Chicago State Trustees Face Heat After $600,000 Breakup with President

Thomas CalhounThomas Calhoun

Chicago State University Trustees voted 6-1 to accept the resignation of President Thomas Calhoun after only nine months on the job, and OK’d a $600,000 severance package for him.

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The vote was taken Friday morning at a contentious meeting at the school, with students and faculty members in attendance loudly voicing their displeasure. The trustees did not comment on why the president was leaving after such a short tenure, saying that the agreement forbade them from doing so.

“We can’t talk about it, because that’s part of what our agreement is,” said board member Rev. Marshall Hatch, who said that the criticism of trustees “makes sense.”

“We’re listening, and we’re constantly listening,” Hatch said. “All through the process it was helpful to hear from people about what to do, and we’re going to continue to be open.”

The school’s vice president of finance, Cecil Lucy, will take over as interim president before a search convenes for a permanent replacement.

When asked about a potential severance agreement on Thursday, Gov. Bruce Rauner expressed frustration. He will have the power to appoint four new board members in January.

“Chicago State is a very important institution, I’d like to see them do well, but in the past, for many years, they’ve had management problems and they’ve had significant financial difficulties, and I’d like to see them better run,” Rauner said. “We don’t have that many taxpayer resources to go around, and you hate to see a lot of money going out for non-productive uses, the money should be in the classrooms and with the teachers, so we’ll have to assess that.”

Hatch says he believes the school has a bright future, despite nearly shutting its doors earlier this year before a $20 million infusion of state money, following a stopgap education funding agreement signed by the governor. He says he welcomes the governor’s potential involvement with the school.

“Some of us are looking forward to appointees who will bring their resources and gifts for the service of Chicago state,” Hatch said. “At that point, I think the future is going to be bright. We have every reason to believe the governor is going to take an active role.”

Faculty members say Calhoun’s hands were tied when he was hired. The board of trustees created a four-person management team that consisted of Calhoun and three other administrators that would make all the administrative decisions. The professors we spoke to say those other administrators are close with the trustees and with the university’s former president, Wayne Watson – whose own tenure was marked by scandal, but who was being paid severance and maintained an office on campus. They believe Watson and other trustees wanted to call the hiring and spending shots, and that Calhoun suffered from one fatal flaw.

“He’s not politically connected in Chicago, and that’s part of the problem,” Faculty Union President Robert Bionaz said Thursday. “His idea of how to run the university was very different from the board’s idea, and different from Watson’s and the holdovers from the Watson administration. This is a very bright guy, very ethical guy that had some good ideas, but the board has never given him an opportunity to do the job he was hired to do.”

When Watson was contacted by phone Friday, he declined comment on the severance situation and allegations made against him by Bionaz and others, but says he looks forward to talking about the future of Chicago State University at a later date.

Hatch says Watson stayed involved with the school until his severance contract ran out in June of this year.

“And as far as I was concerned, (Watson) was a resource for the president and however Calhoun chose to use him with the time he left on his contract was a benefit for him,” Hatch said.

One lawmaker close to the school, state Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago) disagrees. He says the president and the board simply didn’t see eye to eye, and that Calhoun couldn’t handle the fact that the school was running out of money.

“They need a so-called ‘war time’ president, given the state of affairs, and that wasn’t Calhoun,” Trotter said.

Students on Thursday said they're upset that they were left out of the decision, and that Calhoun was popular on campus.

“There are a lot of questions that need to be answered from the board and President Calhoun himself,” said Chicago State junior Christopher Glenn.

“We went through the process of a selection, a presidential committee search, and we overwhelmingly loved that president,” said Chicago State senior Darren Martin, who is student body president. “And with him gone the first term into a new year, it scares us.”

“He stuck up for the students, and I felt like the board should’ve given students the opportunity to vote on whether we wanted him to stay or not,” said graduate student Sanora McCray. “I feel like the board should be let go because they did a very distasteful move.”

Meanwhile, Bionaz says a large severance agreement is bad PR for a school that gets its fair share of it.

“It’s indefensible. We whine about financial exigency and yet we can throw away $1.6 million on severance to administrators, we can give the departing president $600,000, and then we can pay another president $600,000 for that time period, we’re going to spend $2 million, ” Bionaz said.

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

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