One of the things I find most troubling about Wayne Watson’s administration is the Orwellian nature of the rhetoric that frequently emanates from denizens of the Cook Building. Rather than address the substantive problems plaguing the school, the administration disseminates propaganda. Administrative communications create no conditions for a frank examination of our difficulties. Instead, the administration feeds us a false narrative of competence and control and dishes up empty jargon instead of real discussion.
The newly realized need to place blame for our enrollment declines everywhere but where it belongs illustrates this nicely. From 2010 on, the administration created a monstrosity called Enrollment Management, staffed it with well-paid cronies as upper-level administrators, and invested the people in charge of the unit with increasing responsibility for the affairs of the university. The result of this investment of taxpayer funds can be seen in the 29 percent drop in enrollment Chicago State has experienced since 2010.
Now, however, the enrollment disaster can no longer be ignored. Empirical data demonstrates the totality of the administration’s failure on that score. This year, the administration has stripped units from Enrollment Management and transferred them to either the President’s office or Academic Affairs. Is not the dilution of Enrollment Management’s responsibilities further evidence of its abysmal failure?
As I have noted previously, under this administration, notions of “accountability, transparency and responsibility” are nothing more than empty words. In fact, Watson assiduously avoids taking any responsibility for his numerous failures at Chicago State. Enrollment plunging? The faculty’s fault. Non-existent fund-raising? Blame the Foundation. Poor press relations? It is the media’s fault. Problems with idiotic mandated degree requirements? The faculty has no respect for the students. You get the idea. Apparently, the latest propaganda coming down from the administration will substitute for “accountability, transparency and responsibility,” the nonsensical claim that an uptick in enrollment is imminent. An increase, which, by definition, will occur in spite of the school’s faculty.
Yesterday, I mentioned the minutes of the March 8, 2010 Board of Trustees meeting. During the meeting, Watson received praise for his great leadership from his patron, Leon Finney. Of course the minutes only offer an expurgated account of a conversation that took place over a fifteen minute period during that meeting. I think this conversation is revealing in a number of ways and I will publish the transcript for your consideration. I will interject editorial comment where I feel it is appropriate. If anyone wishes to listen to the actual recording, it is available here: http://www.csu.edu/boardoftrustee/meetingrecordings/audio/ASACparttwo03082010.mp3. The exchange runs from 5:40 to 22:00.
The players in this drama include Wayne Watson, former University Provost Sandra Westbrooks, and Trustees Leon Finney and Levon James (Student Trustee). The conversation occurred during the Academic and Student Affairs Committee portion of the regular board meeting.
To begin, Sandra Westbrooks reports on the good enrollment news:
Westbrooks: “What I can tell you is enrollment is up overall by 19 percent.”
Next, Watson crows about what an unprecedented success this enrollment increase represents. The hyperbole of his comments aside, he gives all the credit to himself and his administrative leaders. When he “give[s] a lot of credit to our faculty,” he is really telling the board and the audience that the faculty functioned as facilitators of policies devised by his administration and executed by various deans:
Watson: “and that is why we’re so hesitant because the numbers are so high that made us"
Watson: “pause and question ourselves. So we are scrubbing the numbers. We know we are significantly up, as you, ah, Fall Semester we led the state in terms of percentage increase.”
Westbrooks: “by 6.1 percent”.
Watson: “When we saw the numbers most recent, you know, we said take these back, rescrub them, ah, but we are significantly up.”
“We have never had that type of an increase, or retention of our students and yeah, I have to give a lot of credit to our faculty, our faculty stepped up, you know, ah, they stepped on a voluneer basis, to work with a concept called the early alert system. The concept was put in place in the fall, and, ah, the faculty made it happen. Dr. Green with her efforts and I have to give credit to the five deans, the five deans put in, just innumerable hours you know, just them personally, their staff, making phone calls, reaching out to students, all of that resulted in the highest retention of first-time full-time Freshmen from fall to spring that we’ve ever seen. Which also then led to this unusual enrollment increase that we have. Let me say that there are, there are some things we are looking at that we are concerned about, some of the students that we have retained, Dr. Green and her staff are working on those students, we have some students who have some academic challenges. We must address that, that is our responsibility, but the thing is that ah, we’re looking pretty strong, looking pretty strong in terms of enrollment right now.”
