Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bits & Bobs

So fair readers I am taking this time to share with you some of the things happening on our lovely campus. First, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has opened a Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) in the lobby of the Jones Convocation Center for citizens impacted by area flooding that occurred a couple of months ago. It is the only DRC on the South Side and CSU has graciously agreed to host it for the next couple of weeks. If you know anybody in need of assistance as a result of the flooding please don’t hesitate to send them to the DRC.
Second, the Senior Thesis discussion continues. The Board of Trustees was informed last Friday that the Senior Thesis requirement will reach full implementation by Spring 2015, not Fall 2010 as initially reported. I suspect there were a plethora of administrative, logistical and curricular details that weren’t considered until consultation with the faculty occurred. I guess this could be a lesson in why faculty consultation at a university is important. One of the Trustees expressed a concern that if the Senior Thesis was to be applied, every discipline should have a writing requirement. That means that the Senior portfolio in Art would still be required as would a substantive written project. As the Senior Thesis is a work in progress, there will be more questions answered and details addressed to stay on task for the 2015 implementation date.
Third, your humble reporter was informed by the University Police Chief that he was over-trained in the area of Emergency Management. And by over-trained, I imagine that means that having a faculty member who is accredited by the Illinois Emergency Management Agency as a Professional Emergency Manager. I plead guilty to that qualification. I have made several comments to the BOT about my concerns about the university’s absence of preparedness in the event of a crisis or major event. The Chief informed the Board that the university had met the ‘minimum requirements’, leading me to conclude that the university is minimally prepared. The disturbing thing about those remarks is some belief that meeting the minimum should be satisfactory or acceptable. That somehow striving for excellence in this area is anathema to the administrative mindset. I fear this administrative belief, not refuted by the CEO, permeates the administrative fabric of the institution and in some substantive ways prevents the university from breaking out of the rut that it appears to have been in for at least the last twenty years. I would hope that an astute CEO would definitively repudiate any implication of minimalism in this educational setting and demand excellence and not just meeting the minimum standards. It sends the wrong message to the university community, especially in the area of preparedness and safety.
I suggested to the BOT the university consider a Green Initiative. It involves moving our diesel powered vehicle fleet to bio-diesel, creating an urban farm and composting program and implementing an E-Recycling program to recycle computers, printers, fax machines, and other electronic devices that have reached end of life. Currently, State of Illinois property control rules and regulations require that equipment be turned in and moved off campus to be warehoused. I proposed that the university, under a pilot scheme, seek to have those rules suspended for the purpose of E-recycling. There are companies in the private sector that take the property and refurbish it for use in other markets, often overseas. It would of course require that the university exhibit some leadership and do something not done before. Or would it? The Board was informed by the University’s Chief Information Officer, that this was a bad idea because in 2-3 years the use of technology will have obsoleted computers as we know them so there would be no need for electronic recycling. Who knew that CSU was moving so fast in the technology world that in a scant 2-3 years we would do most of our computing on mobile devices?
And on a final note, rumors abound about CSU students selling their recently gifted I-Pads, only weeks after getting them. Upon hearing that I became concerned about the property control implications. State property purchased with appropriated funds being sold by students can’t possibly be good for the university. Is that an audit finding waiting to happen? Thankfully, I was assured that the I-Pad which retails starting at $499, is considered a consumable and not equipment. Therefore, no property control requirements exist. If the university were ever challenged on why it used state tax dollars for technology that was sold by the users, the institution would be justified by citing the rules and therefore suffer no damage to our institutional reputation.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

CSU Board of Trustees--meets on Friday

Did you ever wonder why it is that CSU sends message after message to your email on everything from the far corners of the university that could not possibly interest everyone on campus every day of the week even after posting the things on the weekly "up to the minute" reminder? The snappy mainpage of our website often repeats the same notices. The one thing, however, that stays on the down low in spite of the age of technology is the Board of Trustees meetings, something that should interest ALL of the campus community. Alas, no. No notice in the "up to the minute" guide, no email message (let alone daily email messages) about the when and where of those meetings, no flashing notice on the main webpage for all the world to see. Oh they do post the yearly meeting notice in the Student Union Building and on the day of the meeting there will be a sign outside the elevators on the 4th floor of the so-called "Academic" Library telling us they are meeting, but they do like to keep it all kind of mysterious, don't they?

So, for your convenience, I checked the website (you have to look under "Board" in the A-Z list to find their webpage, don't look under the more obvious "Trustees") and here is the meeting notice for Friday, September 24, 2010. So, if you have time on Friday poke your head in--just showing up can help keep a light shining on "the process."

Academic and Student Affairs Committee
Academic Library Auditorium
8:30 a.m.
• Friday, September 24, 2010

Finance and Audit Committee
Academic Library Auditorium
9:30 a.m.
• Friday, September 24, 2010

Facilities Committee
Academic Library Auditorium
11:30 a.m.
• Friday, September 24, 2010

Legislation and Human Resources Committee
Academic Library Auditorium
2:00 p.m.
• Friday, September 24, 2010

Full Board Meeting
Academic Library Auditorium
3:00 p.m.
• Friday, September 24, 2010

NOTE: The above dates and times are subject to change. Also, new dates and times may be added. For updated information, call the Office of Board of Trustees, (773) 995-3822.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Department Chair in Wonderland

'Let the jury consider their verdict,' the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

'No, no!' said the Queen. 'Sentence first - verdict afterwards.'

'Stuff and nonsense!' said Alice loudly. 'The idea of having the sentence first!'

'Hold your tongue!' said the Queen, turning purple.

'I won't!' said Alice.

