Chicago State University has become an embarrassment.
It wasn’t always that way.
The South Side public university started out as a place where students, especially those from working-class and low-income backgrounds, could get a quality education while holding down a job and raising a family.
It was a place where someone who brought up the rear academically in high school could parlay persistence and determination into a college degree.
And it started as a place where African-American scholars and historians were treated with dignity and could share their knowledge without worrying about cutthroat politics.
But thanks to an ongoing power struggle between factions loyal to the politics of personality and cronyism, Chicago State has become the laughingstock of the state university system, giving critics ample ammunition to call for its shutdown.
No doubt other state schools would be champing at the bit to get some of the tens of millions of dollars that CSU gets from taxpayers each year.
While students and faculty rallied in Springfield last year to keep the doors open during the budget stalemate, the school’s administrators have been showing the kind of incompetent leadership that causes black institutions to implode.
For starters, the Board of Trustees approved $600,000 in severance to make the university’s president, Thomas J. Calhoun Jr., disappear after only nine months on the job.
If that were not suspect enough, those board members are now hiding details about the severance deal behind a confidentiality clause.
But to make matters worse, only 86 people registered for the school’s fall freshman class. That includes part-timers.
Traditionally, nearly 90 percent of the people who attend Chicago State are transfer students. Still, this dismal fall registration is a new low for a university that has had to fight the perception that it offered an inferior education to students who had few options.
A spokesman for Chicago State is blaming the budget stalemate for the incredibly low enrollment.
“The university projected a 20 percent enrollment decline based on the lack of MAP grant funding and financial resources like most public universities in the state of Illinois,” said Sabrina Land in an email.
“The current enrollment of 3,578 is representative of the diverse student population we serve in which freshmen have always been less than 9 percent of the total population,” she said.
According to minutes from board meetings of March and May, low enrollment has been an ongoing problem.
“It’s been my concern since I got on the board and I left the politics to the other guys,” said Spencer Leak Sr., who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board two years ago. “If we get enough kids, we could solve our fiscal problems with an increase in enrollment.”
Dr. Carol Cortilet-Albrecht , the vice president of enrollment management, reported to the board on March 4, 2016, that 527 students accepted admission for the fall of 2016, and that there were 23 recruitment events scheduled, according to board meeting minutes.
To be fair, an analysis of 57 Midwest colleges and universities shows that “most Illinois schools suffered significant decreases in enrollment from fall 2015-2016,”because of the budget stalemate,” according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
For Chicago State, the financial lock-down was devastating — which makes the $600,000 payout to Calhoun even more ludicrous.
The university received $42.1 million in state government funding in the 2013-2014 budget year, $38 million in 2014-15 and $21.7 million in 2015-2016, according to the Illinois comptroller’s office.
Since July 1, CSU has received $8.39 million with more payments due. That has caused layoffs and the kind of uncertainty that would make it difficult to attract serious students.
But power struggles — including a demand by the university’s faculty union that the Board of Trustees resign and the state conduct a forensic audit of the school’s finances — on top of the $600,000 payout, makes Chicago State look like a drain on the university system.
And the ridiculously low enrollment number further tarnishes the school’s image.
Leak declined to discuss the $600,000 payment to Calhoun, saying he is under a “gag order,” but admitted he is “appalled” by the enrollment numbers.
“My concern has always been that we’ve got to increase the enrollment. If we don’t, the school can’t survive,” he said.Tweets by @MaryMitchellCST