Crony State University
By Robert Bionaz
The reputation of Chicago State University, a public state institution on Chicago's south side, has suffered for much of the past decade for its purported graduation deficiencies and financial shenanigans. Now the current politicized administration, with its assaults on academic freedom and integrity and its crony hiring practices, threatens the life of the institution in new ways. Control of the university has passed into the hands of local Chicago politicians and an ethically-compromised Board of Trustees that fully supports a failed president and his administration. This toxic political environment severely damages the school as state and board leadership has allowed politics to pervert Chicago State's academic mission.
Crony hiring and rewards for incompetence abound at the institution, bestowed by Wayne D. Watson, the current Chicago State President. Watson, the recipient of a Ph.D. in Education in 1972 from Northwestern University, has built a career in college administration despite having no significant teaching experience and negligible scholarly achievements. As Richard M. Daley's Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago from 1998-2009, Watson's administration proved notable for several reasons: incursion into curriculum and academic matters, a faculty strike and subsequent no-confidence vote in 2004-05, and dramatic enrollment declines: a 22 percent decrease in 9 years, compared to a 7.6 percent increase at all other Illinois community colleges. Watson distributed $90,000,000 in no-bid contracts to a computer company owned by family members of former State Senate President Emil Jones, Jr., one of his closest political allies. Watson also got himself into hot water for using taxpayer monies to make fawning videos of his political allies, including Jones and Jesse Jackson, and for the massive and untraceable cost overruns incurred by the construction of the new Kennedy-King College in 2005-07.
Despite Watson's questionable "leadership," at City Colleges, he soon parlayed his political connections into another lucrative position: the Chicago State presidency. In 2009, the rump Chicago State Board (with two vacancies and two members whose seats had expired in 2007), led by Chairman Leon Finney, long-time Daley and Watson crony, orchestrated a sham search that resulted in Watson's hiring in April 2009. In late March, virtually the entire Presidential Search Advisory Committee resigned in protest at the "rigged" nature of the search, and faculty and students protested. The Chicago State Faculty Senate took the extraordinary step of calling on Governor Quinn to halt the search and to appoint four new board members: two to replace the members whose terms had expired, and two more to fill the existing vacancies. Despite the urging of the faculty senate and a number of media outlets, Quinn declined to do anything, assuring the selection of Watson and, in effect, putting the control of the university into the hands of Emil Jones.
Since assuming control of Chicago State, Watson has damaged the university through a variety of practices. As he did at City Colleges, he has intruded into curriculum matters and degree requirements under the guise of "raising standards." His administration has made at least three separate attempts to stifle campus dissent and free speech, the last coming in spring 2012 in the form of an aborted "Communications Policy," that prohibited faculty from any outside communication without prior approval from the administration. AAUP president Cary Nelson called the policy "an obscenity and absurdity." Watson has also committed multiple violations of university policy and the CSU-UPI contract by interfering (aided by chairs and deans) in the process of setting internal disciplinary standards for retention, promotion, and tenure; orchestrating "sham" faculty searches—with no faculty participation—that have resulted in crony hires; inserting himself into the faculty hiring process by conducting interviews and failing to follow the recommendations of faculty search committees; and lengthening the tenure-track by creating extra-contractual "do-over" years for faculty seeking retention.
While these presidential incursions into areas in which he has absolutely no expertise damage the morale of university employees and ultimately affect our students, by far the most harmful practice of the Watson administration is the crony hiring of unqualified top administrators. Early in Watson's term as president, he brought a number of City College administrators to Chicago State. Watson has rewarded the loyalty of these administrators with steady pay increases, in some cases more than 25 percent in three years and for one administrator, a 76 percent pay increase since 2009.
On November 9, 2009, Watson hired Cheri Sidney, a woman with whom he is romantically involved, as the Assistant Director of Human Resources, a newly created position. After occupying that position for a few months, she received a promotion to another new position: Director of Enrollment Management. The following year, she received another promotion to a new position: Associate Vice President of Enrollment Management. Starting at $90,000 in 2009, she currently earns $113,004. Other than her relationship with Wayne Watson, what qualifications does Sidney possess? Simply put: none. A recent university response to a FOIA request revealed that Sidney apparently lied on her employment application and on her résumé by claiming a non-existent master's degree and unsubstantiated work history.
In 2011 Watson hired another long-time crony, Angela Henderson, to the position of Vice President of Enrollment Management. Henderson had no previous enrollment management experience. Henderson and Sidney have presided over a breathtaking 22 percent drop in enrollment from fall 2010 to fall 2013. This decline mirrors the Watson administration's enrollment losses at the City Colleges (albeit much more rapid) and represents the worst decline among 63 public institutions in Illinois and its six contiguous states. Despite Henderson's clear failure as Vice President of Enrollment Management, on July 1, Watson promoted her to interim Provost following the incumbent provost's retirement. Since Henderson at the time of her promotion held only a Master's Degree, she became the only Provost in the Illinois public university system without a Ph.D, which she finally received—in Nursing—on August 11, 2013. She is also the only newly-minted Ph.D. to hold such an important academic position. Although unqualified, she has parlayed her personal relationship with Watson into an important and well-paid position.
As the examples of Sidney and Henderson demonstrate (and I could relay others), cronyism ensures that incompetent employees remain in their positions or even receive promotions. The influence of local political leaders guarantees that the prime benefactor of patronage hires remains at the helm of the university. Following an overwhelming no-confidence vote in Watson's leadership by the Faculty Senate in November 2012, several members of the Board of Trustees came to the decision to fire Watson. At that point, Emil Jones rode to the rescue, mobilizing various politicians and community "activists" in support of Watson. Interestingly, the entire effort to save Watson's job revolved around his "victimization" at the hands of unscrupulous trustees, with no discussion of his failures as president. Victor Henderson, Watson's attorney and Angela Henderson's husband, compared Watson's travails to the suffering experienced by Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr.
As in 2009, several board members' terms had expired. Watson's supporters cynically urged Governor Quinn to replace those trustees in order to eliminate the board's alleged political interference in Watson's university governance. The Watson cabal prevailed as Quinn meekly allowed the terms of the trustees seeking to oust Watson to expire without reappointing them, ending an ongoing investigation into Watson's activities and eliminating any possibility of his termination. Although conflicts of interest surrounded the most prominent Watson supporters—Emil Jones' family had received $90,000,000 in no-bid contracts from City Colleges, vocal supporter Hermene Hartman's publishing company had received nearly $300,000 in no-bid contracts from the same source and another $19,000 from Chicago State, while Victor Henderson's wife stood to benefit materially from Watson's continued incumbency—this did not seem at all newsworthy as no local news outlet gave the story serious coverage.
This brouhaha saw Watson and his supporters effectively fire the members of the Chicago State Board of Trustees who favored Watson's removal. Ultimately, Quinn appointed three new trustees whose loyalty to Watson seems secure. The March fiasco illuminates the problems faced by students, faculty, and staff at Chicago State opposed to both Watson's failed leadership and the control of Chicago politicians. Despite ample evidence for his removal, our material carried no weight in an environment of naked politics. The control of the board and the school by local politicians, the continued inept and venal administration of Wayne Watson, and the unwillingness of mid-level administrators and many of the faculty to advocate for the interests of our students are doing immense damage to the university, with no end in sight. The question remains: can the university survive as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the south side Chicago political machine?
Robert Bionaz is Associate Professor of History at Chicago State University and a member of the Faculty Senate.