'Off with her head!' the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.
--Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
, chapt. 12

Below is a slightly abridged version of a rebuttal letter to a number of administrators by the former chair of the English Department, Dr Brenda Aghahowa, for an “evaluation” she recently received. Department chairs especially should take note.

Associate Professor of English
Department of English, Communications, Media Arts and Theatre (ECMAT)
Chicago State University
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The transparency of the retaliatory nature of the Chairperson’s “Evaluation” I received last Wednesday, September 1, 2010, from College of Arts and Sciences Dean Rachel W. Lindsey, is almost laughable. The evaluation was handled on an “emergency” basis and under false pretext, two months after I was forced to step down as Chairperson, and perhaps three months after the Contract Administrator’s annual deadline for such evaluations. Thus, while a meeting was held last week to discuss my performance, I do not acknowledge that any valid Chairperson’s Evaluation was conducted or occurred, nor will I sign any paperwork related to any such “evaluation.” For these reasons quotation marks have been placed around the term “evaluation” here initially. From this point forward, readers should consider any use of the term “evaluation” to refer to a so-called evaluation of September 1, 2010.

While the Dean had all spring and summer to evaluate me, she did not. During the summer, due diligence was not exercised to meet with me, even though I taught a ten-week summer course that was scheduled to meet on campus twice weekly, and even though she has my home telephone number and email address. The fact that the contents of this suspect annual evaluation amount to retaliation will become clear as one considers the information that follows.

False Pretext of the Evaluation
When the Dean called me at home at 8:17 p.m. the evening before the evaluation to ask me to meet with her, I asked the agenda for the meeting. I was told that a flurry of calls had come in from the Chicago Tribune and quote, “I need to clarify some things about your letter,” unquote. She was referring to the now controversial memo that I wrote to faculty of the Department of English, Communications, Media Arts and Theatre on my last day as Department Chairperson, June 30, 2010. The memo, posted by a CSU Faculty Senator on the CSU Faculty Voice blog, has been seen by the media there, and (according to Provost Sandra Westbrooks during the September 1, 2010 meeting) also has been seen by everyone at the University.

FYI, I had picked up a voice mail from a Tribune reporter some days prior. She wanted to speak with me and others because she was writing a story about Prof. Haki Madhubuti. The reporter said she wanted feedback from those who had worked closely with him about his creative and scholarly work, and also feedback about his exit from CSU and his start at DePaul University. Prof. Madhubuti, and possibly others as well, referred her to the CSU Faculty Voice blog, to get my take on his exit, since I had declined to discuss that matter.

In any case, I was lured to the meeting on a false pretext. Be very clear that if I had known the real reason the Dean wanted to meet with me on September 1st, I never would have attended any such meeting, particularly since the evaluation was being conduced two to three months late and amidst controversy… It is standard protocol for Chairs (in fact, for all employees) to be consulted about the scheduling of annual evaluations so that they can be fully prepared, and I would not have agreed to schedule a meeting at that late date at all. Do not miss the fact that I was called on a Tuesday night for a meeting that just had to be held the following day (i.e., less than 24 hours later). It could not wait until I returned to campus on Thursday, even though the Dean had had all summer (and all spring) to conduct an evaluation.

I invited the campus Union 4100 attorney, Prof. Janet Grange, to sit in on the September 1st meeting, just in case any disciplinary action was planned. I informed the Dean via email that Prof. Grange would be there. The Union leader, Dr. Laurie Walter, also had been invited, but she was unable to attend due to the short notice given…. I am now in the faculty bargaining unit, however, and am entitled to representation at such meetings, even though this particular one related to my duties as Chair. Chairs are faculty anyway, per the Union Contract. Prof. Grange did graciously attend, and a document was to be developed later for her signature in which she would agree to not speak with anyone about the conversation held during the meeting. I agreed to no such silence, however, and do fully retain my First Amendment right of freedom of speech. To remain silent …would amount to being complicit in it and a party to my own victimization. Perhaps others will be helped by my speaking out.

The meeting was held in Harold Washington Hall, Room 300A and, as mentioned earlier, the Dean was accompanied by Provost Westbrooks. (Of course, there was no mention the night before the meeting that the Provost or anyone else would be in attendance.) During the meeting, the Dean spent under five minutes voicing a couple of …objections to my June 30th memo. After that, it soon became apparent that the real purpose of the meeting, however, was to conduct the Annual Chairperson’s Evaluation that had not been conducted on a timely basis (i.e., it had not been conducted some months earlier)…

During my thirteen years on campus, I have received many accolades and recognitions from superiors, colleagues, students, and staff because of my diligence, my dedication, the quality of my work, and my love for our students and our institution. I am very clear about who I am, about Whose I am, and about the added value I bring to any setting in which God places me to work. Thus, I stand by my work and my performance. If I did not understand the retaliation involved here, I would have to say I am puzzled that roughly eight weeks after I am no longer Chair, the same Dean who recommended me to serve as Chair for three terms now alleges that I am an incompetent Chair. The actions are contradictory, to say the least.

Asked to Manage an Additional Department Just Months Prior
What is especially curious about the retaliatory evaluation I received from the Dean is that it is common public knowledge (at the very least within the College), and it also is officially documented in a variety of places, that during Spring Semester of 2010, this very same Dean invited me to consider adding management of a third unit to management of English and CMAT, effective July 1, 2010… She approached relevant parties in ECMAT and FLL and alerted them about the possible changes, and various discussions were held in and between faculty of those two departments. Up until the very end of the Spring Semester and beyond, relevant parties continued to have meetings and discussions about what such a re-merger of ECMAT and FLL would mean…

When the Dean asked me to consider adding this third area to my responsibilities, I stated (with others as a witness) that this would be a lot of work, but that I would be willing to take on the new responsibility under certain conditions. At no time, either during the spring or summer, did the Dean come back to say to me or to anyone else in ECMAT or FLL that my “poor” performance in the two areas (English and CMAT) had made her change her mind about my assuming the new role...

