Editorial: End the $600,000 mystery at Chicago State University

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Thomas J. Calhoun Jr. | Chicago State University

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“Why was he asked to leave?”

Excellent question. We would love to know, especially given the $600,000 in tuition and taxpayer money that walked out the door with him.

Chicago State University, an institution that serves an important role in public higher education despite its constant troubles, took another punch to the gut last week when its board of trustees approved a separation agreement with Thomas J. Calhoun Jr., who had been named president of the university just nine months earlier.

“But why was he asked to leave?” asked furious students and faculty at Friday’s board meeting.

To which they received a reply that was like an insult.

“Everyone agreed it’s in the best interests of Dr. Calhoun and the university,” said CSU Board Chair Anthony Young.

What does that even mean?

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The public deserves to know exactly why Calhoun was sent packing — his resignation clearly looks forced — and where CSU is headed now. Gov. Bruce Rauner must demand an explanation, and he should fire any board member who does not cooperate in a full airing of secrets that should not be secrets.

Our first concern is the well-being of Chicago State. This is a university struggling with extremely low graduation rates, declining enrollment, a minimal endowment and a severe budget crunch. Back in April, the university laid off 300 employees after waiting months for state funding and then getting too little too late. The university has come close to closing.

That would be a tragedy, proof positive that the poor and disadvantaged get shoved to the back of the line. CSU on Chicago’s South Side serves mostly commuter students, who often attend classes at night. They typically live fairly close by and can afford college no other way. They work jobs and squeeze in classes as they can. CSU is their best hope. If the university is under-performing academically — and it is — the solution is to improve programs and performance, not to treat it like an afterthought in the state’s public university system.

Calhoun was brought in to lead a turnaround at Chicago  State. He was at the helm during this year’s budget crisis, managing to keep morale up. His popularity on campus was palpable at Friday’s board meeting, where trustees were sometimes shouted down. Which is not to say Calhoun was necessarily doing a terrific job. We simply don’t know. The board paid him two years pay as severance — $600,000 — and clammed up about why.

Our second biggest concern is for the taxpayer. Once again, a public body in Illinois has cut a sizable check to make a problem go away, explaining nothing. In 2013, Metra played that game, ousting its new CEO, Alex Clifford, without explanation, agreeing to a severance package worth up to $718,000. Clifford later claimed he had left — quietly at first — rather than bow to pressure from powerful politicians, including House Speaker Mike Madigan, to promote their allies.

That scandal led to a virtual clean sweep of Metra’s board. The same may be coming at Chicago State.

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