Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott, a former federal prosecutor with strong ties to the business community, is Chicago State University’s next president.
A native Chicagoan, Scott beat out two out-of-town finalists with backgrounds in higher education to fill a position that has been without a permanent leader since 2016.
“I’m excited. I think it is a tremendous opportunity,” Scott said during a telephone interview Wednesday morning, the day after the university’s board of trustees voted to hire her.
She will take the helm of the beleaguered university on July 1.
“I am familiar with the institution, having served on the board and having lived on the South Side for almost my entire life. I believe that at this point of the school’s history, I think it requires the leadership skills I possess,” she said.
Those skills include a two-year stint as executive inspector general in former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration, beginning in 2003.
In recent years, Chicago State University has been perceived by some as the stepchild of the Illinois University system because of low enrollment and allegations of cronyism and inept management.
In January of 2017, Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Paul Vallas to the university’s board of trustees to lead a turnaround effort. That appointment led to Vallas, who had recently returned to Chicago, getting a paid contract as chief administrative officer four months later.
Vallas resigned from the tailored position in January 2018, months before his contract was due to end, and recently announced his plans to run for mayor in 2019.
Scott is confident that she can usher in a new student-focused era at the university even though she has no background in higher education.
“I grew up in a house of educators. My mother retired as a public education school librarian, and my father was a math teacher,” she said.
“My parents’ teaching was that education could help you really carve out a good life. I believe our children and our community should have a strong educational system that gives them a leg up and gives them the opportunity for advancement and experiences that will make them strong professionals in Chicago,” Scott told me.
“When I join the university on July 1, I am going to spend some time with staff, students, faculty and elected officials to see if those who have experience with the school and know where the school has some weaknesses and some strengths could help to bring the school up to where it should be,” she said.
Scott served on Chicago State’s board of trustees during the tumultuous tenure of Wayne Watson, the university’s last permanent president.
Her efforts as a trustee to investigate allegations involving Watson led to a down-and-dirty fight. The inspector general for the governor’s office later found that Watson made false allegations against Scott and another board member.
It is that kind of ugliness that gave Chicago State University a bad name.
So Scott knows the road to redemption for the university isn’t going to be easy.
She plans to “align” the school with the business community to help raise the university’s profile and brand.
“Chicago State is a natural pipeline for diverse, highly educated competent and confident students. … The strong academic experience for our people is tied to our success as a community,” she said.
Scott doesn’t anticipate her lack of administrative experience at a university will be a hindrance.
“It is important to have a senior level staff member who has significant experience in education, but I don’t think it is necessary for the school’s leader or president to have that experience,” pointing out that a “number of universities are turning to people in business to lead its institutions.”
“The challenges Chicago State faces right now are operational; they are funding, fiscal and branding. Those are business challenges,” she said.
“My goal is to make sure I have surrounded myself with competent academic professionals to support what someone might perceive as a gap in my own experience,” she added.
“I’m going to spend my first two weeks to a month listening very carefully to what people are talking about when it comes to the current status of the school. … Before I make any leadership decisions about what we should do next. I’m going to listen,” Scott said.