…You get the picture. The Chairperson who was doing well enough in her performance to be approached just a few months ago about taking on a third area is now written up as being incompetent. Clearly, the Dean’s intent seems to be to put a negative evaluation in my personnel file when there was not one there before. This is so that if the media continue to ask about my June 30th memo and why the customary process for selecting a Chair was set aside, those speaking for the University will be able to pretend that I was a “bad” Chair, and that that is why I was not allowed to have a third term.

During the September 1st meeting {the Dean}even went so as far as to refer to an invalid evaluation from academic year 2008-09, one that cited some minor concerns that have been addressed. She said that it is her practice to give lower marks the next year if the concerns of the previous year have not been addressed. The 2008-09 evaluation (which was written up late also) was invalid because I was on sabbatical during Fall 2008. Per the Union Contract, someone who is on sabbatical is not to have an annual evaluation during that year. I also received in writing correspondence retracting that 2008-09 evaluation for this very reason. If there is any evaluation for 2008-09 in my permanent personnel file, it should be removed.

Possible Aftermath or Consequences for the Dean and Others for “Workplace Bullying”
The Dean should be warned that {her actions}can have a way of bouncing back on her. We do reap what we have sown. In other words, after certain higher administrators are done using her to do their personnel dirty work, they can simply rid themselves of her, for any reason, by simply referring to this and any other unfair evaluations and rebuttals. …{The Dean might be considered} incompetent because she knew she had a “bad” Chair in her estimation, and yet she recommended the person to serve as Chair three times instead of asking that Chair to step down.

The Provost mentioned in our September 1st evaluation meeting that sometimes Chairs who perform poorly are asked to step down after year one or year two of the three-year term. If I performed as badly as the Dean is pretending now, why was I not asked to step down sooner? Obviously, the late, derogatory evaluation holds no merit…considering the recent recommendation that I serve a third term. It is poor show…to try to pretend now that I was bad Chair.

Anyone else responsible for the orchestration of that sham of an Annual Chairperson’s Evaluation I endured last week (which amounts to workplace bullying) should be aware of the laws that govern employment retaliation. Those who engage in such bullying at CSU are just as vulnerable as those of us who are victimized by it.

In light of the information in this rebuttal, I ask relevant staff in the Chicago State University Human Resources Office to do the following:

1) Remove from my permanent personnel file any evaluation from the 2008-09 academic year (during which I was on sabbatical), if there is one;

2) Remove from my permanent personnel file, if it has been inserted, the so-called evaluation paperwork from the meeting of September 1, 2010 because I did not sign it and I will not sign it, due to its retaliatory nature.

As far as I am concerned, no valid Annual Chairperson’s Evaluation was conducted for the 2009-10 academic year on September 1, 2010 or at any other time.

_Brenda Aghahowa__________________________
Former ECMAT Chairperson’s Signature and Date

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Faculty Senate Responds

In case some people didn't know, the Faculty Senate formally responded to the Washington Monthly article from August regarding the misinformation about CSU's graduation rates. Below is the Senate's letter.

Washington Monthly Editors,

This is a formal response of the Faculty Senate at Chicago State University to the article "College Dropout Factories" of August 22nd 2010. While replete with "evidence" and "facts," much of this article is little more than an intellectually lazy hit-piece parading as a well-researched journalistic endeavor.

There are many important caveats to the information presented in the article: First, the graduation rate cited is biased in favor of traditional, residential universities. It works like this: a student enrolls in a university her/his first semester in college then remains at that university until graduation. For most residential universities, the full-time students constitute better than 95 percent of the student population. At Chicago State University (CSU), most students are commuters and better than one-third of the undergraduates attend part-time. There is only one dormitory on campus. As a result, the full-time first-time freshmen measured in the graduation rate constituted roughly eight percent of the school's undergraduates from 2004 through 2007.

Thus, CSU's graduation rate is based on fewer than one-twelfth of its undergraduate population. This school, unlike the other public universities you offered for comparison, serves mainly transfer students. Unfortunately, the graduation rate gives no university credit for transfer students completing their courses of study. A student who enrolls for one semester or quarter at another college, then transfers and graduates from Chicago State is simply not counted. Chicago State receives no credit for that student's graduation. In actuality, Chicago state granted more than 640 undergraduate degrees per year from 2004-2007, a graduation rate versus the full-time student population of 19.5 percent. In comparison, during a similar time period, the University of Michigan graduated its full-time students at a rate of 24.3 percent. Less than five percentage points separates CSU from the University of Michigan yet nowhere is such an analysis provided in the article.

Second, the student you profiled to demonstrate the problems with CSU was identified as a pre-engineering student and that he transferred to another institution. As CSU only houses a pre-engineering program, all pre-engineering students must transfer to other institutions in order to receive bachelor degrees in engineering. That student and any other student in the pre-engineering program would not have been counted in CSU's graduation rate! This was omitted from the article. Interestingly, the article highlights that faculty members were those who were responsible for providing the support to the student to ensure his future success. There was no mention that CSU admitted a student that did not gain entrance into a "selective" university due to attending a high school that, "didn’t provide much in the way of college guidance," yet prepared him sufficiently to successfully transfer to a "selective" environment. Certainly, this betrays the notion of a dropout factory.