After a brief continuation of the enrollment report by Westbrooks, Leon Finney, the man most responsible for bringing Watson to Chicago State inserts himself into the conversation. For the next several minutes, he attempts to brow beat Westbrooks into conceding that the good news is because of the leadership of Wayne Watson (as reported in the minutes):
Finney: “Thank you very much for this report. It seems to me that when we look at the way the school is operating now, in prior years, and compare it to prior years, something has changed. For some undocumented reason maybe, our, in comparison to other universities, in comparison to other universities and colleges, our enrollment is up, and we’re leading in the state. For some undocumented reason, our retention is up, and we’re leading the state there. I’ve been on this board now for five years, and I have yet to witness the kind of turnaround and performance that we’ve experienced this last twelve months, and I’m just curious as to where you as the provost would sort of summarize what’s happened here. We were viewed as a loser school and now we’re not. What happened?”
A nonplussed Westbrooks stumbles over her response, which Finney finds unacceptable. When the student trustee attempts to come to a grateful Westbrook’s assistance, Finney shuts him off.
Westbrooks: “Well Dr. Finney I think that number one it’s been a collective effort. I think that there are so many individuals on this campus, I mean we love this institution, and”
Finney: “but you loved the institution before, what happened?”
Westbrooks: "Well, um, I think that more of a concerted effort has been made, um, that’s been more focused. It’s not that we didn’t know what to do, it’s being able to do it, follow through, have some safety nets in place, but also I think it’s about accountability, um, because with that accountability a lot of people who used to be here are no longer here, so I think that all of those have been contributing factors as the university moves forward, and, but it’s not without hard work, because it’s not something that you put in place, you then have to do your follow-up meetings, or your debriefings. You always talk about what went well, but at the end of the day you want to know, but how can we improve upon whatever we’ve just accomplished. . . ."
Finney: “Let me ask you another question, it seems as though I’m not getting an answer, I’m getting an explanation, but, why wasn’t this present before?”
James: “I think I can help you.”
Westbrooks: “O.K., thank you.”
Finney: “But no, no, I’d like for her to answer the question, cause I’m not asking you Trustee, I’m asking this provost.”
James: “It’s not fair.”
Westbrooks: “Um Well a lot has to do with the leadership Dr. Finney, and I know that that it depends on, a lot of it has to do with the focus, at a point in time, what’s priority for the institution? And I think that the priority must drive everything we do as an institution. We can’t just say that enrollment, retention and graduation is a priority if you don’t have the strategy behind it and the accountability behind it. And I think that that the major difference.”
Finney: “So then, I guess, you’d say that maybe there’s been a change in management.”
Westbrooks: “Oh, definitely.”
Now that Finney has gotten the response he desired, he launches into a rambling narrative that ultimately vindicates him and the board for hiring Watson. Early in the narrative, Finney is unwittingly prescient, recounting complaints during the 2009 hiring process that the board “was taking this school backwards,” and that “the institution was going to go down the drain.”
