had joined the board in 2019 and his current term would not have expired until 2025. Palos’s term ended Jan. 16, and the governor replaced him.

The board has not met since November. Its next session is scheduled for Monday.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Higher Education Reporter Lisa Phillip contributed to this story.

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