By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The next president of Chicago State University will not be Cecil B. Lucy, but Paul Vallas has a shot at two top open jobs at the predominantly Black school. With the door open for new leadership, Vallas’ road to the top has been cleared.
The stage was set on March 27 when the university’s Board of Trustees voted to reassign Lucy to his former post and seek candidates for two top positions at CSU. Some Black leaders have said Lucy’s reassignment was a bad decision, but all Vallas has to do is step down as trustee and he’s in the running for president or chief administrative officer.
It’s the latest development in a situation that continues to play out at CSU, whose Board of Trustees is under pressure to put in place a president who will turn the university around.
For now, the wait for a new leader continues for hundreds of students, faculty and alumni— many of whom endured an emergency marathon meeting in the university’s auditorium. After an intense public hearing that drew a divided crowd, many waited for six hours while CSU’s Board of Trustees wrestled with a contentious personnel decision that would affect the future of the university.
Outside of the closed-door meeting, people remained on edge as if they were waiting for a jury to return with a decision after long hours of deliberation.
As the room was silent and feelings grew mixed, the Trustees announced their verdict with little details. Lucy, the interim president who aspired to be the university’s permanent president, is to return to his former job as interim chief financial officer.
Governor Bruce Rauner, who, behind the scenes pushed for Vallas for the job, didn’t get his wish—at least for now.
The board also decided to retain a firm to launch a national search for a president. Additionally, they decided to create the position of interim chief administrative officer. The candidates for that position will be announced at the next meeting on April 7.
Questions remain if CSU can afford to pay the salaries of two high-ranking officials given the school’s financial condition. It’s also unclear of how much the chief administrator would be paid and how much it would cost to hire a search firm for candidates seeking to be the school’s next president.
The board’s decision Monday capped a wild week of political maneuvering, protests and endorsements where Black leaders were divided as they supported both Lucy and Vallas for the top job. After years of financial problems and scandal that has plagued CSU, both candidates believe they can restore student enrollment and academic achievement.
Concerns of transparency and political independence grew after the Crusader reported that Rauner and Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis were lobbying board members, including the governor’s newly-handpicked appointees, to give Vallas the top job, saying he’s the most qualified. Rauner wanted Vallas to be chairman of the Board of Trustees, but that position had been taken by the Rev. Dr. Marshall Hatch.
In Monday’s announcement, one of Rauner’s newly-appointed trustees, Nicholas Gowen, said “The Chicago State Board of Trustees, at the suggestion of Gov. Rauner, considered Paul Vallas to be the interim president. We certainly considered the governor’s concerns, as well as concerns raised by the faculty, staff and community. This body acted independently, deliberately and professionally to come to a decision. The decision is ours and ours alone.”
While Lucy’s hopes for the top job were dashed, Gowen said Vallas will be a candidate for president and chief administrative officer, but he must first resign as a trustee. Gowen said hiring Vallas directly from the board could create a conflict of interest. He went on to say that Vallas made a presentation during the closed session to promote his qualifications, did not pitch for either job and recused himself from the group’s discussions. Since Vallas did not attend the meeting, he abstained from voting on the board’s resolution.
After Monday’s meeting, Vallas did not comment on the announcement.
Eleni Demertzis, Rauner’s spokes- person, stated, “What Governor Rauner wants more than anything is for Chicago State University to successfully meet the needs of Illinois scholars. It is unacceptable for any school to have a four-year graduation rate of two percent. We applaud the board for encouraging robust and open conversation about the strengths and needs of the university, and we pledge to work collaboratively with the future CSU leadership. We look forward to seeing what happens next for this historic university.”
The day before the meeting, Vallas appeared on WVON, promoting himself as the most qualified candidate for a top spot, despite having just a bachelor’s degree and no university experience.
At the funeral of Cong. Bobby Rush’s wife, Carolyn, Vallas was busy shaking hands in the parking lot. During the actual funeral, Vallas name was called as political officials were being acknowledged, but unlike some, Vallas did not stand up.
On WTTW Channel 11’s, “Chicago Tonight,” on March 28, Vallas and Hatch praised the board’s decision. Two weeks ago, Vallas told the Crusader that he wanted a chief executive or top administrator position; he appeared more low-key on the program.
Sources told the Crusader that Vallas openly campaigning for the top job at CSU was insulting to some board members and school officials, but on “Chicago Tonight,” Vallas simply said, “I want to serve in any capacity where the board sees fit.”
He added, “We don’t want to divide the board. We want a board that’s unanimous.”
At the Board of Trustees meeting, one woman yelled, “No Paul Vallas!” but her protest failed to gain any followers.
There wasn’t that much support for Lucy either, and the overwhelming anger and frustration from CSU’s faculty signaled that the school had lost the trust of its members.
The Crusader spoke with a group of CSU’s rank-and-file employees who said Lucy doesn’t have what it takes to turn CSU around. The employees expressed their support for Thomas J. Calhoun—CSU’s last president—who gained popularity before he was forced out last September after nine months on the job. He was paid $600,000 for the two years remaining on his contract.
During the public hearing, faculty members across racial lines lashed out at the board trustees, who governed the school for years as its enrollment and academic achievement plummeted while cronyism and mismanagement continued.
Many wanted Vallas to be president and break up the status quo that opponents believe is the real problem at CSU.
“I have seen this place become a ghost town by a leadership that has been lacking,” said Deborah Lynch, a special education professor at CSU. “We need action now.”
Kim Delaney, CSU professor who said she received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the university said, “They are only concerned about their paychecks, but not about the students. You have to make a decision within the interests of the school.”