The Chicago State University board of trustees voted Friday to approve a deal sealing the departure of Thomas J. Calhoun Jr. after just nine months as the $300,000-a-year president of the South Side university.
Calhoun — who will receive two years of salary under the deal signed Friday — had taken over the financially troubled, 3,500-student school only last January, with a contract through 2020.
The vote to approve the separation agreement came amid boos and shouts of “Why was he asked to leave?”
“Everyone agreed it’s in the best interests of Dr. Calhoun and the university to have this separation agreement,” said CSU Board Chair Anthony Young. “Dr. Calhoun signed that separation agreement, and he’s tendered his letter of resignation.”
Young was repeatedly interrupted Friday by a standing-room-only crowd, with audience members yelling, “All you all need to be dismissed!” and “Fire ’em all!”
There was little discussion before the 6-1 vote by the board that oversees the public university. Only Paris Griffin, the student representative on the panel, voted no.
“The realty is sometimes there is no good decision, and there is only the best decision,” said Marshall Hatch Sr., a CSU board member.
Young said both sides agreed not to file any lawsuits over the separation and would refrain from making “disparaging” remarks.
He said the one-year first payment toward Calhoun’s two-year severance deal will be paid this year and the other half will be paid next year.
The board named the school’s vice president of finance and administration, Cecil Lucy, interim president on Friday.
Calhoun, who was not at the meeting, issued a statement Friday: “As I have said from my first day at CSU, this university is an incredible resource for the people of the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois and beyond. While I am leaving after only a short time, I believe that many signs are now pointing to a very bright future for the university. I am especially proud of the CSU students, who have persevered under difficult financial conditions.”
Several of those in attendance said they were blindsided by Friday’s vote and were angry they weren’t allowed to give any input. Those same people said they’re pretty certain Calhoun was pushed out — even if they couldn’t say why.
“It’s like we’re the children, you’re the parent, and you do what we say,” said graduate student Anita Holmes. “We don’t live in that age anymore. I’m paying you to tell me to shut up?”
Holmes described Calhoun as an administrator who’d given the cash-strapped university a “ray of hope.”
Said graduate student April Thomas: “They didn’t give him a chance to continue to stand his ground and do his time and help redevelop the school and change things.”
Leslie Baker-Kimmons, an associate professor of sociology, echoed the comments of many when she talked about what some see as a lack of “transparency” and commitment to student and faculty issues from board members.
“It’s extraordinarily frustrating to have the sense that no one in a leadership position has the emphasis of education and academic excellence on their priority list,” Baker-Kimmons said.
Perhaps the loudest shouts of disapproval came late in the meeting when board member Spencer Leak Jr. suggested the gathering call on a higher power to help make things less “contentious.”
“We should ask God to to guide and direct us from this point,” Leak said, referring to God as “the head of this university,” among other things.
Leak’s proposal was greeted with shrieks of derision.
“We are adults here!” one person yelled. “This is ridiculous!”
Calhoun’s short tenure covered some of the hardest times Chicago State has ever faced, as the state’s budget impasse stalled funding for state universities.
With a student body composed almost entirely of non-traditional, minority students, Chicago State was hit harder than most state schools. Calhoun had declared a state of financial emergency at the school and in April announced the layoff of 300 faculty and staff members.
Citing the school’s shaky finances, the state’s Higher Learning Commission announced a two-year review in July of CSU’s accreditation.
Calhoun said at the time that an infusion of cash from a stopgap state budget and the release of tuition grants would shore up the school’s finances.
Calhoun was hired away from the University of North Alabama to succeed Wayne Watson, president of the university from 2009 through last year.
He had ties to Chicago, having worked in the Chicago Public Schools’ Department of Research, Evaluation and Planning and as principal of North Lawndale College Prep Charter High School and Hales Franciscan High School.