Third, the article failed to incorporate any mention of initiatives undertaken in the 2009-2010 academic year at CSU to address retention and graduation of first-year full-time freshman. For example, the Office of the Freshman Year Experience was created to be a student-centered support mechanism that provides advising, mentoring, and study support. For the 2010-2011 academic year a cohort model of course scheduling has been incorporated. This model is derived from research that suggests that retention increases when students gain a sense of greater collegiality that develops through shared scholarly and social experiences. The Dean of the Office of the Freshman Year Experience maintains regular contact with all of the first-time first-year Freshman. Clearly, this shows an interest in improving student outcomes. While other universities were profiled that showed efforts to improve outcomes, CSU's efforts were not detailed.

Noting these caveats is not to deny that CSU has problems. The graduation of first-year full-time students must improve. There are problems at CSU. However, this intellectually dishonest article provides a false picture of how the school performs. At the least the writers should have defined how graduation rates are calculated. Had they bothered to look beyond their own biases, they might have found a school that, although deserving of criticism in a variety of areas, hardly qualifies as a "dropout factory." Had the writers interviewed more than one student, you likely would have found accolades moreso than disparagement.

In service,

Yan Dominic Searcy, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
CSU Faculty Senate President

Sunday, September 5, 2010

And we're back...for now?

"Patronage is so rooted in Chicago..." That's what I caught on an NPR report last week about how Mayor Daley has done a lot for the city, but the one thing he cannot surmount is political patronage. The other half of the sentence concluded, "...but we can't afford it any more."

I've been thinking about this as I was reading the Provost Council minutes of August 11th which were sent to the faculty. I appreciate that we are included in this aspect of shared information. Apparently Illinois politicians are interested in our graduation rates and at an IBHE meeting presidents were told that appropriations to universities will not be sent out until January 2011 at the earliest, so we may face a budget cut of 50%. Reference was made to the possibility of the state closing two universities, possibly selling one to a for-profit university and/or consolidating one. So CSU is on guard to raise graduation rates by May.

Should we be demoralized by all this? Are we just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as we scurry about keeping tabs on first time full-time freshmen, gather statistics, watch as our colleagues' programs or our own go up before the "program elimination board?" Or, should we just sit back and let the "race card" save us this time as people think it has in the past? It seems a point of view on campus is that "they" will never close us down because we are the only African American university in the state.

Can Illinois afford the patronage pits anymore?

Certainly nothing much will happen at the state level until after the November election. I'm cynical enough to recognize that, chastened as I am after seeing how little the political authorities cared to listen to faculty voices at their doors during that farce we played out called the CSU presidential search process in 2009. Governor Quinn and Senator Malony bear a lot of responsibility for the current failures at CSU, other politicians and many of our politically-appointed trustees current and past, who have no business running an educational institution, bear responsibility as well. Will Senator Malony, whose face is now broadcast on our website like some latterday Emil Jones patron saint, step in and save us? He was in bed with the trustees two years ago and probably longer than that when he ignored faculty pleas for intervention. The machine kicked into high gear once a few internal voices began questioning authority on campus.

And how true is that old canard that the victors write the history. Read the whitewash the CSU Trustees have made of our microhistory on the Presidential Search. The minutes to the Trustees' meetings for 2009 have been posted to their webpage on our website. You will not find one single mention of the Search Advisory Committee, made up of faculty, staff, and students who were excluded from the selection process, resigning from the committee. Not a single mention of the petition and resignation of that committee from that flawed and tainted search process.

The provost's minutes say that "we need to get CSU where we are not dependent upon state dollars." Like the NPR report on Mayor Daly's situation, how will we surmount the political patronage that our leadership has relied on so much in the past? Are Phuong Ly and Ben Miller in their Washington Monthly article that castigated CSU last week correct when they describe CSU's leadership as a "familiar pattern: temporary reform followed by familiar fecklessness. No improvements ever seemed to stick."

As I was reading the comments to that Washington Monthly article, I was getting angrier and angrier at the politicians and university trustees, not just here, but all over the state.

Steve White, whoever he is, commented on the article, but he is not the first to have said all this. Many of us faculty did two years ago. I'll quote him as yet another voice out there with us in the Illinois wilderness.

Steve White on Wed 25 Aug 2010 09:26 PM
As a Chicago area resident and a professor at a big university on the south
side (not Chicago State), what Mr. Miller and Ms. Ly allude to but don't
quite state is that, as usual, a failed institution (be it a university or
any other endeavor) many times is attached to or is a consequence of failed

That's Chicago.

CSU has been a dumping ground for decades for Chicago politics. It's run, by
and large, by political hacks and fools. It's no wonder that relatively few
students, faculty and staff with any choice at all would be there. Chicago
machine politics dictates that CSU, the County Hospital, the Chicago Housing
Authority, and so on, are cesspools of corruption. That the president of the
institution was pillaging the budget isn't surprising in the least once you
understand that Chicago State is a machine school. Failure for the 'little
people' like Nestor in such institutions doesn't register with either the
pols or the public.

Another school on the dropout list, Northeastern Illinois University, has a
similar history to Chicago State and similar problems with the Machine. It
too has a horrific drop-out rate, and Mr. Miller and Ms. Ly could have
easily found a Nestor there for their story.

In contrast, University of Illinois at Chicago is run not by the city but by
the state, and the Board of Trustees traditionally have been able to keep
the city at arms' length. It has greater visibility with the public, and
those two facts keep UIC from failing.

