Can Chicago State University Rebound from Current Administration?
One of the longest running farces in higher education has been playing continuously in Chicago since 1978. That was the fateful year when Wayne D. Watson secured gainful employment at Community College District 508 (“The City Colleges of Chicago”). An administrative educational careerist, with minimal actual classroom experience or notable scholarly publications to his credit, Watson is the living embodiment of “the Peter Principle.” He has continually been promoted beyond his low level of competency and has, nonetheless, succeeded in earning a substantial taxpayer funded income and a lavish lifestyle while damaging the reputations of a succession of area colleges.
Currently, his disgraceful and racially divisive clown show is blighting the severely damaged reputation of Chicago State University even further. After signing an agreement, providing for a paid sabbatical through the end of the current semester as the prelude to his early exit as university president, Watson reneged on the contract and decided that his own unique interpretation of the document did not amount to the formal resignation expected by the CSU Board of Trustees. Now, he is trying to rally public support to retain his position. At the Board meeting held last Friday, Watson’s backers compared his critics and opponents to those who persecuted Jesus of Nazareth.
While millions of words have been spoken and written about the Galilean, I cannot recall anyone ever accusing Christ of being an incompetent or a corrupt political spoils man. These epithets have been used to describe Watson throughout his checkered career. During his recent tenure at Chicago State, the university was faulted for retaining and offering continued financial aid benefits to students with cumulative grade point averages as low 0.00. As a consequence, university was obligated to refund $312,000.00 (negotiated down from $614,000.00) to the Federal government. True to form, Watson blamed his predecessor for this scandal, but records indicate that such academic eligibility mistakes actually increased under his administration. Watson claims to have made great progress in raising graduation rates at CSU, but the heralded improvements are minimal at best. If the new numbers are to be believed, only one of five Chicago State students is likely to graduate. Overall enrollment has declined precipitously too.
Watson was hired at Chicago State following his long reign of error as the Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. His eleven year term as chancellor was a testimonial to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s utter indifference to both the college system and Watson’s substandard performance. Watson provoked the first faculty strike at the City Colleges in nearly three decades and received an overwhelming vote of “no confidence” from the full-time faculty. Daley’s docile appointees on the Board of Trustees (Chicago has the only unelected community college board in Illinois) simply looked the other way. History repeated itself at Chicago State, where Watson has also been the recipient of a second vote of “no confidence” by the CSU Faculty Senate. The lopsided negative vote tally was 28-2 against Watson.
Following his departure from the City Colleges, which included a gala retirement party that Watson deemed worthy of broadcasting on the City Colleges’ own television station (WYCC Channel 20), his political sponsors placed him in the vacant president’s position at Chicago State. The previous CSU president, Elenora Daniels, resigned after being audited and required to make restitution for her suspect personal expenditures. A majority of the presidential search committee resigned in protest when Watson’s name was advanced as a finalist. Shepherding Watson’s controversial nomination through the approval process was the Reverend Leon Finney. Finney, a Saul Alinsky trained “civil rights activist,” is the long time head of “The Woodlawn Organization.” Finney’s taxpayer subsidized real estate developments and financial activities have raised constant questions. Is he committed to community and urban renewal or his personal enrichment or both? During the Chicago State University board meeting when Watson’s selection was announced, students and faculty members joined in a chorus of deafening boos.
The timing of the hiring announcement was premature and clumsily handled. In order to safeguard his $140,000.00 in annual pension benefits from the City Colleges against possible forfeiture, Watson had to maintain the pretense that he had retired and that he had not accepted the new job or reported to work at Chicago State for a period of almost two months. Chicagoans also shelled out close to $800,000.00 in compensation when Watson left the City Colleges in the summer of 2009. Presumably, the presidency of CSU remained vacant for weeks after the hiring decision was railroaded through since Watson retained his annual pension. Another scandal erupted when it was revealed that Watson was provided unusually generous compensation from the City Colleges for his accumulated sick days over and above the previously cited sums. His CSU salary is $250,000.00 annually. Nice work if you can get it.
