Righting the troubled ship that is Chicago State University will first require several basic steps, the school’s newly appointed leaders said Tuesday.
“First we have to make sure that people understand we are not closed,” said Rachel W. Lindsey, who took the reins last month as interim president.
“Someone said to me, just recently, ‘Oh, I thought the university was closed,'” said Lindsey, who lives in the Chatham neighborhood, not far from the university.
Her challenges will also include increasing enrollment, stabilizing the school’s finances and fixing poor graduation rates.
Lindsey, a former dean of the school’s Arts and Sciences department, came out of retirement to sign a 12-month, $240,000 contract. She said she’d be willing to stay on a couple more months more if the search for her replacement takes longer than expected.
By her side Tuesday at a news conference at the school was Paul Vallas, who, at the behest of Gov. Bruce Rauner, was brought in to aid the school’s recovery. A new position was created for him: chief administrative officer.
The position is “lateral to the provost and the other senior administrators,” Lindsey said when asked about the school’s hierarchy.
Vallas formerly headed Chicago Public Schools under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
He became known as a crisis manager when he took over the school system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and worked to rebuild schools in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake there.
He was signed to a 15-month contract at $200,000 a year at Chicago State.
“I just want to thank the president personally for inviting me and asking me to come in and assist her in her efforts to really take the university to another level,” Vallas said.
Vallas said the school was in the process of laying the groundwork for student recruitment and retention by building relationships with high schools and community colleges to create “a natural feeder pattern.”
The school’s strong relationship with veterans would also be used to recruit at schools with ROTC programs, he said.
“Our goal here is to really have the infrastructure in place so recruitment becomes an afterthought because we have more applicants than we have positions for,” Vallas said.
Lindsey pointed to the 653 students attending the school’s commencement ceremony Thursday as a sign the university’s graduation rate is trending up.
She said a program was in the works to more closely monitor the progress of who might get derailed by obstacles outside of academia, such as trouble paying utilities or the loss of a loved one to gun violence.
“I cannot tell you the number of times students came to my office telling me about the problems that they had that had absolutely nothing to do with Chicago State University itself,” she said.
“One of the things Mr. Vallas and I talked about would be to put some approaches in place where we can support these students, because it’s not that they don’t want to come to class, it’s not that they don’t want to do what they need to in order to be successful and it is not that they can’t be successful.”
Lindsey and Vallas said they are both hoping for a compromise among legislators who’ve been unable to pass a state budget that would free up funds for higher education.
Lindsey said she has yet to talk to Rauner, but planned to “soon.”