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U of I prof relents, will take ethics training developed by ‘unwise rulers to annoy us’

University Illinois professor Lou van den Dries.

University of Illinois professor, Lou van den Dries.

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Updated: July 27, 2012 6:18AM

SPRINGFIELD — A University of Illinois math professor who derided states ethics training as childish, “petty tyranny” and “Orwellian” ended his four-year boycott by agreeing to pay a fine and submit to the training, a state ethics panel disclosed Monday.

Faced with a potential $5,000 fine for each year of his protest, Lou van den Dries agreed to pay a $500 fine and begin taking the training, according to a May settlement agreement he signed that was made public for the first time by the state Executive Ethics Commission.

Leading up to that deal, van den Dries used a litany of colorful language to underscore his distaste for an ethics program put into place in 2004 by impeached ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich in response to the fundraising scandals that sunk his predecessor, former Gov. George Ryan.

“Mandatory ethics training for adults is an Orwellian concept and has no place in a civil and free society. It is Big Brother reducing us to the status of children,” the professor wrote in 2007 to a university official.

“An unfortunate byproduct of the computer revolution is that it has given new tools in the hands of unwise rulers to annoy us for no good reason,” he continued. “Rather than go meekly along, we should vigorously protest and resist whenever demeaning schemes like ethics training rear their ugly head.”

In 2008, former U of I Chancellor Richard Herman wrote van den Dries asking that he complete that year’s training, which the administrator said would provide “a good reminder of the rules and policies that apply to us as university employees.”

But two days later, the professor responded sarcastically in a letter back to Herman: “I can assure you that whenever I need to refresh my memory about rules and policies, I have access to numerous sources.”

By 2010, still refusing to take the training, the professor’s rants against the requirement hadn’t cooled any.

“I consider this training illegitimate, have never done it and will never do it,” he wrote in an email to a university official wanting to meet with him to take the ethics course. “I’d get physically unwell in the attempt.”

The executive inspector general’s office last year oversaw 161,854 training sessions with state employees and appointees, and this case represents the only time on record that anyone has protested the usefulness of the exercise to this extent.

“As a ‘citizen of an academic community,’ Professor van den Dries should strive to set a positive example for himself, students and others, and complying with state laws, including ethics laws, is a step in the right direction,” said Cole Kain, chief of staff and general counsel of the executive inspector general’s office.

A university official said he is not aware of anyone among the U of I workforce who has balked at the ethics training as the professor did.

“This is very atypical to have somebody who’s been a holdout like this for this period,” university spokesman Thomas Hardy said. “On occasion where we’ve had employees who aren’t compliant, when that status gets reported to the Ethics Commission and [the employees] are notified of that, they have taken steps to get into compliance.”

The online training sessions that are supposed to arm government workers with the ethical scenarios to help them distinguish right from wrong haven’t always had their desired effect.

The Sun-Times reported in 2009 about how Blagojevich, who signed off on the 2003 state law that required the training, took the training five times before being driven from office.

In the 2006 session that Blagojevich completed, there was a scenario about why it is improper for state appointees to make campaign contributions as a condition for their appointments.

Two years later, Blagojevich and his emissaries tried soliciting campaign contributions from U.S. Senate hopefuls lining up to get the ex-governor’s appointment to President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat.

The professor hasn’t softened his views about the training sessions despite agreeing to go along with them to stave off action against him by the state and expensive legal fees to wage a fight.

“I decided to live with this petty tyranny. It’s just one of those things that makes no sense but that few want to fight. Without sufficient support, I could not see how my isolated resistance was going to make a difference,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in an email.

“The idea that anyone would acquire ethical tools — as you express it — by doing ethics training is (to my mind) absurd. Isn’t it obvious that such things are invented so that politicians like Blagojevich can grandstand, and administrators can windowdress?”

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