Gov. Bruce Rauner surprised just about everyone in January when he named his former rival Paul Vallas to an advisory council to help turn around Chicago State University.
By that time, the South Side university had been forced to lay off 300 emloyees because of the state’s budget mess, and the university’s president, Thomas J. Calhoun, had left with a hefty severance check.
Although Rauner said Vallas’s role would be advisory and his handpicked council would have no management authority, sources say efforts are underway to make Vallas president.
And the Chicago Crusader reported last week that the governor’s education secretary, Beth Purvis, called a meeting with CSU board chairman the Rev. Marshall Hatch and board member, Tony Anderson, and told them if “Rauner’s request isn’t met, he will not secure additional funding to help solve the school’s financial woes and withdraw his support.”
Both Purvis and Vallas deny there were any threats to withhold support from the struggling university.
Hatch and Anderson did not return calls.
Vallas said he is not “seeking or lobbying” for the president’s job but that Rauner wanted him to “take a leadership role.”
“It might be as chief executive officer or chief administrative officer,” Vallas told me. “Clearly, it is their desire for me to take a leadership role and to give me the authority to work in the university full time.”
In a follow-up email, Vallas said he is “seeking the authority to make the changes needed to stabilize the university’s finances and develop and implement an effective strategy for immediately improving student enrollment and retention.”
Purvis acknowledged the meeting with Hatch, Anderson and Vallas but denied putting pressure on the two board members to get the votes needed for Vallas to be president.
“There was a conversation about how do we bring the urgency so we can bring more resources to the university,” she said. “There was absolutely no threat.”
Purvis said she spoke to four other board members about Vallas.
“I have had conversations with members of the board that I actually believe Paul is the person to get CSU on track, but that doesn’t mean he is the right person to be president,” Purvis said.
“A university like CSU, we need someone with a long history and academic background,” she said. “That is different from someone who will come in and manage through a crisis.”
But sources said Vallas, who serves in an unpaid role, is making a full-court press for the president’s position, even parking his car in the space reserved for “President” of the university.
“It would be highly unethical for Vallas, who has been on campus acting like he is the president already, to be considered,” said a community organizer who asked not to be identified.
Nikki Zollar, who has served on the board of trustees since 2013, said Vallas is “wreaking havoc on the university.
“I don’t understand his purpose,” Zollar said. “I was shocked that he was going to be on the board. And I was even more shocked that the governor wanted him to be the chairman of the board.
“Paul himself have said in many meetings, ‘I want to be the president of the university.’ I do think he has all good intentions, but I wouldn’t be able to support the idea of Mr. Vallas being the president of CSU because he doesn’t have the requisite background in higher education.
“I think, at this point, to continue the stability of the university and the trajectory of the university, we need to keep our interim president until there can be another search,” Zollar said. “This university has been starved for money, not leadership.”
If Rauner is trying to ram Vallas down board members’ throats, he is playing the same cutthroat politics he claims drove the university to ruin in the first place.Tweets by @MaryMitchellCST