Chicago State University trustees on Monday put off a decision on whether to appoint ex-Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas to a top administrative job, a controversial move pushed by Gov. Bruce Rauner.
The board instead voted to name new interim leadership on April 7, including a new interim president and a temporary chief administrative officer. Vallas is in the running for either job if he steps down as a trustee, a position he has held since Rauner appointed him in January.
Vallas left the meeting without commenting on his plans.
Nicholas Gowen, another newly-appointed trustee, said the board debated the governor’s proposal but acted independently in its deliberations Monday. He said Vallas recused himself from the discussion.
“The decision was ours and ours alone,” Gowen said. “We take this responsibility seriously.”
Vallas has a long history in Chicago as a financial fixer, having served as city budget director and then as head of the Chicago schools until 2001. His aggressive brand of financial and educational turnaround is admired by many, but also has drawn a long list of detractors. After leaving Chicago, Vallas ran the school systems in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Bridgeport, Conn.
Rauner named Vallas to the board in January, along with Gowen and one other, to help reverse Chicago State’s financial and academic freefall.
Unhappy with the pace of change since then, Rauner’s administration met with Vallas, CSU Board Chairman Rev. Marshall Hatch Sr. and others to come up with a new plan for the school.
That discussion culminated with Monday’s vote to seek new interim leadership. Rauner has been pushing for Vallas to take a top leadership role, a surprising turn after Vallas and Rauner battled during the 2014 gubernatorial campaign. Vallas ran for lieutenant governor with Gov. Pat Quinn against Rauner.
After deliberating for more than five hours on Monday, the board also announced plans to launch a search in April for a permanent president. The school has been led by interim president Cecil B. Lucy since September. Lucy will become interim CFO.
The school has long struggled with low graduation rates and administrative chaos, including the abrupt departure last year of popular former President Thomas Calhoun Jr. Conditions at Chicago State, which serves mostly minority and low-income students, worsened significantly during the state’s budget stalemate. The university is highly dependent on state funding and without it has had to resort to deep budget cuts and mass layoffs.
Several people who spoke publicly urged quick action to help the distressed school. The faculty have strongly supported reinstating Calhoun, who resigned last year after just nine months. But in the interim, some people said Vallas could be helpful.
“On a short term, emergency basis, somebody with the kind of financial skills may be of use to us,” said Deborah Lynch, an assistant professor at CSU who ran the Chicago Teachers Union after Vallas resigned. “Somebody with the reputation of turning things around may be of use to us….The narrative of collapse is killing us.”
Others said Rauner shouldn’t play a role in decisions at CSU.
“I need the governor to run the state,” said CSU graduate Greselda Harris.”Do some things need to change here? Absolutely yes…but I need [the governor] to stay in his lane.”
She echoed concerns raised last week by Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th Ward, who criticized the prospect of unilaterally selecting Vallas, calling it “disrespectful” to the CSU board, faculty and community.
Other faculty members and some in the community backed a potential Vallas appointment, including former Senate President Emil Jones, a major supporter of the school. He said in a statement last week that “Chicago State University is on life support,” and that the “university needs a crisis manager.”
But some public officials accused Rauner of overstepping his bounds and others were upset about the prospect of installing Vallas, who is white, in a top leadership role at a predominately black university.