Daily Herald opinion: COD and the high cost of letting politics cloud judgment

This editorial represents the consensus opinion of the Daily Herald Editorial Board

Seven years after it began, the unfortunate saga of College of Du­Page and Robert Breuder finally comes to an end, leaving in its aftermath some stark lessons about the sanctity of employee contracts, about the risks of allowing politics to cloud managerial judgment and, beyond the strict issues of this case, about a fundamental shortcoming of our civil litigation system.

On the first point, the agreement reached this week to end the litigation between COD and its controversial former president may not be precisely definitive, but its implication is clear. The courts had declared COD fired Breuder in 2015 "without notice or a hearing," an assessment that affirmed the foundation of the wrongful termination lawsuit Breuder brought against the college and led to the $4 million settlement he now will receive.

In a statement Thursday, former COD board Chair Kathy Hamilton, still insisting the former president should not receive any payment, noted through her attorney that the settlement is between him and COD's insurance company. True enough, but it seems likely that the insurance company also recognized the weakness of its defense and, as we pointed out in a 2018 editorial, the expensive risk of continuing to press it.

And, consider the result. Hamilton and three board allies, all of whom have long since left the COD board, led the drive to block a $763,000 severance package a previous board had reached with Breuder. Three years later, COD had spent, by our accounting, nearly $528,000 defending that decision. Before the case would end, COD's insurance company would spend a total of $9 million before ultimately insisting that the litigation come to an end with the $4 million payout.

An expense of at least $13 million to make a political statement about a $763,000 agreement. Even when we urged the college to end its risky litigation and settle with Breuder four years ago, we could not imagine such an astounding cost-benefit disparity.

Which leads to a final conclusion that has more to do with civil litigation itself than the specifics of COD's case. Breuder was able to reach this point because he had the resources to maintain a seven-year battle against an agency capable of investing $9 million in the effort to stop him. Beyond the simple question of whether a plaintiff with lesser resources could have maintained such a quest, consider the injustice of a system that requires someone to endure the stress of a seven-year battle before getting his reputation and financial position restored.

In his nearly seven years at the helm of COD, Robert Breuder accomplished much, but with a style that brought him enemies inside and outside the college. The original $763,000 severance package negotiated with him was an attempt to balance COD's contractual obligations to him against its goals to move in a new direction of leadership.

It was an unsteady balance, to be sure, and open to debate. This week we learned just how costly it can be to upset such a balance by taking that debate too far.

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