If Mr. Miller and Ms. Ly were to examine the failed colleges on their list
with the local politics, they very likely would discover (I hypothesize) a

Whether one is progressive or conservative, correcting the problem of
dropout colleges requires one to understand the connection between failed
public institutions and corrupt politics. Be those politicians Democrats or
Republicans, the problem won't be fixed until the public demands and attains

Accountability? Chicago? Be serious.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

CSU featured again

From "diploma mill" to "dropout factory"?

Washington Monthly -Sept. 1, 2010
College Guide
College Dropout Factories
by Ben Miller and Phuong Ly

It was money—or the lack of it—that determined where Nestor Curiel chose to go to college. The third of six children in an immigrant Mexican family, Nestor grew up in Blue Island, a gritty working-class suburb near Chicago’s South Side. His father worked, and still works, two jobs—machine operator and restaurant dishwasher—and his mother makes and sells crocheted gifts. Nestor, a polite twenty-one-year-old with black-rimmed glasses, graduated from Eisenhower High School with a 3.6 GPA and dreams of becoming an engineer. (As a child he was inspired by Discovery Channel documentaries about engineering marvels, and he also enjoyed helping his dad repair automobiles on weekends.) He particularly wanted to help his parents pay off the mortgage on their weathered gray house, which is two doors down from a corner store with a large “WE ACCEPT WIC” sign in the window.

Nestor was an above-average high school student who generally made the honors list, and he was diligent in his non-school hours as well, holding down a part-time job as a busboy and line cook at the restaurant where his father worked. His ACT score was 18, equivalent to about 870 on the SAT, which wasn’t high enough to gain him admission to a selective college. (This was typical for his school—41 percent Hispanic, 38 percent black—where only 31 percent of kids meet or exceed standards on state tests, versus 76 percent for the state.) And, apart from a career fair, Eisenhower High School didn’t provide much in the way of college guidance. One time, a guest speaker had urged students to expand their horizons and apply to schools out of state, but Nestor worried about going somewhere unfamiliar. Also, if he could live at home, he would save money.

Ultimately, Nestor wound up narrowing his choices down to two nearby schools: Purdue University Calumet and Chicago State University. Each seemed to have advantages and disadvantages, but Chicago State offered one extra perk: $1,000 in scholarship money if Nestor enrolled in its pre-engineering program. That sealed the deal. The stipend, combined with federal and state grants and a private scholarship from Chicago’s George M. Pullman Educational Foundation, meant that Nestor could get a college education with most of his expenses paid.

With its tree-lined campus and gleaming new steel and glass convocation center, Chicago State certainly looked impressive. But within his first month there, Nestor wanted to leave. Advisers in the engineering department seemed clueless about guiding him to the right courses, insisting that if he wanted to take programming he first needed to enroll in a computer class that showed students how to turn on a monitor and operate a mouse. (Nestor required no such training.) The library boasted a robot that retrieved books, but Nestor would have preferred that it simply stay open past eight p.m., since class sometimes ended at nine p.m. or later, leaving him without a useful place to study or do research before going home. Trash littered the classrooms and grounds, and during class many of the students would simply carry on conversations among themselves and ignore the instructors—or even talk back to them. Nestor was appalled. “It was like high school, but I was paying for it,” he says.
Several students he knew dropped out, but Nestor stayed. “I wasn’t going to give them my money and let them kick me out,” he says. For the next two years, Nestor encountered a ceaseless array of impediments to getting through school. When he wanted to get a tutor, his advisers couldn’t offer any advice about who might be available. When he visited the financial aid office to clear up what seemed like a simple clerical error depriving him of a state grant, the office told him—untruthfully, as it turned out—that getting such grant money would disqualify him from getting any scholarship money from the Pullman Foundation. (By the time the situation was straightened out, the first semester of his sophomore year was nearly over, and the financial office gave Nestor only $780 of what was supposed to be a $1,200 grant, telling him that it couldn’t give him money for a semester that was ending. “It kind of felt like they were stealing from me,” he says.) Only with the help of two dedicated instructors—Shuming Zheng, an engineering professor, and Thomas Kuhn, a physics lecturer—was Nestor able to finish his pre-engineering credits as planned. Fortunately, this allowed him to transfer to a superior school, the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a $5,000 scholarship.

UIC, adjacent to the city’s downtown, is just fifteen miles north of Chicago State, but felt like a world away. Nestor marveled over the smoothness of the operation. At Chicago State, he had been forced to work hard to find help. At UIC, on the first day of each of his classes, professors provided lists of tutors. Chicago State had offered no meaningful job assistance. At UIC, the engineering department was sending out regular e-mails about internships and other opportunities.

Nestor is certain that the two years at Chicago State put him behind. In his first semester at UIC, he failed a math class, finding it difficult to match the faster pace and heavier workload. (He retook the class, however, and passed.) It’ll take him five years, rather than four, to get his degree. But he says he feels invigorated by the challenges. “It’s hard, but it feels like everybody’s trying to help you,” he says. “You didn’t get that sense at Chicago State.”

As it happens, Nestor’s impressions are supported by hard numbers. Chicago State has the worst graduation rate of any public four-year university in Illinois and one of the worst in the nation, with just 13 percent of students finishing in six years. For stronger students like Nestor, the statistics are only somewhat better than that. According to a study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR), which looked at twenty different colleges in the Chicago area, kids who graduate from a Chicago public high school with a grade point average of 3.5 have a 37 percent chance of graduating from Chicago State. Those with the same grades who attend UIC have a much better chance of graduating—56 percent. And for those with a 3.5 GPA who attend Northwestern, just north in Evanston, the completion rate is 89 percent. Even schools all around the country with student profiles as challenging as that of Chicago State—that is, schools with mostly African American and Latino students from low-income backgrounds—have overall graduation rates that are many times higher.

