Remember when Wayne Watson expressed all that faux outrage at Board members allegedly trying to get their friends hired at Chicago State? Here are Watson’s words from around February 2013: “We believe that the real motivation behind the board's actions stem from the my refusal as president and the refusal of key members of my administration to capitulate to the incessant demands from Chairman Rozier and Vice-Chair Z. Scott to either hire, promote and to give salary increases to their friends and associates.”
While Wayne Watson and his retinue supposedly rejected overtures from some Board members to hire their “friends and associates,” a laughable assertion indeed, they failed to apply that exacting standard to other Board members, particularly Watson’s old “friend and associate” Nikki Zollar. What follows is the anatomy of a crony hire. As I have said in previous discussions of crony hires, the blame here rests on the people doing the hiring, since they are willfully subverting the University’s integrity by insuring that “friends and associates” get jobs which are often created out of thin air just for them.
First, as of January 31, 2017, the staff of the Provost’s Offices included eight persons: the Provost, three Associate Provosts, one Executive Secretary, one Associate, one Assistant to the Provost, and one Academic Contract Specialist. All these positions survived the April 2016 blood purge of staff and administrators. Six of the persons occupying those eight positions have worked in the Provost’s office since 2014. In addition, the current Director of Communications reports directly to the Provost.
The position I will focus on is the “Assistant to the Provost” position occupied by Yvonne Davila. This position last appeared as a funded line in the Fiscal 2012 Internal Operating Budget at a salary of $62,496. Now, however, this position is classified as a “Temporary Administrative” position by Human Resources, with a salary of $85,008 per year, or a salary equivalent to the compensation of two staff positions. While the University laid off and terminated scores of staff and administrative employees in April and June 2016, this temporary position survived. Why, exactly? What are the duties of this position? How did it come about?
To get straight to the point, the incumbent in this position survived because of the relationship between she and Nikki Zollar, and because Zollar and the Provost have colluded to keep the University in the hands of the Watson holdovers, and by extension, of Watson himself. In the spring of 2016, Dr. Calhoun mentioned to me that someone named Davila worked in the Provost’s office as a “crisis communicator.” He indicated that he had no idea what that job entailed but that he had been informed that he needed such a person.
How did he get her? According to records received from a FOIA request, the Legal Department contracted with Davila for unspecified legal services. She received $4999.75 on February 25, March 19, April 14, and May 28, 2014; a grand total of $19,999. On June 24, 2014, Davila signed a contract—which the Provost approved—to provide the University “Crisis Communication Consulting Services on behalf of the University, including matters of reputation management, media and message management, internal communication and litigation.” The contract called for $19,998 in compensation, which she received in three payments of $6666 on July 9, August 15, and September 5, 2014. The contract ran from July 1, 2014 through November 13, 2014. On November 3, 2014, the University apparently hired Davila as the “Assistant to the Provost,” at her current salary of $85,008. According to records obtained from Human Resources, since February 2014, she has received $245,000 in compensation.
The duties of this position are unclear. Although the “Crisis Communication” portion of the July 2014 contract suggests that the work product should include things like press releases or other external and internal communications designed to protect the University’s “reputation,” there is no evidence of any such concerted effort. No stories in any of the local media outlets include statements from the Crisis Communicator. In addition, a search of the CSU web site reveals only one entry for Davila, a comment included in the Provost Council meeting of July 6, 2016: “Y. Davila indicated an article about the accomplishments of The College of Pharmacy has been published. She shared that this story is one part of a broader project to share achievements and positive information about CSU. The goal is two stories a month for this year. She invited participation/suggested leads and will establish a calendar.”
Her comment apparently refers to a story in the Chicago Defender by “YD Avila” about the College of Pharmacy. An internet search revealed that to be the only reference to “YD Avila” and the Defender. I found no other articles about Chicago State University written by Davila in the Defender. So, what communications are the province of this position? Perhaps the “news” on the CSU web site might be one of the job duties. In the 28 months since January 1, 2015, a total of 75 “news” articles have appeared on our site, most a paragraph or two. That’s around 2.7 per month. Perhaps that’s the “two stories a month” Davila referenced at the Provost Council.
