A vocal and divided crowd at Chicago State University‘s board meeting Monday lashed out at trustees, administrators and Gov. Bruce Rauner in anticipation of a leadership change orchestrated by the Republican governor.
The board is expected to decide at today’s emergency meeting whether to temporarily put ex-Chicago Public Schools chief Paul Vallas, appointed to the board by Rauner in January, in charge of operations at the Far South Side public school.
While Rauner’s potential role has not yet been defined, Vallas has pushed for his one-time political opponent to have a more direct role in the university’s administration after determining current leaders have not done enough to address the school’s long history of poor academic achievement, financial mismanagement and leadership missteps.
Whatever his title, the maneuvering to give Vallas more authority calls into question how interim President Cecil B. Lucy, who has led the university since September, fits into the picture. Lucy, the university’s former finance chief, attended Monday’s meeting but has not commented publicly.
But the potential leadership change has proved divisive. Vallas’ supporters, including faculty members, argue the university needs a change, while opponents have criticized Rauner for his involvement and for moving to place a white leader at the helm of a predominantly black institution. Vallas is white; Lucy is black.
During public comments to the board, community organizer Michael Muhammad criticized Chicago State’s current leaders and listed the university’s many struggles and controversies in recent years.
“Incompetence, evil and negativity leave a residue,” Muhammad said. “Change is necessary. The old model must die.”
Local activist Eddie Reed was among those who urged the board to consider the racial dynamics at play.
“Race does matter,” Reed said. “This institution is noted across the country as a black university. Therefore, we must do everything we can to put a responsible person who is black in charge of this university.”
Board members will debate the issue in closed session before taking a final vote in public.
The plan to put Vallas in charge began unfolding earlier this month.
Rauner appointed Vallas, attorneys Nicholas Gowen and Tiffany Harper, and business owner Kam Buckner to Chicago State’s board in January. He also created an eight-member advisory panel, putting the group on notice he expected aggressive moves to resolve financial, academic and administrative bungles at the university.
Rauner was clear he wanted Vallas to lead the board, but trustees already had elected the Rev. Marshall Hatch Sr. as their chairman. As weeks went by with no major reforms underway, state Secretary of Education Beth Purvis summoned Vallas, Hatch, and advisory member Tony Anderson this month and brainstormed a game plan that would put Vallas in a crisis management role, leveraging his political capital on the board to affect such a change.
“Chicago State University is in crisis and requires transformational change in order to improve student success,” Purvis said in a statement. “While this is a board decision, we believe that Paul Vallas has the skills to implement a strategic plan that will lay a strong foundation for a new president. It is our expectation, the board would launch a comprehensive, nationwide search within six months to recruit and hire the right long-term candidate.”
Vallas and Purvis both said he would not be president, and his job would be temporary. Gowen said no matter the outcome of Monday’s meeting, the board still intends to launch a nationwide search for a permanent president.
Politicians from Springfield to Chicago also jumped into the debate during the past week. A group of Chicago alderman and county commissioners — who said they supported Lucy to continue — accused the governor of overstepping his authority.
“We are not going to stand idly by and let someone just pick or appoint who they want to be the president of Chicago State,” Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore said at a news conference Friday.
“I think it’s a flawed method of doing something,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, chairman of the aldermanic Black Caucus. “They would not do this at any other university in the state.”
Vallas has some powerful vocal support in his corner, including from former senate leader Emil Jones, who directed so much state money to the 95th and King Drive campus that it was often called “Emil Jones U.”
“Chicago State University is on life support,” Jones said in a statement. “I urge those with conflicting political agendas to carefully consider the bigger picture. The university needs a crisis manager. CSU’s future — perhaps its very existence as an independent university — hangs in the balance.”
The debate over who should lead has opened old wounds for some faculty and students who felt aggrieved by the controversial ousting of former President Thomas Calhoun, Jr.
Calhoun, hired in late 2015 to take over for Wayne Watson, unexpectedly resigned in September after only nine months on the job and received a $600,000 settlement to leave immediately. Faculty members have continued to voice their support for Calhoun.
Robert Bionaz, head of the faculty union, sent trustees a letter Friday saying a survey showed an overwhelming push for a leadership change, even if that means putting Vallas in charge temporarily.
“I do not think it (is) an exaggeration to say that this university’s fate depends upon the action you take in the next few days,” according to the letter. “…(T)he faculty and staff of our local chapter want to see the university reformed and believe that changes in senior management are vital if this university is to survive. Therefore, we will support any board decision that results in such changes.”
Whatever the disagreements over university leadership, most agree that Chicago State faces daunting challenges.
The 150-year-old school had only 86 first-time, full-time freshmen this fall, down from almost 200 the year prior. The campus has lost more than half its enrollment in six years.
The graduation rate, which frequently has lagged behind other state schools, fell to 11 percent in 2015.
The university has a long history of financial mismanagement but also has been among the hardest hit in the state’s 20-month-budget standoff. Chicago State has received just $32.7 million in state funding during the budget saga, compared to the $36.3 million the school received in 2015.
To try to cut back, the university slashed its budget by about 30 percent and laid off 40 percent of its staff last year,
But the strained finances have surfaced in other ways. The campus’ aging heating system has malfunctioned several times throughout the year, including in February, when all of the boilers failed at once. The university briefly had to close the campus and pay $1.2 million to rent temporary equipment.
That rental expires this month.
Chicago Tribune’s Grace Wong contributed