Finney: “Ah, the reason I’m raising this is because this board, ah, went through a very very difficult process, ah, and the, during that process, the board was roundly criticized that it was taking this school backwards. Students got on the floor and represented that the baccalaureate, the master’s level and the doctoral degrees were going to be not of value, that the institution was going to go down the drain, ah, faculty members charged that, ah, the process was not one that was helpful, although we were able to document that the process had complied with the full extent of the law. And we’ve had now a period of time when you essentially served as the chief executive officer of this school and now we have a period where Dr. Watson has served as the chief executive officer of this school to oversee the day-to-day operation. I would submit to you that perhaps, it was the freedom, ah, that this board allowed, invested in you to do your job during the period of time from June, July 1 through October, ah, ah, to September and then, ah, having used, I think its best judgment in selecting Dr. Watson to be its president, ah, and now having him fully empowered and capable of doing his job, or doing the job of leading this institution, I suspect that, in my judgement as I now bring to a close of my fifth year on this board, I suspect that that’s been a major reason for why we have, we’re experiencing a turnaround, and in terms of the performance of this school. And I mention it at this particular point because I want the students that are here this morning to appreciate the fact that in a place like this, it is possible to have a moment of disagreement as to the direction of the school, ah, and yet, I think, achieve a positive purpose. We are all in a democratic society and this board is vested with the authority and responsibility of making sure that it has top quality management and then let the management be, take place. I’ve not been on this campus now for almost three months. It’s wonderful not to have to be on this campus and worry about the day-to-day operations of the school, because we have a team here that Dr. Watson is the head of, and you are, ah, the chief operating officer that’s able to work and get the work, the job done. And so for me, ah, my narrow little point of view, I think that it represents, um, wisdom on the part of this board, ah, investing in you the authority to carry forth the job as provost, and wisdom as it . . . engaged in a process of selecting a new president. And so, I don’t want to take any credit, all I think we have to as policy makers is to be careful to select those people that we believe are able to do the job, ah, and let ‘em do the job, and, um, now I feel somewhat vindicated that the decision that I participated in was the right decision moving forward.”
The student trustee then chimes in with a corrective view that actually includes references to the efforts made by students and staff to improve things at Chicago State:
James: “Might I add to that, simply put, you cannot flatly attributed the successes that have happened over this period purely to the hirings that have gone on. There would have been no president who could have come into this university after what transpired last year without a commitment to understanding the needs of the student population and hearing and addressing their concerns. It is directly because of that commitment to hear and address the concerns of the students on this campus that we are seeing a turnaround. And if we want to attributed congratulations and accolades to individuals, let’s contribute it to the students from Student Government Association, the students from SWAT, the students from . . . the ah, everyday student who took a personal interest in their education and the individuals administering that area and came in and sat through meeting after meeting after meeting trying to work through these issues to make sure that those things that prohibited the university from being able to retain and enroll students didn’t continue. And along with that, the members of the staff here definitely were there and helped with, um, giving us the expertise and the knowledge that they possess to coordinate that effort. If it wasn’t for the staffing as well as the students, we would not have the successes that we have today.”
In his final gurgle, Finney praises Westbrooks, astounding given the overall reproving tone of his previous observations. Remember that Westbrooks resigned in 2009 along with most of the other members of the presidential search committee. It seems clear from the discernible discomfort Westbrooks felt earlier as Finney directed his badgering questions toward her that she did not anticipate any compliments coming from Watson’s benefactor. Nonetheless, after giving her his best stern and fatherly guidance, Finney threw her a bone in his praise for Westbrook’s ability to hear all the great ideas disseminated by Wayne Watson.
Finney: “Well, I don’t disagree with you in terms of the involvement of the students. What the key thing was, and I want to represent here, was that we had a change in leadership that in my judgement, was, is a good thing and I wanted to point out that Dr. Westbrook, ah, was material in that. And she had an open ear, which simply says that perhaps the previous administration didn't have an open ear and didn’t permit the students to ah, exercise, um, exercise their engagement, involvement, and so we have what we have and I want to now just close this, ah, moment now to say that you ought to be commended, Dr. Westbrook, and Dr. Watson, ah, is too and I call for the orders of the day.”
As current events demonstrate, our contemporary board has not changed much. They are still offering up hearty portions of Orwellian rhetoric to elide a hard look at actual events at this university. As the waves crash over the deck the board plays their one note over and over again. “We believe in Wayne Watson’s vision.” Shame on Leon Finney for bringing us this disaster and shame on Anthony Young, James Joyce, Michael Curtin, Spencer Leak, Horace Smith and Nikki Zollar for not possessing the insight to identify the real source of Chicago State’s problems and end this travesty.