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Rauner names panel to guide overhaul of Chicago State University

By Chicago (CBS)

Gov. Bruce Rauner has introduced the team he hopes will overhaul the troubled Chicago State University, and his hand-picked experts include former Chicago public schools chief Paul Vallas.

The Republican governor visited the South Side campus of Chicago State to announce his appointment of an advisory council to help the institution get back on its feet.

Early last year, Chicago State threatened to close its doors, due to a lack of state funding amid the ongoing state budget impasse. Although state lawmakers managed to come up with an infusion of cash for public universities in Illinois, and Chicago State avoided closing, the school still ended up laying off about 300 employees in April.

Chicago State also has had to pay more than $4 million to settle legal claims in two whistle-blower lawsuits. Last year, CSU agreed to a $1.3 million settlement in a lawsuit filed by a former administrator who claimed he was fired for reporting financial misconduct by then-President Wayne Watson. In 2014, a jury awarded more than $3 million to a former university attorney who alleged he was fired for reporting improprieties by the school.

Enrollment at CSU also has plummeted, with only 86 total students in its freshman class last fall.

Gov. Rauner sidestepped talk about the controversial ouster of former CSU President Thomas Calhoun, who resigned in September. The board agreed to pay Calhoun $600,000 in severance, under a clause in his contract that allowed him to be removed without cause, with him being paid two years’ salary to leave immediately.

University staff had supported Calhoun, who was only on the job nine months.

“I don’t want to dwell on the negative,” Rauner said. “I think I’d rather focus on the future.”

The governor also has appointed Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, to the CSU board of trustees, and recommended he be named chairman.

Vallas, who has run for state office as a Democrat, said he feels the school can grow out of its problems.

“There’s creative ways,” he said.

None of that will happen without the support of state lawmakers, and Illinois Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago) said they will be there for CSU.

“We realize that Chicago State is just a part of the institution of higher education. Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois are going up under the same challenges that Chicago State is,” Trotter said.

The senator said support for CSU and other public universities will be bipartisan.

For both Luis Martinez and Giovanni Ortega, nursing students at Chicago State, it’s a new chapter in their families’ histories.

“I’m the first person in my family to go to college,” Ortega says.

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