By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
First came the good news: strong political and professional leaders are joining the battle to save Chicago State University. Then came the bad news: transparency and distrust pose a big hurdle for the beleaguered, predominately Black university on the Far South Side.
In a packed and intense press conference outside the school president’s office, Governor Bruce Rauner and several CSU officials expressed hope to rise above years of scandals, bad publicity and budget woes. They stood behind Rauner as he announced on Tuesday, January 16, a new advisory council of high-powered businessmen and civic leaders who aim to boost student success at CSU.
“Today marks an important milestone in Chicago State’s history,” Rauner said. “This is one of the most important institutions in the state of Illinois. We need institutions like these to thrive and be successful.”
In what may be a big boost to the school’s future, the announcement was the most ambitious effort yet to rescue CSU. It was also the first time a major politician stepped in with support after years of pleas from community leaders who called on Springfield for more adequate resources to help the school succeed like other state universities.
The latest move came after Rauner last week appointed four board members, including former Chicago Public Schools Chief Paul Vallas to CSU’s board of the trustees.
On January 13, Rauner appointed Vallas to the school’s board of trustees, hoping his expertise will steer the school on a straight and narrow path. In March, the board is expected to appoint a chairman, but after Tuesday’s press conference, Rauner told the Associated Press that he wanted Vallas to be board chairman.
Comprised of ultra-successful business and civic leaders, CSU officials hope the advisory council will help overhaul the school by opening new doors of resources with top notch professional guidance. The council will include business executive Jim Reynolds, retired CEO of Corn Products International Sam Scott III, civic leader and business executive Walter E. Massey, businessman Tony Anderson, business consultant Oliver Wyman and Michael Amiridis, Chancellor of the University of Illinois (UIC).
Rauner said the council will not have management authority or the ability to make decisions, but the move is being viewed as a significant step in bringing credibility to the school’s top brass, whose recent scandals has sowed distrust among students, faculty and lawmakers.
The news comes as CSU celebrates its 150th Anniversary. The school’s renowned College of Pharmacy continues to attract minority students and
CSU remains a top choice for low-income students who can’t afford to attend college at more expensive schools. Several prominent politicians attended CSU, including Congressman Danny K. Davis.
With his strained relationship with the Black community, there are concerns about Rauner’s political motives behind CSU’s turnaround effort. Vallas, a former candidate for lieutenant governor, once criticized Rauner as a lawmaker whose policies are driven by wealth.
However, on Tuesday, CSU’s Black leaders rallied behind Rauner while lawmakers continue to accuse the governor of prolonging the state budget crisis and cutting crucial social programs that affect people of color.
“We look forward to moving forward even with our challenges,” said Rev. Dr. Marshall Hatch, president of the CSU’s Board of Trustees. “The reality is, without resources, Chicago State cannot do its job. Not only can we turn this school around, with this team we assembled, we will.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for CSU leaders is the school’s past problems. Tuesday’s press conference intensified as reporters challenged Rauner and CSU on how the school can overcome its negative image. In the past several years, distrust in the school’s management has accelerated from bad publicity, and budget woes from mismanagement, and the state’s budget crisis. CSU is experiencing low graduation rates and dwindling enrollment. Last Spring, the school laid off 300 employees to stay open as the state budget crisis dragged on. Three years ago, a terminated employee was awarded $2.5 million, saying he was fired for reporting financial improprieties that were going on at the school. Two weeks ago, $1.3 million was given to another employee who said he was fired for reporting misconduct.
At the press conference, Rauner and CSU officials were asked to explain the departure of CSU President William Calhoun, who was given $600,000 in severance pay after being forced out last September after just nine months on the job. Cecil B. Lucy currently serves as the school’s interim president.
A student, who did not give her name, says morale and extracurricular participation at CSU is low.
“It’s not exactly what I expected when I came here,” said the student, a junior majoring in sociology.
Still, some remain optimistic about the latest effort to save CSU.
“We’re going to try to move forward with the resources we have,” said State Rep. Mary Flowers.