Given recent scandals, officials need to keep ethical concerns at the forefront.
If ever an institution should be vigilant about playing by the rules, it is the University of Illinois. That's why the UI's latest transgression — this one over a contract for architectural work for renovation of an important campus building — is so disappointing.
The ethical lapse involved failure of the university to notify the state procurement board about the appearance of a conflict of interest in the awarding of a contract. It's a complicated situation that might have been perceived differently had it not followed on the heels of major UI scandals involving Category I clouted admissions and fake emails allegedly sent by former President Michael Hogan's chief of staff.
Because of these recent problems, the university has earned a mostly undeserved reputation as a place where ethical considerations are an afterthought, and UI officials have to take ethical scrutiny seriously to change the public's perception of the institution.
The UI's board of trustees moved decisively last Thursday to stem the damage, voiding the contract and reassigning the employee at the heart of the controversy. Although rebidding the contract will add time and cost to the project, it was the right thing to do. There should be consequences for a mistake of this severity.
At the heart of the controversy is a contract awarded to BLDD Architects of Champaign for architectural work on the renovation of the Natural History Building east of the Illini Union. The building has been partially closed for safety reasons since 2010 when engineers determined that structural support for some of the floors was insufficient. The building is undergoing total renovation at a cost of $70 million that will include major upgrades to laboratories, classrooms and offices.
The UI awarded a contract to BLDD early in 2011 for $368,000 of conceptual design work. The firm beat out 32 other companies for the contract. Last December, the UI awarded $4.3 million to BLDD for further architectural work on the building.
The problem arose because the UI employee who was in charge of contract procurement, Jill Maxey, had previously worked at BLDD and is married to a principal there.
The Illinois Procurement Policy Board, which reviews state contracts, raised questions about the BLDD contract this spring, and, in fact, put the $4.3 million award on hold. State law requires that when a potential conflict of interest is identified or "reasonably suspected," the state's chief procurement officer must send the contract to the procurement board.
Procurement board members said the university violated state law by not reporting the potential conflict until March 2012, more than a year after BLDD was awarded the initial contract. Ben Bagby, the state's chief procurement officer, in turn failed to notify the board until after the contract with BLDD was signed. Adding to the problem was advice from UI lawyers who concluded the statute did not apply to Maxey because she did not meet the salary threshold in the procurement code. The UI also argued it had sufficiently insulated Maxey from the decision-making process.
The procurement policy board voted twice to void the contract, but Bagby rejected the recommendation, as he is allowed to do. There were plenty of faulty judgments made in retrospect.
It should be noted that BLDD made all required disclosures and has not been implicated in the contract problem.
What happens next is not clear. The executive director of the procurement board said the board is hopeful the UI will be able to use the BLDD conceptual designs and seek proposals for the rest of the project. We would suggest awarding the contract to the firm that came closest to BLDD in the initial phase of the contract as a way to save time and money if that is allowed.
"We have great concern about public perception of the university and maintaining a high level of integrity, and we just clarified our position," trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy said in announcing that the board had voided the contract. "The university will proceed with ensuring a conflict like this does not happen again."
We hope that he means that university officials will take ethical scrutiny seriously rather than chafing at it.
And while they are evaluating ethics, the trustees ought to look at their own adherence to the state's Open Meetings Act. They adjourned into executive session to discuss personnel matters, presumably Maxey's reassignment, which is an allowable exemption. But they also discussed and decided to void the contract in closed session and took no public vote after the closed session, which is not allowed under the act.