Despite his signed “sabbatical agreement,” Watson has decided to fight on because several of the gubernatorial appointees on the CSU Board of Trustees have held over beyond the expiration of their respective terms. If the equivocating Governor Quinn replaces the trustees vehemently opposed to Watson, the overpaid bureaucrat may yet live to bilk the taxpayers for another few months or years.
Watson has advocated providing positive role models for urban youth. To this end, the modest man erected billboards promoting himself as such a success story in Englewood. A commemorative plaque, worthy of Cooperstown, honoring Watson has also been put on display at Harold Washington College, where he briefly served as president. Watson has routinely been accused of biased hiring decisions and of having awarded lucrative consulting contracts to relatives of his political allies, including Emil Jones. In a 2009 lawsuit, Watson was accused of repeatedly using the resources of WYCC (“Your City Colleges”), a public television station, to promote his political favorites in thinly disguised public affairs programs. Following his retirement, the City Colleges embarked upon a costly “Reinvention Campaign” to rectify the myriad non-accomplishments of the Watson Era, which included abysmal retention and graduation rates.
Watson is a race man who has repeatedly characterized Chicago State and various City College campuses as “historically black” institutions of higher learning. With reference to CSU, this description totally ignores the first century of the university’s history. The institution was originally founded in 1867 as a normal school to provide qualified teachers for outlying schools in Cook County. The first classroom was a converted railroad freight car in Blue Island. Within a few years the Cook County Normal School had moved to new quarters in Englewood. By 1897, the Village of Englewood had been annexed into the City of Chicago and the Cook County Board transferred the renamed “Chicago Normal School” to the Board of Education. Notable educators such as Francis W. Parker and Ella Flagg Young were early principals of the school. The State of Illinois, which began subsidizing the college in the early 50’s, assumed complete control of the institution in 1965. The college was renamed Chicago State University in 1971. President Gerald R. Ford delivered the commencement address to the 1975 graduates. While the enrollment of minorities increased during the 1950s, black students did not become a majority of the student body for almost another twenty years.
Subsequent to President Ford’s appearance, the first African American leader of the university took office and the curriculum was modified to promote Afrocentric and multicultural studies. In recent years, the university’s accreditation has been frequently threatened, enrollment and graduation rates have plummeted, and credible allegations about political patronage hiring abuses have abounded. Former Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones succeeded in making the university into his personal bailiwick. His enduring monument to himself, the 7,000 seat “Emil and Patricia Jones Convocation Center,” a multipurpose, taxpayer funded arena, would make Roland “Tombstone” Burris envious. Jones has come out of retirement to defend Watson in the current crisis.
What makes the media circus so interesting is that it appears to be an intergenerational struggle between Chicago’s long established African American political elites and ambitious newcomers. Old Guard allies of Reverend Jesse Jackson are backing Watson, while their youthful rivals favor his prompt removal. The outcome of last Friday’s Board of Trustees’ meeting was somewhat inconclusive. It has been reported that Watson may have violated unspecified Board policies. Allegations have focused upon hiring decisions and an inappropriate relationship between Watson and a subordinate female university employee. The trustees recessed, however, without imposing a sanction. The next scheduled board meeting is not until May and no decision is anticipated until June which may run out the clock on the current semester.
The adjournment may benefit Watson’s lawyer, Victor Henderson, who will be defending County Commissioner William Beavers in his Federal corruption trial. Other defense team attorneys for Beavers include many familiar personalities from the two Blagojevich trials such as Sheldon Soroksy, Sam Adams, Sr., and Sam Adams, Jr. Henderson and Adams the younger are partners. Television viewers may recall Henderson as the host of several discussion programs that formerly aired on WYCC Channel 20. Henderson also has a personal stake in Chicago State since his wife, Angela Henderson, is the university’s current Vice President. Angela Henderson is one of many former City Colleges employees who followed Watson to Chicago State. Her educational background was in nursing.
An unintentionally hilarious television appearance by the embattled Watson on “Chicago Tonight” last week featured the erudite man of letters repeatedly mispronouncing “accreditation” and whispering that his primary concern is for the “students.”
Of course, it is.
Dan Kelly is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer