DeKALB – It remains to be seen whether Northern Illinois University will rescind the 1999 honorary degree it gave former U.S. Rep. J. Dennis Hastert, but at least one trustee feels the university shouldn’t – not just yet.
"I would hesitate," said Robert Boey, the only current trustee who was on the board when Hastert's honorary doctor of laws degree was conferred. "I don't think it's fair, unless we really know the details."
Hastert, 73, pleaded guilty Oct. 28 to federal charges of evading banking laws as he sought to conceal hush-money payments to an unnamed person. Hastert had agreed to pay $3.5 million to hide past misconduct; The Associated Press and other sources have reported it was sexual misconduct during his time as a teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville High School, where he worked from 1965 to '81.
Hastert is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 29. Federal prosecutors have agreed to ask he be sentenced to not more than 6 months in prison.
Boey said that without knowing more about the allegations – and subsequent indictment and plea – he would not support taking the NIU honor away from Hastert.
“I read something about that. But, again, I don’t [know of] any direct accusations,” said Boey. “The Hastert I knew certainly was a different person, a very good person. And that’s why all the good things happened to him. Unfortunately, all those accusations are coming out, and we’re all grappling with it. We don’t know [what] the real deal is.”
NIU spokesman Joe King said Hastert’s fall from grace is so recent that university officials have not discussed taking back the honor. There’s also no precedent for stripping someone of an honorary degree, he said.
The now-disgraced retired congressman has longstanding ties to NIU. He received his graduate degree from the university in 1967. When he was first sworn in as Speaker of the U.S. House in 1999, then-NIU President John LaTourette attended the ceremony.
“We are extremely proud that Mr. Hastert is a graduate of Northern Illinois University, having completed a master’s degree here in the 1960s,” LaTourrette said at the Jan. 14, 1999, board of trustees meeting – days after the swearing-in. “As I said in Washington, I think he is a person who represents the kind of student who comes to Northern, acquires a good education and moves beyond a humble beginning to take a position of leadership. I think we can be very proud of Denny.”
Should NIU rescind the honor, it would follow two other universities.
When the indictment was first announced in May, Hastert’s undergraduate alma mater, Wheaton College, broke ties with him. The school removed “J. Dennis Hastert” from its Center for Economics, Government and Public Policy, and Hastert resigned from its advisory board.
"In light of the charges and allegations that have emerged, the college has re-designated the Center as the Wheaton College Center for Economics, Government, and Public Policy at this time," the college said in a statement.
Lewis University gave Hastert an honorary degree 13 years ago.
“In 2002, Lewis University awarded an honorary degree to former Congressman Dennis Hastert, who was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives at that time, for his work as a civic leader,” said Lewis University spokeswoman Kathrynne Skonicki. “Due to current court proceedings regarding Dennis Hastert, Lewis University is reviewing the status of the honorary degree conferred to him.”
Monday, new House Speaker Paul Ryan had a portrait of Hastert removed from a wall outside the House chamber.
Hastert had been praised for his meteoric rise from his rural Kendall County upbringing on a family farm, to high school wrestling coach and on to Washington in 1981. He was first elected speaker in 1999 and was the longest-serving Republican speaker when he retired from Congress in 2007.
NIU removed from its Convocation Center a photo of embattled actor and comedian Bill Cosby. Dozens of women have accused Cosby – beloved as the Jell-O Pudding Pops pitchman and family patriarch Heathcliff Huxtable on the long-running "The Cosby Show" sitcom – of drugging and raping them. No criminal charges have been filed against him in any of the cases, and Cosby has denied all of the allegations.