During Chicago State’s disastrous enrollment losses of the past 7 years, our senior administrators have blamed everyone but themselves for our predicament: previous administrations, faculty and staff, the news media, Republicans, the Governor, and the Illinois legislature. As enrollment tanked, our ‘leadership team” tried frantically to distance themselves from the unfolding catastrophe. As they presented their glowing reports to a credulous Board of Trustees in bed with Wayne Watson, the school’s students continued to leave in droves. Unfortunately for these failed administrators, reconstructing the internal failures contributing to our current critical condition is not that difficult. In multiple posts on this web site, contributors have chronicled the parade of crony hires and administrative incompetents, the scandals, the lawsuits and judgments and/or settlements, the failure of an ethically compromised Board of Trustees to protect the University, and the chaos in leadership that produced 4 presidents (including two interims) in 16 months.
All of these problems aside, what did the people charged with the university’s administrative responsibilities actually do? Or to put it another way, did they even expend the minimum effort expected of people charged with addressing Chicago State’s plunging student population? A brief examination of our administrative performance in the area of financial aid will help answer those questions.
As a basic premise, it seems reasonable to assume that a university losing students at the rate we are losing them would try anything and everything to appeal to the largest potential student population. In my estimation, this means insuring the smooth operation of the various functions associated with enrollment and student support. This effort also requires creative and innovative thinking to come up with programs appealing to a broad range of potential students. I have already discussed the administration’s failure to move on some of the programs proposed by former CAO Paul Vallas. To the best of my knowledge his ideas are currently moribund, due primarily to inaction in Academic Affairs. Part of the reason for this inaction is simple: these proposals require that Chicago State offer courses at off-campus locations, something we are currently unable to do since we are not approved for financial aid disbursements to students taking off-campus courses. This is basic administrative failure 101.
As many of you remember, the University suffered a major financial aid scandal in early 2011. We were awarding financial aid to students who were not eligible and we were disbursing financial aid to students at off-campus locations not approved by IBHE and the Department of Education. These Title IV violations resulted in a hefty fine for the University. The financial aid scandal also enabled the Watson administration to blame the previous administration and then Provost Sandra Westbrooks for the scandal. Watson positioned himself as protecting the school’s academic integrity and his administration subsequently expelled a number of students for poor scholarship. As recently as 2017, administrative mouthpieces still blamed the continuing enrollment decline on those expulsions, or more accurately, blamed the losses on the previous administration.
One of the lessons the University ostensibly learned from this scandal was the importance of having someone in place as the Vice President of Enrollment Management. In January 2011, the position stood vacant, as did the position of Dean of Student Success, the position then responsible for supervising Chicago State’s Financial Aid Department. In June 2011, Watson filled the Vice President’s position with his old crony, Angela Henderson. Additionally, Watson reorganized the Financial Aid operation and placed it under the supervision of his girlfriend, Cheri Sidney. Mirroring the chaos at the top of the organization, from mid-2013 until early 2018, five separate persons have served as the Vice President of Enrollment Management: Henderson from 2011-13, LaShondra Peebles for part of 2014, Carol Cortilet-Albrecht in 2015-16, Latrice Williams in 2016-17, and in 2018 Michael Ellison Interim). From mid-2011 until mid-2016, Cheri Sidney supervised Financial Aid. After her termination, her position disappeared.
Although under fire for its financial aid practices, our administration did nothing to address the issue of financial aid disbursements to students at unapproved locations in 2011. Although both Henderson and Sidney should have been working to correct the obvious financial aid problems, they did nothing. Additionally, in late 2013, the University’s report to the Illinois State Legislature indicated that Provost Westbrooks had been assigned to correct the unapproved off-campus disbursement problem. Westbrooks retired in mid-2013, replaced by Angela Henderson.
As Vice President of Enrollment Management, Henderson had already been involved in discussions about this and other financial aid issues. In April 2012, LaShondra Peebles, responsible for Chicago State’s financial aid compliance, noticed that the school’s application to the DOE for financial aid participation contained lies. Specifically, the application claimed that “there were no classes offered outside of the university campus, or off-site locations.” In fact, that semester, Chicago State offered 9 off-campus courses, with 110 students enrolled. Peebles told Henderson that “CSU failed to notify DOE that Title IV funds were issued to students attending classes at off-site locations.” This conversation occurred a year after Chicago State had been fined for its financial aid violations, and the Illinois Auditor General’s report for fiscal 2012 had noted the financial aid disbursements at unapproved off-campus locations. Business as usual at Chicago State.
Henderson directed Peebles to correct the problem. The DOE notified Peebles that Chicago State was not in “good standing,” and ineligible for an automatic renewal of the financial aid participation agreement. She reported DOE’s position to Watson, Henderson, University Counsel Patrick Cage, and Ethics Officer Bernetta Bush. In the summer of 2012, Watson declared that no off-campus courses would be offered in fall 2012. Despite Watson’s pronouncement, the University offered 8 off-campus courses that semester, enrolling 121 students. Chicago State has not offered any off-campus courses since Fall 2012.
Ultimately, Chicago State received “provisional” approval to disburse financial aid, although the issue of off-campus courses remained unresolved. When Peebles attempted to report our “provisional” financial aid status to the Board in late 2013, Watson and Henderson refused to allow her to submit the report. In a May 2013 conversation, Watson had told her that “it was not a good idea to share the information with the Board at that time and the Board was not going to be advised of CSU’s provisional status.” In December, Watson “advised Peebles that he was upset with her report and that she could not submit the report to the Board as it would cause unnecessary alarm. Watson “advised her to revise the report and make sure Henderson saw it before he viewed again and to work with her to edit.”
Peebles continued to work on the report and attempted again to submit it for the Board’s March 2014 meeting. She claimed that “Watson and Henderson advised Peebles that she could not present any of the report at the board meeting because the information in the report about Title IV funds would expose CSU to public scrutiny.” Peebles never submitted her report to the Board.
Although we have now apparently come off “provisional” financial aid status, we are still unable to disburse financial aid to students at off-campus sites. Until this issue is resolved, the University’s ability to increase enrollment will be hampered. At this point, we have not even officially negotiated the amount of our fine from the DOE. Who is responsible for this state of affairs? I'll leave that to the reader to work out, but I will say that there is only one administrator at the top of this organization who remains from the 10 persons who reported directly to the President in January 2012.