Chicago State sledgehammer: Can Paul Vallas save the struggling university?

“At Chicago Public Schools, he reversed years of budget deficits without begging the General Assembly for a bailout. He did here what he replicated elsewhere: He swung a sledgehammer. Fearless and focused, Vallas wasn’t afraid to take Chicago’s public school system to the studs, then rebuild.” 

— Chicago Tribune editorial, Nov. 9, 2013 

That’s what we said about former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas when Gov. Pat Quinn picked him as his running mate. We smiled then and we smile even more today as Vallas joins the board of trustees at another educational institution desperately in need of reform: Chicago State University

Vallas will need to wield that fiscal sledgehammer in his new role. And he’ll need that fearless, no-nonsense attitude at a university with a long history of mismanagement, cronyism and academic failure.

Here’s what CSU can count on: Vallas will focus on educating students. On boosting graduation rates. On sweeping aside sclerotic policies and patronage hires from previous regimes.

Vallas and other new board members named by Gov. Bruce Rauner — Chicago attorneys Tiffany Harper and Nicholas Gowen and World Sport Chicago Executive Director Kam Buckner — face a daunting challenge to rescue CSU. The university could exhaust its financial reserves before the end of the academic year, forcing more cuts unless there’s an infusion of state cash. 

In recent days more bad news, borne of years of cronyism and mismanagement: The cash-parched university agreed to pay more than $1 million to end a lawsuit brought by former high-ranking administrator Glenn Meeks, who claimed he was fired after reporting alleged misconduct by the school’s former president, Wayne Watson. 

The university itself could be on the hook for a potential settlement of $5 million or more to former university attorney James Crowley, who also alleged misconduct by Watson. CSU’s insurer paid the Meeks bill, but the insurance company argues it isn’t responsible to pay the still-to-be-decided Crowley settlement because the university’s policy does not cover claims stemming from a “fraudulent or dishonest act or a willful violation of any statute, rule or law.” If so, where would that $5 million-plus come from? Presumably from funds the university could have used to educate students and improve its abysmal graduation rates. 

Remember, CSU also shelled out $600,000 last fall to oust former president Thomas Calhoun Jr., who’d spent only nine months on the job. Why? The board never offered an explanation. Meanwhile, the university is painting an optimistic portrait of its future to attract students — including, possibly, a football team someday. 

Last fall, we urged Gov. Rauner to fire CSU board members who voted to oust Calhoun without a candid public explanation and to demolish the status quo. The appointment of Vallas and his colleagues to the eight-member board, assuming they’re gung-ho for reform, is a terrific start. 

But this won’t be a quick fix. Nor can Vallas & Co. count on a windfall of state funding to help. Around the state, many universities are tightening their belts and warning that they’ll barely limp through the academic year because the state’s budget stalemate has crimped the flow of cash to higher education. 

That’s why we believe Chicago State’s newly energized board should explore another option: A full-blown takeover by a stronger university. One candidate we’ve heard floated: the University of Illinois at Chicago

We’ve long wondered whether the state should reform its university and community college system along the lines of what’s done in Wisconsin and New York. Right now, dozens of Illinois schools with top-heavy administration expenses chase state dollars and students. But a more consolidated system would hold top university brass accountable for financial mismanagement and academic failure — and reward success in helping students learn and graduate. 

Illinois once had a more centralized system. But in 1995, the General Assembly broke up what was known as the “system of systems” — four governing boards representing 12 universities — in favor of local control. That added five more governing boards. The goal: reduce administrative costs and increase accountability. The result: none of the above. 

Vallas has deep experience in reviving faltering school systems to better serve students. Get ready, CSU. The sledgehammer is going to swing.  

Join the discussion on Twitter @Trib_Ed_Board and on Facebook.

Related stories: 

Chicago State University faces year-end deficit, needs to slash expenses

Only 86 freshmen at Chicago State University, as total enrollment drops 25 percent

Chicago State sledgehammer: Can Paul Vallas save the struggling university?

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