Rauner expects “bold action” at meeting on March 27
By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Paul Vallas wants to be the CEO at Chicago State University (CSU). Interim president Cecil Lucy wants to be the school’s permanent president. The cash-strapped school cannot afford to pay the salaries of the two top executives. Only one can stay, but Gov. Bruce Rauner and his staff is not saying what will happen to Lucy should their handpicked Vallas get the top job at the predominantly Black school.
So far, no one, not even Illinois’ Secretary of Education Beth Purvis, has said anything about Lucy’s future, and the issue is about to come to a head.
What started out as a unified effort to turn around Chicago State University’s fortunes is turning into a showdown between Rauner and the school’s trustees and students, who are opposed to the governor’s effort to make Vallas the university’s next leader.
It’s an effort that has drawn heavy criticism from some members of the Board of Trustees and school officials, who blasted the governor for working behind the scenes to push Vallas to the top instead of being open with his agenda in public. As a school that has been plagued by scandal and corruption, Rauner’s action is being viewed by many as a betrayal of trust and a major setback in achieving transparency at CSU.
Last week, the Crusader broke the story, reporting that Rauner was pushing Vallas to be president. A closed meeting was held March 3 where two of the school’s trustees were told that Rauner wanted Vallas to be president, but sources told the Crusader that possibility did not go well with board chairman, Rev. Marshall Hatch, who, along with trustee Tony Anderson, attended the meeting. Sources said telephone calls were then made to the remaining six trustees—four of whom were appointed by Rauner in January.
Sources close to the Crusader said that if the Board of Trustees did not vote for his pick, Rauner would not secure funding and would withdraw his support. After the story ran, the Crusader received two calls from the governor’s office. His spokesperson, Eleni Demertzis, accused the newspaper of not speaking to the governor’s office before publishing the story. The Crusader made several calls to Purvis’ office, but the phone either constantly rang or gave a busy signal. Demertzis emailed the newspaper with the following response to the story.
“First, any notion of threatening future state funding is entirely false,” she said in a statement. “Second, the governor’s office has been in regular communications with CSU leaders about potential university leadership candidates, including Paul Vallas, to work towards a turnaround of this university in crisis.”
When asked, Demertzis did not list the potential candidates, nor did she comment on the school having both a CEO and president.
Since the story ran, the Crusader has received calls and letters from readers about Vallas and Rauner’s alleged action. In this follow-up story, the Crusader has tried to get clearer details of the situation, but received different facts from various newspapers while being unable to speak to Purvis, Rauner’s $250,000-a-year Secretary of Education.
She did not speak to the Crusader, but Purvis spoke to Chicago’s mainstream newspapers, and even then, no one commented on the future of interim president Lucy and whether the university will have both a president and CEO. The concern among some is that the school will have Vallas at the top as CEO, pushing out the president’s position in a familiar game of Chicago-style politics, where getting public jobs is more about who you know than what you know.
In a telephone interview with the Crusader, Vallas told a reporter that he wanted to have a position as chief executive officer that would allow him to have the authority to implement policies that would boost enrollment and retain students. Vallas said Purvis and Rauner expressed similar concerns to him in a closed meeting held on March 3 with trustees Hatch and Anderson in attendance. Vallas did not say what would happen to Lucy or the president’s title role in the event he becomes the school’s CEO.
In the Chicago Tribune, Purvis said the governor’s office wants Vallas to “assume some sort of crisis management role” at CSU. She did not comment on how this would affect Lucy’s future or the president’s position.
On March 21, the Crusader tried to reach Purvis through Demertzis, but she said Purvis was traveling to New York to visit her sick father. She emailed the statement about the closed meeting.
In an email statement sent by Demertzis, she wrote, “The meeting was requested by advisory council member, Tony Anderson, to discuss the urgency needed to ensure that Chicago State University returns to the prestigious university it deserves to be.
“This is a school that has a four-year graduation rate of two percent, which is not acceptable to this administration, and should not be acceptable to anyone. We believe that Paul Vallas has the skills to implement a strategic plan to [sic] that will quickly and immediately start to turn around the university. Within six months, Mr. Vallas and the board would then launch a comprehensive, nationwide search to be used to recruit and hire the right long-term presidential candidate.”
