As those of us who write on this web site have said repeatedly, the deleterious effects of the six-year Watson regime will not be fully known for several years. Recently, the university lost its appeal in the James Crowley case—a suit in which the damages have reached over $5 million. Rather than cut its losses, the university announced that it intends to appeal the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court. In my estimation, the final price tag for that legal action will approach $10 million in awards and legal fees.
Following on the heels of that bad news comes the visit of representatives from the Higher Learning Commission. In early February, the Higher Learning Commission communicated to all Illinois public universities their concern with the ongoing budget fiasco and asked the schools to provide evidence that students would have options in the event of a worst case scenario. However, Chicago State’s declaration of “financial exigency” resulted in a visit to determine the university’s ability to meet Criterion 5 of the HLC accrediting standards. The components of that criterion include these: “5.A. The institution’s resource base supports its current educational programs and its plans for maintaining and strengthening their quality in the future.” And, “5.C. The institution engages in systematic and integrated planning.” Even more specific is this: 5.C.4. “The institution plans on the basis of a sound understanding of its current capacity. Institutional plans anticipate the possible impact of fluctuations in the institution’s sources of revenue, such as enrollment, the economy, and state support.” See: https://www.hlcommission.org/Criteria-Eligibility-and-Candidacy/criteria-and-core-components.html
Rauner announced his budget cuts to higher education on February 18, 2015. Rauner’s proposal reduced the appropriation to Chicago State by 31.5 percent. At this point, the university should have begun to develop contingency plans to address the almost certain reduction in state appropriations that would occur in fiscal 2016. If the university administration developed contingency plans, they kept them secret. Based on the current scramble to figure out where cost savings and new revenues can be found, along with the absence of an existing plan, it seems reasonable to assume that no actual planning took place. Thus, when Thomas Calhoun assumed the presidency of Chicago State on January 1, 2016, he stepped into a budget crisis for which the university had done little or no contingency planning.
Along with this deepening crisis, the new president had to contend with an inept and dysfunctional administration. This dysfunction created immediate problems that included the continued presence of the former president, given an undeserved title, ensconced in a library office by Board decree, and drawing his $16,625 monthly salary until June 30, 2016. The former president, reportedly still meeting on an ex parte basis with individual Board members, continued to exert some influence on university affairs. In addition, many of his cronies reportedly also had access to Board members, using that access to undermine the new president by blaming him for the university’s current condition, attempting to hide their own incompetence, and by trying to cover up their own culpability for the university’s dire situation; all in an attempt to retain their jobs.
The confluence of the streams of fiscal stress, administrative incompetence and inattention, and political maneuvering form the river of accreditation crisis. The Watson administration was apparently too busy promoting administrators, hiring new ones, lying to the Board of Trustees, and defending itself against one major lawsuit (and others in the pipeline) to put together anything resembling a contingency plan for continued financial deprivation. The Board, either totally complicit or blissfully ignorant of the situation, obviously did not take things seriously until the meltdown became critical. Many of the holdover Watson administrators, busy with their backstabbing and political chicanery, simply had no time to deal with the problem. Anyone doubting the surreal nature of the current level of administrative denial is encouraged to attend the President’s Executive Council meetings where a stream of good news is almost never interrupted by forays into material reality. Why should we discuss the substantive problems facing the university when we can talk about our upcoming poster presentations?
In the absence of any existing plan, on February 4, 2016, the Board declared “financial exigency.” Although a number of administrators apparently believe that declaration will pave the way for a purge of dissidents and troublemakers (I’ll leave it to you to decide who those people might be), the immediate consequence is the current visit by the HLC representatives. They are asking pointed questions about the university’s planning, communication, and financial viability. They seem to have very real concerns about all those topics and it is uncertain what their report will ultimately recommend. Obviously, if the university’s accreditation is in jeopardy, so is its existence.
I must note here that the HLC has also been complicit in the decline of Chicago State University. In 2012 and 2014, faculty and staff made clear to representatives of that body the continuing problems created by Watson and his management style. The Faculty Senate’s Executive Committee had a frank discussion about the 2012 no confidence vote in Watson and his failure to perform the duties enumerated in his contract. In 2014, faculty and staff reiterated their concerns about communication and planning, again urging HLC representatives to take seriously our deepening disaffection. All to no avail. After spending most of their time meeting with administrators, the HLC representatives responsible for preparing the 2013 HLC Assurance Report said this about our former President and his administration: “He has established a strong new leadership team.” Subsequent events have certainly proven the inaccuracy of that observation.
So the real result of poor leadership boils down to this: 1) almost certainly, the university has no existing plan to deal with the worsening state financial crisis because neither the former President nor the Board insisted that one be created. 2) the “ripple effect” on our accreditation of the Board’s financial exigency declaration was apparently unanticipated, again reflecting an absence or a gross insufficiency in knowledge and planning. 3) The lack of state appropriations and the threat to our accreditation are twin blades pointing at the university. Either could ultimately be fatal. 4) As the crisis continues to unfold, many of the persons shaping the university’s response are holdovers from the previous administration, a situation that hardly inspires confidence.
If we are to survive this crisis and if the university is to continue as an educational institution, we must begin immediately to travel down a different road. First, the Board must provide a forum for faculty concerns. At this point, other than the worthless public comments, there is no opportunity for faculty to report directly to the Board of Trustees. The desire of the Board to listen only to our administration and to shut out faculty voices, particularly dissenting voices, has contributed mightily to this mishandled crisis. Second, our administration must utilize all the resources at its disposal, particularly the intellectual capacity of the university’s staff, students and faculty. Important administrative decisions cannot be left to a tiny group of self-interested persons who guard knowledge as if it were proprietary information. The more input into the process, the better the final outcome, and there should be few secrets as this process unfolds. Third, staff reduction decisions must be transparent and must affect all employee categories on a proportional basis. This crisis will not be an excuse to pare down staff and faculty positions while leaving dozens of high salaried administrators in place. If our administration does that, there will be nothing but contention on the horizon, even if we get through the current crisis.
We have succeeded in transforming our school’s public face. We are now seen as leaders in the struggle for adequate higher education financing and other schools are looking at us for strategies and tactics to fight this monstrous assault on the public welfare. We owe it to them, but most of all to ourselves, to get it as right as possible.