Three years ago, Paul Vallas, then running for lieutenant governor of Illinois, accused Bruce Rauner, then running for governor, of measuring success by a single standard: Money.
“I think his wealth basically drives his policy,” said Vallas, a Democrat. “He measures his success by his wealth.”
Now, in one of those ironies that can’t happen enough in our politically polarized times, Republican Gov. Rauner has appointed Vallas to the board of trustees of Chicago State University. That says a couple of good things: Vallas was wrong about Rauner, and Chicago State may have a future yet.
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Now Rauner’s job, with Vallas as his point man, is to follow through in overhauling CSU.
The first order of business for Rauner and CSU’s board will be to hire a highly qualified and permanent university president — and explain what happened to the last guy. A new day in financial openness is begged for. And, above all, state funding for CSU must be put on solid and predictable footing, which will require that Rauner and the Legislature finally coming to agreement on a state budget.
In appointing Vallas and three other new trustees on Friday, Rauner put on notice CSU’s entire dysfunctional culture. Vallas, a passionate educator with a strong national reputation who ran the Chicago Public Schools from 1995 to 2001, will be expected to lead the charge in transforming an important but miserably performing public university.
CSU offers a college degree and chance at a better life to thousands of poor and disadvantaged young men and women, especially on Chicago’s South Side. They are commuter students for the most part, often working days and attending classes nights, taking courses as they can squeeze them in. CSU is their best hope.
But CSU suffers from extremely low graduation rates, declining enrollment, a minimal endowment, years of financial mismanagement and a severe budget crunch. Last spring, CSU was forced to lay off 300 employees because state funding was too little and too late. Last September, the board pushed out CSU President Thomas J. Calhoun Jr., giving no explanation but cutting him a severance check for $600,000. Also last September, dormitories went without hot water for two weeks — just because somebody screwed up.
Three years ago, a jury awarded $2.5 million to an employee who said he was fired for reporting financial improprieties at the school. And just two weeks ago, the board agreed to pay $1.3 million to another former employee who claimed he was fired for reporting misconduct.
Gov. Rauner has put the challenge to Vallas and his fellow trustees to transform CSU into an academically credible and financially sound place of higher learning. But the board can’t be expected to do it alone.
The governor’s responsibilities to CSU have only just begun.
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