While Vallas is being hailed as CSU’s best hope, critics say during his tenure as superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, Vallas helped start the movement of charter schools which helped decrease enrollment in schools in Black neighborhoods across the district.
In 2016, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the U.S. Department of Education said the Philadelphia School District owed the federal government $7.2 million for grant funds that were misspent while Vallas headed the school system there. According to the Inquirer, the news came after an audit that did not name Vallas, but the report said the practice occurred during Vallas’ administration.
In another article, the Inquirer revealed, “Vallas left the (Philadelphia School) district in June 2007 amid rancor over a ‘surprise’ deficit of $73 million that emerged in the fall of 2006.” Also after Vallas left that district, the school system’s finances and enrollment experienced a steady decline. One of the reasons? Charter schools—a big favorite for Vallas.
Before serving as Illinois’ Secretary of Education, Purvis headed the Chicago International Charter School network.
Then there are questions about Vallas’ widely reported ties to Gary Solomon, the co-owner of the SUPES Academy. Solomon, along with his partner and disgraced CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett, pleaded guilty in 2016 to a scheme where Bennett would steer $23 million in no-bid CPS deals to SUPES. Vallas not only hired Solomon and his companies when he worked in Philadelphia, he also brought Solomon to New Orleans, where Vallas won praise for turning around that school district. In Chicago, Vallas was never accused of any wrongdoing or linked to the scandal involving Bennett.
A story in the Washington Post, reported that in 2013, a Superior Court judge ordered Vallas removed from his job as superintendent in Bridgeport, Conneticut for violating a state law that required him to take a leadership program. Vallas and his attorneys appealed the decision, but after two years, local residents forced him to resign
Still, the problems may pale in comparison to Vallas’ record of turning around school districts in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Bridgeport, CT. However, Vallas doesn’t have any experience at the college or university level; his impact on school districts were not long-term.
Amid the confusion and uncertainty at the top of CSU is Lucy, who told the Crusader that although he appreciates Vallas’ contributions, Lucy believes he is qualified to be the school’s permanent president.
“Absolutely. There has to be an understanding of the students we serve, and given that we are predominantly Black university, appreciating one’s culture is important,” Lucy said.
Before joining CSU, Lucy served as vice president of Business and Fiscal Affairs/Chief Financial Officer at Tuskegee University (TU) in Tuskegee, Alabama. There, Lucy provided strategic counsel and insight to the president. In addition, Lucy has 20 years of experience in corporate America. He once served as vice president of Finance and Legal and chief financial officer of National Black MBA Association.
One thing is certain: Whether as CEO or some other big title, Rauner wants Vallas to lead Chicago State as the school celebrates its 150th birthday. Vallas was once an adversary of Rauner, but now he is getting the governor’s help to get a high-paying job.
The Chicago Tribune reported the governor is expecting “bold action” at the school’s Board of Trustees monthly meeting on March 27 at Academic Library Auditorium, Room 415 at 8:30 a.m.
Emotions are building up to what may be an intense meeting. During the week, flyers were circulated in the Student Union, urging people to call or email the Board of Trustees to oppose Rauner and Vallas.
Some believe Rauner wanted Vallas all along to get the top job at the school since January, when he wanted Vallas to be the chairman of the Board of Trustees, but Hatch ended up taking the position.
Although Vallas is a trustee, sources told the Crusader that since his appointment, he acted as if he was president, but Vallas denied those claims. He said since January he has met with a number of public officials with the city and the state to talk about the problems at CSU. He said one of them was State Senator Donne Trotter (D-17th), who didn’t return a message from the Crusader seeking to confirm that meeting. Vallas also said he had the support of some of the city’s Black aldermen, but he didn’t give any names.
In a surprise move on March 21, Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) endorsed Vallas to be “president” at CSU. He said his endorsement is not politically motivated.
“Paul has a proven track record, and his leadership will help Chicago State get out of the conditions that it’s in,” Beale said. “What I’m concerned about is that Chicago State is spiraling downward. I’m not concerned about the politics. We’re in jeopardy. Is Chicago State going to stay open or close?”
Lucy received an endorsement from Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore.
“The interim president of the university is doing an exceptional job keeping the doors open, but it is up to us to give him the tools and funding to maintain the rich tradition of this university,” Moore said in a statement.