As I pointed out in a previous post, Davila had no hesitation about expressing her feeling to Trustee Zollar that Phil Beverly should be “fired” for having the audacity to make a video documenting his classroom teaching. Davila’s inclusion in an e-mail thread eventually going from CSU administrators to Zollar demonstrates her close connections to the Trustee. Zollar’s informal “Good gravy,” comment and her subsequent stupid assertion that Dr. Beverly “incites riots” (when, I wonder, was the last “riot” to which Zollar referred?) demonstrates her willingness to discuss these matters with someone with which she has a degree of familiarity. Likewise, Zollar’s admonition to Dr. Calhoun (previously reported on this blog) about “not hurting” various administrators, including, Davila, demonstrates her fealty to the Watson cronies.
Frankly, I am not even sure that Davila’s job at Chicago State is her only full-time job. Nonetheless, her connections with Nikki Zollar insure her continued employment, even as other staff persons see their lives disrupted by losing their jobs at Chicago State. In fact, she may even also work for one of Nikki Zollar’s companies, Safespeed.
A recent article on Safespeed detailed the connections between the officers of the company, and their contributions to various state and local politicians whose support is integral to the Zollar’s lucrative financial dealings with a number of local municipalities. Safespeed’s political activity has given it a “license to print money,” according to one observer. The article documented over $183,000 in contributions since 2007 from Zollar, Safespeed, or Triad Consulting, another Zollar company.
Throughout the article, the reporters refer to Yvonne Davila as a “spokeswoman” for Safespeed. One of the co-authors of the article indicated that Davila had an e-mail address at Safespeed.LLC. In a written response to questions from the reporters, Davila commented on Nikki Zollar, Triad Consulting, and three other persons associated with Safespeed. She said this about Zollar: “Ms. Zollar is an attorney with a wealth of experience in many different fields … She is an entrepreneur whose ideas are not constrained." The authors of the article described Zollar this way: “SafeSpeed LLC was formed in Illinois in June 2007 by a group of individuals who at the time appear to have had zero experience in traffic safety or control . . . One of those partners, SafeSpeed President Nikki M. Zollar, is a former official in the administration of Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar and has longstanding ties to both Chicago Democrats and state GOP officials. . . Zollar brought political connections from both sides of the political aisle to SafeSpeed but it is unclear from a review of state records how she got into the red-light camera business.” The link to the article is: http://www.oakpark.com/News/Articles/1-17-2017/Easy-money:-Area-red_light-camera-tickets-a-boon-for-clouted-company-/
Nikki Zollar is also an “entrepreneur” who has no objection to using Chicago State as an employment agency for her “friends and associates.” Certainly, someone that politically connected would insure that only someone she knew and trusted would serve as a “spokeswoman” for her company.
To recap, Nikki Zollar and the Provost worked to install one of Zollar’s “friends and associates” in a nicely compensated administrative job in the Provost’s office. Obviously, Zollar’s patronage and the Provost's complicity insured that the position and its incumbent (despite the "temporary" status) survived the April 2016 staff cuts. The job duties are murky and it seems unclear just exactly what Zollar’s person actually does, although there is no evidence of any kind of “crisis communication” or of press releases from the “crisis communicator” pertaining to Chicago State’s various crises. The “crisis communicator” serves as a “spokeswoman” for one of Zollar’s “clouted companies,” a position that suggests she may actually be employed by Safespeed. Based on her votes at the last Board meeting, Zollar’s loyalty to the Watson regime remains unshaken, and Zollar’s role in insuring the continued employment of her crony hire demonstrates her contempt for Chicago State as an educational institution. This is not the place to stash your “friends and associates.” I can only echo my distinguished colleague’s demand to Zollar. Ms. Zollar, your performance as a Trustee has been shameful. For the good of the institution, please resign immediately.
This is precisely the kind of "business as usual" we must eliminate.