Rauner pushes for Vallas to steer Chicago State University

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Fed up with a lack of hustle from Chicago State University leaders, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office is pushing to hand the reins to one of his newly appointed board members — at least temporarily.

The governor’s office wants Paul Vallas, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, to assume some sort of crisis management role at the Far South Side university, according to Beth Purvis, Rauner’s education secretary.

The job has not been clearly defined and does not yet have an official title. But Purvis said the idea is to have him lead the university on a temporary basis until a new, full-time president can be found.

By giving Vallas a position within the university’s administration, he could take a more direct role in orchestrating improvements with student enrollment, retention, graduation rates and finances — all issues the governor has highlighted in repeated criticisms of the university.

The possibility of giving Vallas more authority calls into question what role and responsibilities interim President Cecil B. Lucy, named to the post after the previous president stepped down in September, will have. A university spokeswoman said Lucy was not available to comment.

Vallas said he sees this potential new role as an opportunity to have a more immediate impact on the university’s future but added the aim was not for him to take over as Chicago State’s new president.

“I’ve been on that university campus and there’s an absence of any real, serious effort to connect with community colleges and to recruit students from among the high schools,” Vallas said. “There needs to be some actions taken now to financially stabilize the university, and develop and quickly implement recruitment and retention strategies needed to get the enrollment numbers up, and to begin to develop a long-term strategic plan for the university.”

A special board meeting has been scheduled for Monday to discuss the leadership issue.

“We need to be able to stabilize where the university is and move us in a better direction,” trustee Nicholas Gowen said. “Whether that means Paul Vallas will have some role off the board, we don’t know that yet. Everything is up for discussion in part because we haven’t had a full-time president since September. We’re not saying that any individual is a problem. We’re looking at how we can move forward.”

Rauner appointed Vallas, Gowen, attorney Tiffany Harper, and entrepreneur Kam Buckner to the board in January in hopes of ushering in more effective leadership for the troubled university. He also established an eight-member advisory board.

But Purvis said the administration is not convinced the board is making significant enough progress or meeting regularly enough to conduct business. Chicago State typically holds four regular board meetings per year and has met once since the new trustees took their seats.

“There is a real concern that the current leadership is really status quo, so I think members of the board are looking at what choices they have to bring a sense of urgency to getting Chicago State University back on track,” Purvis said.

Purvis met with Vallas, board chairman the Rev. Marshall Hatch and advisory board member Tony Anderson about a month ago. Purvis said the group mulled what could be done to push things along, which is where they came up with the idea of Vallas becoming a short-term crisis manager.

“I think the consensus was in order for me to do that, I’m really going to need the executive authority to do that,” Vallas said.

Purvis made clear the governor is expecting “bold action” at Monday’s board meeting.

“I would say that something needs to be done,” Purvis said. “In the end, it’s the board’s decision who they hire, who they fire, what they do. But it’s my job to communicate that there needs to be a sense of urgency in changing the conditions at Chicago State University. We are incredibly concerned and worried about the financial status of the university, we are worried about the lack of urgency and not having board meetings.”

Gowen said no matter what decisions come out of next week’s meeting, the board still intends to launch a nationwide search for a new, permanent president.

Since Rauner ushered in four new board trustees, it was immediately apparent he expected Vallas to take a prominent role.

During a news conference shortly after the appointments were announced, he said he recommended that the board install Vallas as chairman, even though the panel already had elected their new officers the month prior and chose Hatch as board chair.

No such change happened in the first and only board meeting with the new trustees in place earlier this month. Hatch retained his position and Horace Smith remained vice-chairman. Vallas was elected board secretary.

Hatch did not offer any opinion about the possible leadership shake-up.

“I think everyone’s got the best interest of the university in mind,” he said. “I think everybody’s heart is in the right place and it bodes well for the school.”

Faculty union president Robert Bionaz, a longtime critic of Chicago State’s leaders, echoed Purvis’ sentiment about breaking out of the status quo.

“For too long our board has rewarded failure,” Bionaz said. “What I really want to see is some bold and decisive action to take the university in a positive direction. The people currently in place are not able to do that.”

Lucy previously served as Chicago State’s chief financial officer. He was elevated to the presidency in September when Thomas Calhoun Jr. resigned after just nine months on the job, taking a $600,000 severance with him.

Calhoun’s departure was controversial, as he was well-liked on campus. Calhoun was hired in late 2015 to replace Wayne Watson, whose six-year tenure was marked by high-profile whistleblower lawsuits, declining enrollment and low morale.

drhodes@chicagotribune.com

mcgarcia@chicagotribune.com

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March 21, 2017 at 01:45PM

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Rauner pushes for Vallas to steer Chicago State University

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