Writing on this blog over the years, I have mainly tried to confine myself to talking about things I could prove. After experiencing yesterday’s town hall meeting, I am going to deviate from that practice to journey into the realm of the speculative, all the while reining in my conjecture by maintaining contact with material reality.
It seemed clear that a number of attendees at yesterday’s meeting found themselves frustrated by the lack of substantive information disseminated by the three senior administrators. In Vice President Cecil Lucy’s case, given the utter lack of form to the current existential threat to the university, that seemed a prudent course. As the university’s financial chief, Lucy has done a fine job of nursing the university through this admittedly truncated semester. As he pointed out, to say definitively that the university will have no money on a particular date may turn out to be untrue. While everyone wants some kind of certainty (Lucy probably more than anyone), given the unprecedented nature of the governor’s war on the public universities, it is difficult to know how to attack the problem. Will there be an adequate appropriation? a partial appropriation? no appropriation? At this point, it is impossible to know. Thus, Lucy equivocated and made qualified statements. However, he made clear that the university as presently constituted cannot continue under the worst case scenario. In that case, fundamental change must occur. Otherwise, we must remember that he is not part of the previous administration, and frankly, has done well to get us this far.
The two persons ostensibly most responsible for reshaping the university, Provost Angela Henderson, and Associate Vice President Renee Mitchell, seemed ill prepared for the town hall and provided little substantive information. In response to a question about administrative planning during this crisis, Henderson alluded to nebulous “contingency plans” (that the University Advisory Committee has requested but not yet received) dealing with a variety of funding scenarios. Responding to another question about what the university planned to do about administrative bloat, Henderson claimed the administration would take a hard look at that matter and that some administrators would be laid off.
Mitchell offered no assistance on a question about unemployment benefits other than to remind everyone if they filed for unemployment and were subsequently paid for the time, any benefits would have to be repaid. In another unhelpful response, she referred everyone to the state to collect pay to which they were entitled but for which the university had no money. Finally, she made clear that Human Resources was now trying to obtain clarification about employee health insurance from CMS. According to Mitchell, whether or not an employee could continue to be covered by paying her/his share of the premium depended upon that employee’s job classification.
Listening to these questions and responses hardly filled me with optimism. My first concern is simple: why are these basic questions not answered some six weeks after the declaration of “financial exigency.” Better yet, why weren’t contingency plans developed and distributed to university employees as early as February or March 2015, when it became clear that Rauner intended to make drastic cuts to public university appropriations? What the hell have these people been doing for the past year? At this point, we should know the layoff plans for a number of funding scenarios, and the process for receiving already earned salary, maintaining our health coverage, and filing and/or eligibility for unemployment. If Human Resources cannot answer those questions, they should have already brought in someone who could.
I would describe my basic response to this meeting as dread. Are the people responsible for formulating plans doing so? Do they even know where to begin? Based on what information came out of yesterday’s meeting, I have my doubts. Now I will offer my analysis of what all this might mean. My interpretation emanates from some objective and some subjective material. Here it is for what it’s worth.
Given my somewhat extensive perusal of the university’s salary structure, it seems obvious that during the Watson regime, Chicago State’s administrators sacrificed a number of the university’s lowest paid employees in order to increase the ranks of the university’s most well remunerated staff. Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that trend will continue through this crisis. Although the members of the University Advisory Committee have offered our help to the Management Action Committee, they have not responded affirmatively, and we have had a difficult time obtaining information we feel is necessary for us to do our job. Additionally, six weeks after financial exigency, we have had only one joint meeting with the MAC. The results of that meeting were as unsatisfactory as the town hall. Afterwards, one of our members commented that the management committee had “stonewalled” us by not answering any of our questions. Whether the members of that committee feel we can be trusted is an open question. It is no secret that there is almost no faculty support for the Provost and I am sure our antipathy to her is reciprocated. After our recent meeting with the MAC, all of our members who attended agreed that the administration either had no plan or that they were keeping it a secret. Not a very good idea under the circumstances. Despite the obstacles, our committee will continue to reach out to the management committee because at this point, cooperation is imperative.
Considering what has happened since February 1, I began to think about another possibility. Are some members of our administration actively working against the new president? While that seems far-fetched, there are some things to consider. First, Wayne Watson is still on campus, which the Board surely knows is an entirely unpalatable circumstance to the majority of the university staff and faculty. Second, he likely still has considerable influence with a number of persons on the Board. Third, I believe that Watson desired to finish his contract in June of this year then turn the reins of the university over to his ward, Angela Henderson. When that reality did not materialize, it seems reasonable to assume that Watson would attempt to meddle in university affairs in an effort to protect his numerous cronies. Is it impossible to think he might have a desire to return to the presidency? Is it impossible to think that high ranking administrators might also have access to Board members supportive of Watson? that they would use that access to undermine Thomas Calhoun? Perhaps I am delusional here, but based on the labyrinthian politics we have seen over the past six years, I would not be surprised.
Can we salvage the university? That remains to be seen. Perhaps if we commit to working toward a common goal, our school can escape without mortal wounds. However, if persons charged with the responsibility for developing strategies to save Chicago State continue to guard information as if it were priceless, fail to do the necessary planning, and privilege their personal agendas over the common welfare, we are doomed. Again, the staff and faculty at this school are resources, use us.