Court denies University’s motion to dismiss case

By Matt Spartz

More than a year after the University filed a motion to dismiss a case brought against it by Robert van der Hooning, former assistant dean of the Executive MBA program, under the Illinois Whistle Blowers Act, the motion was denied by the Illinois Court of Claims, Feb. 27.

The Illinois Whistle Blowers Act protects state employees from being punished if they disclose information on unethical practices of their supervisor.

The court denied the University of Illinois’ motion on five of six counts, including retaliatory discharge and defamation.

The court concluded it did not have the authority to carry out the first count which would have issued an injunction preventing the University from firing van der Hooning.

Because the University’s motion to dismiss van der Hooning’s claims was denied, the court decided there is enough evidence to continue with the trial.

If van der Hooning is able to prove his claims, such as being fired for trying to resolve the unethical behavior of his supervisors, he will be awarded damages afforded by the act. This could include two times his salary in back pay including interest.

“(The University hoped to) get out on a technicality of some kind,” van der Hooning said.

Robin Kaler, University spokesperson, said even though the motion was denied the University will continue to argue its case in the same way.

“The next step is we go in and show the facts. The allegations are completely false. They are misleading and wrong,” she said. “If you look at the facts, these individuals were doing exactly what they should be doing in a way that was designed to build the MBA program and support veterans.”

“(The University) can stand by their positions all they want, but there’s a growing chorus of people saying this is wrong,” van der Hooning said.

The Daily Illini reported in March 2007 that van der Hooning was fired on June 28, 2006, after discrepancies arose with a scholarship he started partnering with the Illinois Veterans Grant.

Announcement of the scholarship program was approved and released to the media in March 2006. It was to offer 110 scholarships each worth $74,000 to qualifying veterans.

Van der Hooning said he was allowed to offer the 110 scholarships for the following academic year while he coordinated faculty schedules for the influx of students.

The University said the scholarships were supposed to be offered over multiple years and multiple campus sites. The original press release and subsequent materials did not include any time line for the scholarships and did not mention a program other than the Executive MBA.

The project was backed by Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn and praised publicly by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

With the Illinois Veterans Grant historically underfunded, and schools legally required to pay what it couldn’t cover, administrators including Avijit Ghosh, former dean of the College of Business, were worried about the large bill the University would be left with.

Van der Hooning said this prospective financial loss, along with the veterans putting a sort of stigma on the program, is what convinced administrators to lower the number of veterans being accepted.

On Nov. 20, 2007, more than a year after van der Hooning was fired and two months after the Court of Claims heard his case, Lt. Gov. Quinn sent a letter to B. Joseph White, president of the University, expressing his “continuing concern about the University of Illinois’ Executive MBA program’s treatment of our veterans.”

“I have been deeply disappointed by the University of Illinois’ failure to fulfill its promise to our veterans,” said Quinn in the letter. “Instead of honoring our pledge to our veterans, the University of Illinois has cut back on its promise.”

White responded to Quinn’s letter reporting the University had currently awarded 75 of the scholarships between the 2006 and 2007 academic years.

In 2006, the University awarded 41 Illinois Veterans Grant-partnered scholarships for the Executive MBA program, or 63 percent of the class, according to the letter. In 2007 it only awarded 17, or 35 percent of the class.

“We continue to recruit qualified candidates and intend to fulfill our commitment to the veterans of Illinois within the next two years,” White wrote in the letter.

Even though van der Hooning said he and his family have been hurt financially by these events, his concern is for the veterans who were either turned away or insulted by this process.

But now he said he feels these injustices toward veterans can finally be addressed and that this ruling brings him some of the credibility he’s been fighting for over the last two years.

“I’ve been hurt financially. My reputation has been damaged,” van der Hooning said. “But because of the … Court of Claims, I’ve regained a little bit of my reputation.”