Nestor’s experience of educational incompetence at the college level isn’t just a Chicago phenomenon. Nationwide, low-income minority students are disproportionately steered toward colleges not where they’re most likely to succeed, but where they’re most likely to fail.

School reformers, including President Obama, often talk about high school “dropout factories.” These are the roughly 2,000 public high schools, about 15 percent of the total, with the nation’s highest dropout rates. The average student at these schools has about a fifty-fifty chance of graduating, according to the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. But the term “dropout factory” is also applicable to colleges. The Washington Monthly and Education Sector, an independent think tank, looked at the 15 percent of colleges and universities with the worst graduation records—about 200 schools in all—and found that the graduation rate at these schools is 26 percent. (See the table at left for a listing of the fifty colleges and universities with the worst graduation rates.) America’s “college dropout factories,” in other words, are twice as bad at graduating their students as the worst high schools are at graduating theirs.

Nearly everyone considers it scandalous when poor kids are shunted into lousy high schools with low graduation rates, and we have no problem naming and shaming those schools. Bad primary and secondary schools are frequently the subject of front-page newspaper investigations and the backdrop for speeches by reformist mayors and school district chiefs. But bad colleges are spared such scrutiny. This indifference is inexcusable now that a postsecondary credential has become virtually indispensable to anyone hoping to lead a middle-class life. If we want better outcomes in higher education, we need to hold dropout factories like Chicago State accountable in the same way the Obama administration proposes to hold underperforming high schools accountable: transform them—or shut them down.
When one examines the schools on the list of college dropout factories—the worst being Southern University at New Orleans, with a 5 percent graduation rate—one thing that stands out is their diversity. Geographically, they are all over the map. From New York to Florida to Alaska—few regions of the United States are spared a local dropout factory. Some, like Chicago State, the University of the District of Columbia, and Houston’s Texas Southern University, are located in big cities; others, like Sul Ross State University and Heritage University, are in small towns and rural areas. Nor is there a bias toward public or private institutions: it’s split fairly evenly, although the public colleges, which are generally bigger, tend to account for greater numbers of dropouts. Some are heavily weighted toward certain minority groups—historically black colleges, for instance, and tribal colleges. Others, like Idaho State, are 80 percent white and do just as poorly. Some of the schools are religious—like Jarvis Christian College, with a 90 percent attrition rate. Most are just seemingly ordinary schools that mostly fly beneath the radar of the national press.

But there are also similarities. As a percentage of their student bodies, these college dropout factories enroll twice as many part-time students, nearly twice as many from low-income families, and around 50 percent more blacks and Hispanics than the average American college or university. They mainly serve local communities, admit most of their applicants, and have much less money than colleges that are higher in prestige. Most upper-middle-class parents would never send their kids to these schools—nor have they generally even heard of them. Not surprisingly, the worst of the dropout factories are allowed to roll along in dysfunction, year after year.

The school that would later become Chicago State was founded in September 1867 and called the Cook County Normal School—“Normal” referring to schools that prepare teachers for the classroom. For a century or so, it fulfilled this teacher-training role reasonably well. But in 1965 the school was acquired by the state of Illinois, soon renamed Chicago State, and converted into a standard four-year institution. In 1972, Chicago State moved to a newly built $95 million campus that could accommodate an additional 10,000 students. Most of them would be drawn from the city’s poor and working-class South Side and nearby suburbs. It was an admirable attempt to open new doors to a demographic that had been largely shut out of higher education. But it wasn’t long before signs of neglect and mismanagement were obvious. Passage rates on an elementary education teacher licensure exam, for instance, plummeted from 82 percent in 1968 to 42 percent in 1973, and the school almost lost its teacher accreditation.

One year later, in 1974, a devastating series on Chicago State appeared in the Chicago Defender, the city’s premier black newspaper. Under the heading “Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Read,” the articles blasted the school, calling it a “diploma mill, with little quality control or concern about the product,” and noted “oppressively low” morale among students. Chicago State is a “ripoff institution,” it said, “a place where a comfortable white administration and faculty is providing a second-rate education for black students.”

Benjamin Alexander, the university’s first black president, arrived as a reformer in the 1970s. He made some significant improvements, but the progress largely evaporated after he left in the 1980s. Another reformer came in the 1990s and then was likewise gone. This would become a familiar pattern: temporary reform followed by familiar fecklessness. No improvements ever seemed to stick. In 2008, Chicago State’s President Elnora Daniel resigned under pressure after the school suffered yet another severe bout of mismanagement. A state audit found that even as the university suffered budget cuts, Daniel and other employees had spent lavishly on meals, alcohol, and first-class airfare. Daniel had brought five relatives and a university administrator with her on a nine-day Caribbean cruise for a “leadership conference.” Lax financial oversight allegedly resulted in the university paying more than a quarter of a million dollars for two photocopiers purchased from a company owned by a university employee.

Meanwhile, students contended with broken elevators, dirty classrooms, and ill-equipped labs. As enrollment declined, so did graduation rates. Of the first-time, full-time freshmen who started in 1996, about 18 percent graduated within six years. The graduation rate dropped to 13 percent in 2008.

Last year, the school’s board of trustees picked a new president, Wayne Watson, who has vowed to boost the school’s graduation rate through such reforms as a new electronic “early alert” system to track student attendance and class performance. But he cautions against expecting too much from Chicago State, given the kind of students that go there. “I serve a lower economic quartile,” he says. “So they’re going to drop out because their baby’s sick, because they don’t have money, because they’re trying to survive.”

