With the school continuing to hemorrhage students, the Board did something yesterday. Shocked at the idea that anyone would use Chicago State for political benefit (is a stint at CSU a recipe for success?), the Board immediately terminated CAO Paul Vallas, who had recently tendered his resignation amid reports he was mulling a run for Chicago mayor. That wasn’t the only reason apparently. Here’s what the Board Chairman had to say: “‘I, for one, felt that we have got less than effective use out of that office and the person who occupied it,’ said the board’s chairman, Marshall Hatch. ‘I think we’re doing a good thing to eliminate that office and move forward.’” This is, of course, the same Marshall Hatch who for several years did anything and everything Wayne Watson wanted. The same Marshall Hatch who never raised his voice as Watson ran the university into the ground, as he used the place to stash his friends and political cronies, rewarding them for their incompetence with cushy jobs and nice salaries. The same Marshall Hatch who played a prominent role in the ouster of President Calhoun in 2016.
Some four months ago, Hatch sang a slightly different tune. According to an October 13, 2017 story in the Sun Times, “The Rev. Marshall Hatch — president of the Chicago State board, who signed the contract with Vallas in April — said he doesn’t expect Vallas to stay at Chicago State once his contract runs out next year.
‘I don’t see that happening,” Hatch said. “He was brought in to bring some energy. I think it’s worked out decently.’” Things certainly changed suddenly and now the University is back in the hands of many of the same people who have brought it to the brink of extinction.
So Hatch wants to “move forward”? Here’s what that looks like, Chicago State style. Our spring 2018 enrollment is down to around 2800, another double-digit drop from fall and the loss of 450 students from the previous spring. The numbers tell the story: enrollment down 62.5 percent since fall 2010, down 41.2 percent since fall 2015, down 21.7 percent from fall 2016. Even more ominous, our undergraduate FTE has fallen to around 1350 for spring 2018, down from 4263 in fall 2010 (68 percent decline). If we drop below 1000 undergraduate FTE, we lose our PBI (Primarily Black Institution) status. If we don’t stop the bleeding, at our current rate of decline, we’ll have fewer than 2000 total students in fall 2020 and our PBI status will be gone.
Turning to finances, where is the forensic audit authorized by the Board in March 2017? During his time at Chicago State, Vallas tried to address some lingering financial problems. Since our 2011-12 financial aid scandals, we have been unable to offer classes at off-campus sites. My understanding (which may be incorrect) is that we have yet to pay the fine levied by the Department of Education Vallas has attempted to negotiate a settlement and made arrangements with a D.C. law firm to assist us with this issue at minimal cost to the University. As yet, this effort has not borne fruit because it has been blocked by the upper administration.
In August/September, Vallas brought in a consulting firm, apparently at no charge, to examine our financial aid practices. You might remember that Watson’s then-girlfriend was in charge of University financial aid for several years. The report generated by the consulting firm examined several years up to the 2016-17 school year. Here are some of the highlights: 1) the University was not paying invoices to a company with which it had contracted to collect and remit Perkins Loan repayments. As a result, the company used the repayments to satisfy the outstanding invoices rather than putting the money back into the Perkins pool. 2) The University’s default rate on Perkins loan was above 45 percent, “among the highest in the country and is a current audit finding.” As the consultant pointed out, given our default rate, “the Department of Education could force the school to exit the program.” Other notable findings included this: “As of July 2017, the University’s total delinquent tuition surpassed $14,291,495. This total is overwhelming. These dollars, given the size of your institution, are extremely high and do represent a lack of collection activity.” Additionally, the consultant found “(a)nother issue related to the University’s Perkins Student Loan fund involves former students (Perkins borrowers) that are deceased. The University contracts with Heartland / ECSI to handle billing for borrowers in repayment. In a sample of 545borrowers, 103 were found to be deceased and still classified in the Heartland / ECSI system as being in repayment.”
Finally, the report acknowledged “customer service” problems and terrible morale created by staff shortages and murky processes. “Staff are reactive, not proactive. This is probably due to the shortage of departmental staff. Many tasks are not completed in a timely manner. Replies to emails are several days late or emails are ignored. Telephone calls not answered, returned calls resulting from vendor voice messages are many times ignored. Sometimes fingers point in several directions. Inter-departmental communications are sporadic at best. To make matters worse, delegation of duties is not apparent.”
Senior administrators were reportedly aware of these issues, which have been going on for years. However, because of Vallas’s efforts, they are now apparently being corrected. Vallas also made a number of proposals to increase enrollment and revenues and to streamline operations. To date, most of these proposals are stalled, many by inaction in Academic Affairs. In later 2017, Vallas sent a detailed memorandum to the Board outlining the various proposals and attendant problems. I suppose his termination is the Board’s response.
Once again, I think the Board has done the University a disservice. Paul Vallas was an asset, someone with useful contacts who brought energy and fresh ideas to a campus devoid of both. I saw someone working hard for the school and its students. Obviously, many of our administrators, knowing they could not ever get another job in higher education, were resistant to his somewhat frenetic style and the threat he represented to their sinecures. As they did with Thomas Calhoun, they worked—encouraged and abetted by sympathetic Board members —assiduously to undermine Vallas and eventually contributed to his termination.
It’s been two years since the University should have begun to progress without the blight of the fraud Wayne Watson and his various sycophants and cronies. We’ve wasted that time in a repetitive cycle of failure, while Watson’s acolytes at the school and on the Board have torpedoed two strong leaders with the potential to take the University in a positive direction. The same criticism leveled at Calhoun, that he wasn’t a “team player” surfaced as an indictment of Paul Vallas. The question for me is this: what competent person of goodwill would want to play on this utterly discredited and execrable “team”?