Hoping to bring better stewardship to a troubled institution, Gov. Bruce Rauner plans to name Paul Vallas as one of the four new trustees to the Chicago State University board, an unexpected arrangement between former political rivals.
The appointment of Vallas, who ran Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001, and the other trustees will be effective Monday, the Tribune has learned.
Rauner also plans to add to the board Chicago attorneys Tiffany Harper and Nicholas Gowen, and World Sport Chicago executive director Kam Buckner
“Chicago State is a critical institution for the city of Chicago and Illinois,” Rauner said in a statement. “These four transformational leaders bring the experience and expertise that is needed to help ensure the university’s long-term success.”
The appointments mark a significant shift on the board, which will now be controlled by Rauner appointees, and comes at a time of turmoil for the 150-year-old Far South Side campus.
The school, long plagued by financial mismanagement, administrative scandal and poor academic achievement, has struggled throughout Illinois’ 18-month-long budget impasse that has halted regular funding for the state’s public universities. The university laid off 40 percent of its staff earlier this year, and a string of infrastructure failures has further jeopardized the campus’ already-strained budget.
Among other tasks, the new board will be responsible for choosing the next president after the last president resigned in September after only nine months in the post. The university is currently led by an interim president. The board also faces the challenge of earning the confidence of a university community that has long distrusted its leaders.
Faculty union president Robert Bionaz, an outspoken critic of university leadership, said he was unfamiliar with the new trustees but pleased the governor acted quickly to name replacements.
Bionaz said he will be in a “wait-and-see mode” to assess what impact they will have.
“This is a first step, and that’s all it is,” Bionaz said. “We prefer seven out of seven (trustees) be replaced, frankly. There hasn’t been any dissent for just about anything. Almost everything is voted on unanimously. That speaks to me of a board that’s lazy. The incoming board members, hopefully, will take into consideration that the staff and the students really need to be consulted as to what course of action needs to be taken.”
The trustees’ six-year terms require Senate confirmation. The board includes seven trustees appointed by the governor and a student.
Rauner has been critical of Chicago State in the past, including after the board gave former president Thomas Calhoun a $600,000 severance package last fall. Rauner’s administration has argued that universities across the state suffer from bloated administrative costs and poor financial oversight, but has singled out Chicago State several times.
“Chicago State is a very important institution. We’d like to see them do well,” Rauner said last year. “I would like to be very supportive of them. But in the past, for many years, they’ve had management problems and they’ve had significant financial difficulties. And I’d like to see them better-run.”
Rauner said he chose Vallas for the Chicago State position because of his “decades of transformational educational administration experience.” In addition to his experience with CPS, Vallas has worked with school districts in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Conn.
“The Governor believes Paul’s background in education, management and finance put him in a unique position to add value to the Chicago State board,” Rauner’s spokeswoman said in a statement.
Still, Rauner’s choice of Vallas for a Democratic spot on the board is somewhat surprising given the attack-dog role the former CPS chief played against Rauner on financial and tax issues while serving as the lieutenant governor candidate during Pat Quinn‘s unsuccessful 2014 re-election bid.
During the campaign, Vallas, who was returning to Illinois politics after serving as a turnaround specialist for out-of-state school districts, contended Rauner was too wealthy to be Illinois governor. He quickly backtracked by saying Rauner’s policies were driven “by his wealth” and business practices developed as a successful equity investor.
Rauner, in turn, criticized Quinn for picking Vallas instead of then-city Treasurer Stephanie Neely, an African American, saying it was a symbol of how Democrats were taking the black vote for granted.
Despite their adversarial past, Rauner said he chose Vallas for the Chicago State position because of his “decades of transformational educational administration experience.” In addition to his experience with CPS, Vallas has worked with school districts in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport, Conn.
But Vallas has always kept an eye on Illinois politics—even considering a GOP bid for Cook County Board president in 2009. Vallas’ political past in Illinois also includes narrowly losing the 2002 Democratic governor primary to Rod Blagojevich.
Vallas, 63, could not be reached for comment.
Buckner, a 31-year-old Democrat, previously oversaw government and neighborhood relations for the Chicago Cubs and worked as a deputy to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. He also is a lecturer in the public policy studies department at the University of Chicago.
Rauner said Buckner’s expertise in “policy, advising and neighborhood relations” would help Chicago State.
Buckner, who grew up on the city’s South Side, said he went to Chicago State for summer camps and classes. He said his priorities include raising the university’s graduation rate, which was 11 percent in 2015, and resolving the school’s fiscal issues.
“We have to be able to support not just what’s going on at the school, not just what the agenda is in Springfield, but I think we have to be able to independently think and be responsible to the taxpayers,” Buckner said. “There has been a lot of conversation about if Chicago State is worth saving. The way I look at it, the question is not whether the school is worth saving but what are willing to do to save it? It’s a pillar of the community and I’m excited to get started to try to help start some change.”
Harper, 34, is an in-house counsel for Chicago law firm Grant Thornton LLP, specializing in negotiating and drafting contracts, bankruptcy, human resource and general litigation. Rauner said her legal experience “will be a major asset.” Chicago State faces several pending lawsuits.
Gowen, a partner at Burke, Warren, MacKaw & Serritella P.C, specializes in commercial litigation.
Harper and Gowen could not be reached for comment.
The new trustees will join board chair Marshall Hatch and vice chair Horace Smith, along with Nikki Zollar and student trustee Paris Griffin. They will replace trustees Anthony Young, James Joyce, Michael Curtin and Spencer Leak, whose terms expire Monday.