Certainly, Chicago State enrolls a large share of academically underprepared students compared to more selective schools such as UIC or Northwestern, so its graduation rate might be expected to be lower. But the idea that Chicago State is doing the best it can with the kind of students it serves is belied by ample countervailing evidence. As the chart below shows, there are more than half a dozen schools in the United States with student bodies that are remarkably similar to that of Chicago State in every important respect—from race to test scores to family income—but whose graduation rates are at least double, and in some cases more than triple, the graduation rate of Chicago State.

Take North Carolina Central University, which enrolls 8,500 students. About 85 percent of students at both schools are black. NCCU’s median SAT score is 840, the approximate equivalent of about 17 on the ACT, even lower than Chicago State’s average ACT of 18. The difference, however, is that NCCU tries to work with the students it has. The result: while Chicago State graduates about 13 percent of its students, NCCU graduates about 50 percent. “We have the philosophy that if we admit the students into this institution we have a great responsibility in ensuring their success,” says Bernice Duffy Johnson, dean of the school’s University College, which focuses on supporting students during their first two years.

Students entering NCCU are told from the start that they are expected to have a goal of graduating in four years. The University College keeps students together in groups and assigns them advisers who must approve all major academic decisions and meet with students frequently. NCCU students even sign a contract upon arriving, a document that lays out the goals of what they are going to accomplish. If they start to struggle, they sign an additional contract that commits them to even closer monitoring. Above all, what drives places like NCCU is a culture of experimentation and data collection. The administrators track students, and they track results. If something works, they keep doing it. If it doesn’t, they try something else.
Other schools similar to Chicago State in their profiles are likewise similar in their pursuit of improved student outcomes. Jackson State University in Mississippi—95 percent black, 65 percent Pell Grant, 43 percent graduation rate—divides incoming students into small groups based on their expected majors and has a required first-year course to help ease the college transition. Faculty can immediately identify struggling students through an online tracking system. The university contracts for extra tutoring in addition to what’s already available on campus. It also gathers as much data about students as it can find, using surveys of student engagement and an exam developed by the University of Missouri that tests students before and after their general education courses. “If you don’t put in place strategies and interventions to retain the students throughout the four, five, six years of matriculation then you are not meeting the mandate that has been set, and that is to graduate a larger number of students,” says Evelyn J. Leggette, Jackson State’s dean of undergraduate studies.

Such examples suggest that the stratospheric rates of failure in college dropout factories are hardly inevitable and that blaming the students has become the last refuge of the bungler. As Melissa Roderick, lead author of the Consortium on Chicago School Research report, asks, “How could a child who gets a 4.0 in an urban school system and has high performance in an urban school system and has managed our environment and overcome their poverty, overcome their race, suddenly become a different person in three months who can no longer perform?”

It’s important to note that most students who drop out of college don’t fail out of college. They leave because they don’t perceive that the educational benefit of college exceeds the substantial expense of time and money—especially not when it’s coupled with indifferent bureaucracies that pride themselves more on inane complexities than actually helping students. But when students are given high expectations and good teaching to match, they succeed academically. And when they succeed they’re more likely to keep succeeding and eventually earn a degree.
The worst colleges also tend to plead ignorance as to how to get better. But the strategies employed by colleges that successfully graduate at-risk students aren’t particularly groundbreaking. Researchers have been documenting effective methods of preventing dropouts for decades. Most are commonsensical: pay attention to students, and give them the support they need. When Chicago State couldn’t give Nestor advice about tutors, it wasn’t failing to use “best practices.” It was failing to be minimally competent. Nor do college presidents need research to tell them it’s a bad idea to squander student tuition dollars on cruises and booze.

Why, then, has the nation tolerated this kind of catastrophic failure, one that has destroyed the college dreams of millions of disadvantaged students, for so long? The answer begins with the fact that most of us don’t know there’s a problem. The world is run by college graduates, most of whom are products of the middle class. They didn’t attend dropout factories, nor are they likely to know anyone who did. People naturally generalize from their own experience, and most public leaders simply have no idea that so many college students fail where they succeeded.

Another reason why we have accepted extremely high dropout rates at some colleges—and, frankly, unimpressive graduation rates throughout much of higher education—is that we lack a broadly shared sense of what an acceptable graduation rate would be. Pretty much everyone agrees that all children need a high school diploma. That’s why high school dropout factories are condemned without question. College, by contrast, isn’t for everyone. So it’s easy to see college dropouts as people who didn’t get what they probably didn’t deserve.

But while some people don’t, in fact, need college, most do. Forty years ago, the majority of high school graduates went no further with their education. Today, three-quarters of high school graduates go after a college degree, because they know that a career with a middle-class wage almost always requires one.

Similarly, just as some people shouldn’t go to college, some people who go shouldn’t graduate. Colleges have an obligation to maintain academic standards, and the slothful are rightly denied degrees. But there is a huge difference between “not everyone graduates” and “hardly anyone graduates”—the latter being the norm at schools like Chicago State. Of the millions of new students who stream into colleges as freshmen every year, barely half will graduate on time. Many won’t graduate at all. According to the census, nearly 34 million Americans over the age of twenty-five list their highest level of education as “some college, no degree.” And there is little or no evidence that they fell short because colleges are rigidly enforcing standards. Quite the opposite: the colleges that successfully graduate low-income and minority students don’t ask less of them. They ask more. Researchers have found that more challenging coursework makes success rates go up, not down.
The public’s blindness to mass failure in higher education is bolstered by chronological happenstance: students move from high school to college at the same time that they reach the legal age of majority. As a result, without much thought, we’ve applied a binary mindset to education: elementary and secondary students are children; if they fail, it’s the fault of the schools. College students are adults; if they fail, it’s the fault of the students.

