Chicago State President Wayne Watson to retire

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Wayne Watson, who took the helm of Chicago’s only university serving a predominantly minority student population after making his mark at the city’s community college system, will retire as president of Chicago State University when his contract expires next year.

Watson announced his retirement at Friday’s monthly meeting of the CSU Board of Trustees, triggering a national search for the next leader of the South Side institution at 95th and State streets.

“There are many reasons why now is the right time. The university has made significant progress in its academic, athletic and administrative capacities, and we’ve accomplished much of what we set out to achieve in terms of right-sizing the ship and putting the university in a position to succeed moving forward,” Watson said.

“It’s time to play,” he said. “I have four wonderful grandchildren between 10 years of age and 4 months, and I want to take time to enjoy them, plus appreciate and embrace ‘the solitude of the land.’ ”

Watson, 69, became CSU’s 19th president in October 2009. Before that, he capped his 30-year tenure at Community Colleges of Chicago by serving as chancellor from 1998 to 2009.

The colorful and charismatic college head leaves a legacy of concrete accomplishments, including a 10-year reaccreditation by the Higher Learning Commission — a top seal of approval — and a stronger athletic department.

His reform agenda streamlined operations; enhanced academic standards, accountability and transparency; and renewed engagement with the surrounding African-American communities.

His accomplishments were often obscured by controversy, as a faction of his faculty made it their mission to fight him tooth and nail.

Watson is the longest-serving African-American in Illinois higher education. Last year, his contract was extended through June 30, 2016. He plans to exit before or at the end of the 2015-2016 school year.

“On behalf of the Board of Trustees, we sincerely thank Dr. Watson for his commitment, passion and devotion to the success of CSU. Dr. Watson and his team have played a significant role in making CSU a quality university,” said Anthony Young, chairman of the school’s board of trustees.

“I look forward to continuing to work with him as we move towards a comprehensive search to find the next leader who is best prepared to maximize the university’s potential and continue the progress.”

A committee of faculty, staff, students, community leaders and other stakeholders will begin its search for a replacement immediately.

Watson, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in teaching at Northwestern University, was one of the first African-Americans to receive a Ph.D. at that university, where he later served several years on the board of trustees.

He began his career in higher education at Malcolm X College in 1978. He was appointed interim president of Harold Washington College in 1993; president of Kennedy-King College in 1994; and chancellor of the entire system in 1998.

He has headed or served on the boards of many of the nation’s national education organizations, and said research shows he has served more than 1.5 million minority students, with more than 197,000 degrees and certificates conferred under his leadership.

At CSU, he is credited with an overhaul of the then flagging university’s standards and policies. But controversy has also dogged CSU under his tenure.

Soon after taking the reins, CSU lost literary and civil rights icon Haki Madhubuti. He resigned, complaining Watson demoted him for speaking out against the search process that brought Watson in. Watson denied it. He would soon find himself at odds with a segment of the faculty that criticized his every move.

Then, three and a half years into his tenure, Watson was accused of an unspecified breach of school policy. The board considered his termination, then voted to retain him.

Last year brought still more controversy, as a former CSU employee won a nearly $3 million verdict in a whistleblower lawsuit against the school and several of its officials, including Watson, after alleging he was fired in retaliation for reporting university improprieties to the Illinois attorney general.

Then Watson’s appointed provost was falsely accused of plagiarism in her University of Illinois at Chicago dissertation by his faculty nemesis, leading to the provost suing UIC, UIC clearing the provost of the plagiarism charges, and a top UIC official stepping down in the wake of the incident.

Watson will walk away with the healthy $140,000 pension he currently draws from City Colleges.

“I look forward to writing a book with regards to my journey through higher education. Serving as president of Chicago State University has been both a challenging and fulfilling experience, and I am appreciative of the faith that has been placed in me by the Board of Trustees, staff, faculty, students and the CSU family,” said Watson. “I am eternally grateful to the CSU family, of which I will always proudly call myself a member.”

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