Students languish amid grandstanding at Chicago State University

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There are three rich ironies about Chicago State University.

Our politics have taken a new, byzantine turn. On Monday, the university’s board of trustees are scheduled to consider Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s recommendation that Paul Vallas be put in charge of the predominantly African American school on the city’s Far South Side.
That’s the same Paul Vallas who once ran the Chicago Public Schools for Mayor Richard M. Daley. The Paul Vallas who later took his “turnaround” portfolio to public school systems in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Haiti.

The Paul Vallas who ran as former Gov. Pat Quinn’s running mate in their brutal and failed bid to defeat Rauner in the 2014 gubernatorial election.


No hard feelings, apparently. In January, Rauner appointed Vallas to the Chicago State board. Now the governor wants his political rival to run the beleaguered school.

Chicago State is an academic lifeline for working class and low-income black students on the South Side. Rocked with management, fiscal and political maladies for years, the 150-year-old institution teeters on the edge of existence.

In 2009 the Higher Learning Commission reported that Chicago State suffered from “remarkably poor” graduation and retention rates, chaotic management and poor finances. Those “grave” concerns threatened the school’s accreditation.

Last year the school’s six-year graduation rate stood at 11 percent. The university has been roiled by scathing charges of gross corruption and mismanagement, whistle blower lawsuits, a crumbling physical plant, massive layoffs, and plummeting enrollment.

The latest debacle came when President Thomas J. Calhoun Jr. resigned last fall, nine months into his tenure. The financially bereft school paid him a $600,000 severance. Supporters said Calhoun’s leadership was on the right track, but he was torpedoed by political infighting.

Backers such as 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale say Vallas is the right pick to right the ship. His “years in education are ones that mark him as an effective administrator and a specialist in turning around trouble systems,” Beale said. “His experience is exactly fitted to Chicago State’s needs.”

Others are unimpressed. Vallas has little higher education experience and is “grossly unqualified,” 6th Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer says.

The next leader of Chicago State should be carefully vetted through a formal application and selection process, Sawyer argues. The Republican governor’s insistence on unilaterally installing Vallas is “unacceptable and disrespectful of the board, faculty staff and broader community at large,” he said Friday in a phone interview.

Sawyer said he plans to attend Monday’s board meeting to reinforce that message.

Because this is Chicago, some say Vallas is unqualified because of his race. Vallas is white, and Chicago State must be led by an African American, the argument goes.

Therein lies irony No. 2.

Chicago State is in a miserable state. It got there under African American leadership, with African-American presidents, appointed by largely African-American boards.

The presumption that all is well in black hands can lead to benign neglect.

The final irony: The infighting and grandstanding overlooks those who should matter most: the students of Chicago State. While the politicians and poseurs scramble for power, jobs and clout, Chicago State’s students languish. They just want to get a degree, a job, a career.

So far, that’s been too much to ask.

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