Chicago State University President to be Replaced after just Nine Months
Dawn Rhodes Contact Reporter
After just nine months at embattled Chicago State University, President Thomas Calhoun Jr. is apparently parting ways with the Far South Side university.
Trustees on Friday plan to vote on Calhoun's "separation agreement" and name an interim president, according to a board meeting agenda posted Wednesday morning. Calhoun is paid $300,000 a year, and the terms of the agreement were not immediately available.
Calhoun took over in January to much fanfare, and his contract went until January 2021. Calhoun, trustees and a university spokeswoman did not immediately return calls for comment.
His abrupt departure comes at an inopportune time for Chicago State, which serves a predominantly African-American student population. With a heavy reliance on state funding, it has struggled to stay afloat this past year as state lawmakers failed to pass a budget for most of the year and then provided only partial funding.
The school declared a financial emergency in February and was notified that its accreditation status was at risk because of its shaky finances.
About 40 percent of the university's employees have been terminated or laid off since the beginning of the year and academic programs have been cut. Student enrollment is expected to be down steeply this fall when the university releases figures later this month, and the most recent graduation rate was down to just 11 percent.
The decision to part ways with Calhoun is an aboutface from 11 months ago when trustees enthusiastically hired the Alabamian to replace former president Wayne Watson, who retired last year.
Nikki Zollar, the board vice chair and head of the presidential search committee, said then that Calhoun, who previously worked at the University of Northern Alabama, was the only one of the three finalists who received overwhelming support from students, staff and faculty groups.
As people wondered about the 149-year-old university's future, Calhoun urged optimism, saying the institution had a bright future ahead.
"I believe that by working together, Chicago State University will continue to have a transformational impact on the lives of our students and our surrounding communities and I look forward to the start of this journey together," Calhoun said at the time.
Watson himself heaped praise upon his successor.
"His qualifications are impeccable, his experience has great depth to it and equally as important, his vision, his vision as an educator, is something that is going to take Chicago State University to the next level," Watson said at the time.
As word spread this week that Calhoun may be out, faculty made a last-ditch effort to show their support.
Early Wednesday morning, the president of the university faculty union sent a letter to the board to show the faculty's "virtually unanimous support" for Calhoun, saying he has "provided steady leadership and a strong public voice" during the difficulties presented by the budget crisis of the past year.
"As we begin to normalize operations, we are sure you want to join with us in full support of Dr. Calhoun," states the letter, signed by more than 130 faculty members. "To do otherwise would continue the turmoil we have experienced since February and likely expose the still vulnerable university to additional harm. We are eager to begin the work of rebuilding the institution. We have the right president at the right time."
Robert Bionaz, president of the faculty union, criticized the board for getting rid of a popular president while keeping other senior administrators who are opposed by faculty and staff.
"The board has chosen a path guaranteed to create continued conflict, contention and uproar on this campus," said Bionaz, a history professor. "This is a truly dark hour for our university, and Gov. Rauner should immediately replace every member of this current board of trustees."