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Can Chicago State University Rebound from Current Administration?

Daniel J. Kelley 13 March 2013 10 Comments

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


  • Pat Hickey said:

    This is a very sober assessment of schools with political mitts on the wheels.

    CSU is a beautiful campus with a solid faculty. It is somewhat of an untapped untouched resource on the south side that has for too long been the sandbox of politicians and crook activists and their larcenous families.

    There are some solid persons trying to correct the direction of this school, but . . .don’t wait for Quinn to do anything.

  • Support_for_CSU said:

    Dr. Watson has made several positive changes at CSU. For example, he has helped open the campus to the community with a wide range of campus events, and he has worked to improve athletics on campus and to support the academic achievement of student athletes. However, he has not been able to help the University develop, distribute and follow the policies that are needed to allow the employees to effectively and efficiently do the day to day business of the University. He likes to call numerous meetings with little to no notice which is disruptive to people who have other scheduled meetings with students or colleagues. He is also very skilled at addressing the specific issues of an individual – he often steps in to help a student or employee with a specific issue – but he does not work to fit the underlying problem. I also believe that Dr. Watson is committed to increasing standards at CSU, but he has never been willing to approach faculty members as allies in this process. He generally begins from a position that assumes conflict and opposition. He then skips over the process of seeking input before enacting new plans and agendas. When these poorly planned efforts fail, he blames those that he did not consult at the beginning of the process.

    Chicago State also appreciates Emil Jones’ help and advocacy. Before the Jones Convocation Center was built, CSU had to schedule their graduation ceremonies off campus. Dr. Watson has worked with others at CSU and in the community to make this center an important resource for the community. It is used for many local high school sports events, and for public events and speakers. But while we are grateful for Emil Jones’ support, many members of the CSU community are concerned that he wants to have undue control over who serves on the CSU Board of Trustees and over who serves as the President of this University.

    Also – Victor Henderson is welcome to defend anyone. In our system, individuals are innocent until found guilty. His wife is one of the vice presidents at CSU, not THE vice president.

    Thanks for your time.

  • Chuck Saunders said:

    An excellent analysis. The unfortunate upshot of this situation is that there are thousands of supposed graduates of this institution whose degrees are not worth the paper upon which they are printed. It is sadder still that these persons might be in places of responsibility where those degrees matter the most.

  • Anonymous said:

    Perhaps Watson could have chosen an attorney without so many potential conflicts of interest: Victor Henderson’s wife, Angela Henderson, whose educational background is in nursing, is serving as the Vice President for Enrollment Management. Presumably, from the posted job description on the university web site, this office is charged with verifying student eligibility for financial aid and registration purposes. CSU has been faulted for allowing students to enroll and obtain financial aid after they should have been academically dismissed.

    Compounding the problem is the fact that Angela Henderson’s Assistant or Associate Vice President, Cheri Sidney, who has only a B.A. degree, has been engaged in a personal relationship with Watson. The CSU Human Resources Manual clearly provides that such a relationship is prohibited between an employee and the employee’s supervisor or superior.

    See the March 14, 2013 posting “Another Kind of Cronyism” at csufacultyvoice.blogspot.com for more details.

    Wayne Watson may have changed his office address and job title, but his ethical lapses on the taxpayer dime continue unabated. He engaged in the same antics at the City Colleges.

  • S A GOULD said:

    “Dr. Watson has made several positive changes at CSU. For example, he has helped open the campus to the community with a wide range of campus events…”

    Please. Every University president does that in some way. Notably, it was CSU’s first female president Dr Dolores Cross who opened up the campus with her yearly 5K Runs on campus, which were extremely popular and showcased CSU’s magnificent grounds.

    Cross also STARTED CSU’s Daycare Program, because she recognized the need and the benefits to working parents. All subsequent presidents did not give one damn about the program and worked to move it OFF-CAMPUS. No, really. Cross was popular with the students because she actually walked the campus and spoke to them. CSU has had presidents who won’t even speak to students, staff OR faculty they might pass in the halls.

    It is a shame that a really nice University, in really nice surroundings and with so much potential continues to be a the mercy of all the CSU Presidents, Board of Governors, and higher-ups who turn a deaf ear to all the pleadings from… everybody. BEFORE Watson was appointed.

  • 95th Street said:

    Angela Henderson’s role on campus is certainly a matter of debate on campus, but having an “educational background … in nursing” is not scandalous. Ms. Henderson’s resume also includes her previous position as provost at the City Colleges. She was certainly associated with Dr. Watson from that position, but it also gives her administrative experience in higher education. Her path to CSU should be judged on evidence related to how well HR polices were followed (and if not, she is not to blame), and her performance should be judged based on her contributions to CSU – not on her background as a nurse.

    The CSU Day-care program is currently off campus at least in part because there is very little space on campus. It used to be in the Robinson Building. The folks in Springfield have promised money to renovate this building which has been deemed uninhabitable in its current state, but those dollars took a LONG time to make it from the paperwork in Springfield to 95th Street. My guess is that it will return to campus regardless of who is president of CSU.

    Yes, Dr. Watson’s Presidency has caused MANY problems on campus. Yes, the powerful “leaders” on the South Side flexed a lot of muscle to get Watson in place, and they are doing their best to control the CSU Board of Trustees today. This MUST STOP.

    But this does not mean that Dr. Watson has done nothing positive for the school, and it does not mean that everyone hired during his administration is evil.

  • Abandon Ship said:

    Concerning Henderson, I would take care in accepting someone as having superior credentials in higher education or having gained valuable experience while working for Wayne Watson at the City Colleges of Chicago.

    The Better Government Association has been exceptionally critical of Watson’s “distinguished” tenure at the City Colleges of Chicago. During his administration, graduation rates dropped by nearly fifty percent. The BGA compared his leadership to the captain of the Titanic.


  • Michael Raleigh said:

    I worked for the City Colleges during Watson’s tenure as chancellor. There was no moment when I thought he was even marginally competent to handle a position of that importance. Anyone who ever attended one of his startlingly inarticulate mass staff meetings would wonder how he ever convinced anyone to hire him as an administrator of anything.

    He was widely viewed as a political hire without solid educational credentials. Nothing in his performance ever shook that notion.

    If Quinn replaces the board members who do not support Watson, I pity Chicago State.

  • Frank DeBarnone said:

    Can there be a rebound from the current administration?
    Depends upon how one defines “rebound”.

    What could it become under a new leadership?
    I guess the point is who cares if Chicago rids itself from Watson
    only to get a truly honest yet equally incompetent leader.

    Who is out there that has a possibility of taking the position that
    the University would actually allow in?

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