Of course, this makes little sense. College students don’t become entirely different people in the three months that pass between walking off the high school graduation stage and moving into the freshman dorm. To be sure, the proper balance of responsibility between student and school moves toward students over time. But the burden shouldn’t lurch suddenly and completely onto students between the twelfth and thirteenth grades. Good colleges understand this and take it into account. That’s why the data on colleges show such a correlation between extensive student support, especially during the freshman and sophomore years, and high graduation rates. Yet the blame-the-student mindset persists all the same.

This sort of indifference sets the stage for dismal institutions like Chicago State to prey on underserved communities, not just for years but for decades, without anyone really noticing. When a prestigious school such as the flagship University of Illinois campus in Urbana-Champaign turns out to be making politically influenced admissions decisions, it’s national news. (When such reports surfaced, Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn immediately stepped in and forced seven of the school’s nine trustees to resign.) When a dropout factory like Chicago State turns in a 13 percent graduation rate, it’s business as usual.

It’s not just the public that’s uninvolved. While public universities are in theory overseen by a combination of state officials and voluntary accrediting bodies, none of them use their power in a manner that’s genuinely ameliorative. Low graduation rates will never cause a loss of accreditation. The fifty dropout factories listed on page 22—some of which have graduation rates in the single digits—are all accredited and advertise that fact prominently on their Web sites. Even when accreditors do pay attention to problems at a school, they tend to be slow and secretive in revealing their findings. Chicago State’s accreditor expressed “serious concern” about the school as far back as 2003, but this was never publicized. Not even the Illinois Board of Higher Education, which monitors Chicago State, knew about it. Only in 2009, when the Chicago Tribune published damning excerpts from a leaked confidential letter from the accreditor to the university, did more than a few parties know that Chicago State might be in trouble.

As for helping your students earn degrees, why bother? State appropriations systems and federal financial aid are based on enrollment: as long as students keep coming, the money keeps flowing. And since the total number of college students increased from 7.4 million in 1984 to 10.8 million in 2009, colleges have many students to waste. “It’s like trench warfare in World War I,” says Michael Kirst, a Stanford University education professor. “You blow the whistle, and they come out of the trenches, and they get mowed down, but there are always more troops coming over. It’s very easy to get new troops. If 85 percent of them don’t finish, there’s another 85 percent of them that can come in to take their place.”

That’s not the only problem with how funding for higher education is designed. It’s not uncommon for flagship research universities that enroll a disproportionate number of smart, well-off students to receive double the per-student funding allotted to regional universities and former normal schools like Chicago State. In K-12 education, that kind of misallocation often results in multibillion-dollar legal judgments against the state. In higher education, it’s called “meritocracy.”
In such a climate, there’s very little profit in mending one’s ways. After all, you can’t get credit for solving a problem people don’t think exists. Nearly everyone has heard of Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools, and her battle with the education bureaucracy of Washington, D.C. Who has heard of Charlie Nelms, chancellor of North Carolina Central University? Similarly, many people have heard of the last two Chicago school superintendents: Paul Vallas, who went on to run for governor, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Who has heard of the president of Jackson State, Leslie McLemore? College presidents don’t become rich and famous by turning around Chicago State. They make their careers by never working for Chicago State in the first place.

While big-city mayors like Richard Daley and Michael Bloomberg like to focus on fixing K-12 education, few bother to go after any of the moribund public universities that students who survive the K-12 system often attend. Fortunately, some public figures are starting to see things differently. When Secretary Duncan was asked about the college graduation problem at a public event recently, he proposed that high school guidance counselors actively discourage students from enrolling in colleges that persistently fail. Melissa Roderick, the lead author of the CSSR report about Chicago public school students’ college graduation rates, notes that some high schools are banning certain universities from their college fairs because it’s understood that the colleges will not serve their students well.
But it’s not enough just to tell high school students, “Buyer beware.” In other areas of the economy, consumers rightly expect government to protect them from grossly defective products. Governors and state legislatures should do the same, in part by tying a significant portion of state funding to graduation rate goals. Accreditors, for their part, could make their evaluations public and link graduation rates to accreditation. That could go hand in hand with intensified scrutiny of academic standards, to ensure that colleges don’t react to graduation rate pressure by turning into diploma mills.

But we won’t make real headway on the college graduation problem until two even more fundamental steps are taken. The first is acknowledging that colleges share responsibility for graduation with their students. Without that, governors, mayors, accreditors, and secretaries of education won’t be willing to expend scarce political capital on behalf of students like Nestor. The second is a willingness to broach a heretofore-forbidden topic in higher education: shutting the worst institutions down.

On the surface, a peaceful university campus can seem like a vital asset to the community. But a university with an 87 percent dropout rate is a service to no one. And chronically dysfunctional organizations can be very difficult to change. There is no reason that states can’t quickly build newer, better, more cost-effective public universities to educate people who are currently stuck in college dropout factories. No university, regardless of historical legacies or sunk cost, is worth the price being exacted from thousands of students who leave in despair. The sooner we acknowledge that, the better off those students—and the rest of us—will be.

Ben Miller and Phuong Ly collaborated on this article. Miller is a policy analyst at Education Sector. Ly is a journalist who writes frequently on education and immigration issues. She is currently a John S. Knight Fellow in journalism at Stanford University.