By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Tensions are escalating at Chicago State University, where sources tell the Chicago Crusader that Gov. Bruce Rauner is getting pushback from some officials as he seeks to make former CPS chief, Paul Vallas, president of the university.
It’s a possibility that may have been planned all along when Rauner appointed Vallas and four new members to the school’s Board of Trustees in January. While the appointments marked a new era at CSU, it may have set in motion the reality that the predominantly Black school may get a white president as it celebrates its 150th anniversary.
While Cecil Lucy remains the school’s interim president, heads may turn as the Board of Trustees prepares to decide on a new permanent president when they meet near the end of the month.
Since January, Rauner has publicly repeated his plans to boost enrollment and academic achievement at CSU, but privately the governor has been pushing another agenda that is causing a rift on the school’s Board of Trustees sources told the Crusader.
The Crusader has learned that Rauner is using his political muscle to push his handpicked trustees to give Vallas the job. Some are concerned that may happen now that the majority of the Board of Trustees were chosen by Rauner.
Sources told the Crusader that on March 3, Rauner’s Education Secretary, Beth Purvis, called a meeting with Board of Trustees chairman Marshall Hatch and Tony Anderson. Anderson is board chairman of Perspectives Charter Schools and serves on Rauner’s newly-created eight-member advisory council at CSU.
Rauner was not at the meeting, but sources told the Crusader that Purvis told Hatch and Anderson that Rauner wanted Vallas to be the president to replace Thomas Calhoun, who abruptly resigned last September under mysterious circumstances.
Sources told the Crusader that if Rauner’s request isn’t met, he will not secure additional funding to help solve the school’s financial woes and withdraw his support. The Board of Trustees would also risk losing Vallas—an important member who gained praise when he served as CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001. At a time when CPS was financially bankrupt, Vallas was credited with keeping the school system afloat and boosting academic achievement among the district’s minority students.
However, Vallas has never held any position at a university or college. For this reason, some at CSU believe Vallas is unfit to be CSU’s president. With low morale and enrollment problems, some say the university cannot afford to have an inexperienced president at the helm.
Vallas’ supporters disagree. With CSU’s years of academic and financial woes, they believe his experience at CPS would make him an ideal president who is qualified to turn the school’s fortunes around.
In addition to the meeting, sources told the Crusader that telephone calls in support of Vallas were made to six board trustees, some whom the Crusader was unable to reach. A message to Hatch’s voicemail was not returned as of press time on Wednesday. The Crusader was unable to reach Purvis to comment for this story.
Sources said Rauner’s plan to get Vallas as president did not sit well with Hatch, who has served on the Board of Trustees since 2015. Another board member, Nikki M. Zollar, who has served on the board since 2013, said she said “no” when she was called about Rauner’s request.
“I said under no circumstances that I would support Paul Vallas as president of Chicago State University,” Zollar told the Crusader. “This is a university that requires someone with higher education experience. This university has been starved for money, not leadership.”
The school’s last three presidents—Calhoun, Dr. Wayne Watson and Elnora Daniel—all served in high positions at other universities before they arrived at CSU. In addition to their experience, they were Black individuals who fit in with the school’s ethnic culture.
However, all three showed distrust after they left the school in a financial mess from corruption, mismanagement and wasteful spending. Many students and faculty are still seeking answers after the Board of Trustees paid Calhoun $600,000 after he quit with just nine months on the job. Hopes were high in 2009 when former Gov. Pat Quinn appointed four trustees to the board, but cronyism still festered.
Despite the opposition by some, the wave of frustration from years of mismanagement may carry Vallas to the top job.
The Board of Trustees will hold its monthly meeting on March 29, but members are considering moving it to March 27 since some members cannot attend on the originally scheduled date.
Without Rauner’s support, CSU’s future looks bleak. The school has received only about $35.5 million in stop-gap state funding for the past 20 months, compared with the $36.1 million it received in 2015.
Despite deep cuts in staffing, operating expenses and supplies, CSU may end the year with a deficit. The school also has crumbling facilities that it cannot afford to repair or maintain. More than $59 million for upgrades are needed to improve CSU’s facilities.
After our story published, the Crusader received the following statement from Eleni Demertzis, spokesperson for the Governor’s Office:
“First, any notion of threatening future state funding is entirely false. 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.”