Chicago State board meets to decide: Who's in charge?

Chicago State University's board of trustees is meeting this morning to settle the question of who is president at the South Side campus, capping a tumultuous week.

On Monday, the board announced that Wayne Watson, president since 2009, would take a yearlong sabbatical and then was expected to retire. It also said that provost Sandra Westbrooks would be the acting president.

But Watson stayed in his office this week and has maintained that he is still the president. Watson’s attorney said he viewed the sabbatical as equivalent to a vacation, not an end to his presidency. Watson’s contract goes until 2014.

The sabbatical arrangement, which Watson requested, was intended to allow him to exit without drama after the trustees decided they wanted new leadership. He was to be paid his $250,000 salary during the sabbatical, during which time he said he planned to care for his elderly father and conduct research on effective leadership at minority-serving institutions.

The board called the meeting to order shortly after 8 a.m. this morning and then recessed into a closed executive session to discuss what was described on the published agenda as employment matters, legal matters and approval of legal and consultant services. It is then expected to reconvene in an open session.

Before the meeting began, Chicago leaders well known in the African-American community crowded into the library waiting area, including former Sen. Emil Jones and Jonathan Jackson from Rainbow Push Coalition.

Jones, who walked the room with Watson, said: “He should be president, no question about that, because of his interest in the education of the students who go here.”

The mood among the crowd was pleasant despite the differences in opinion on how the university should be lead.

"We're on the good side," said Victor P. Henderson, Watson's attorney.

Watson said: "I'm standing for the right thing."

Board Chairman Gary Rozier told the Tribune earlier this week that trustees had decided it was “time to look for new leadership.” They were disappointed with the decline in enrollment and the faculty’s no-confidence vote on Watson.

Henderson has defended Watson’s tenure.

“I have not seen one iota of information which would justify changing the president’s status at the university,” Henderson said earlier this week.

As the board met in private, members of the audience milled around the room, some complaining out loud about the credentials of the board members and saying that they lacked qualifications to select a leader for the institution. Some whispered about rumors and gossip that has spread across the campus and distracted the faculty, staff and students.

Martin L. King, chairman of the Rainbow Push Coalition board, said he and Rev. Jesse Jackson tried to mediate an agreement between Watson and the board but failed.

"That agreement would have ended the need to have this meeting," he said.

Chicago State has long been an source of pride in the middle-class African-American community it sits in. The student body is made up mainly of local black students, who otherwise might not have a chance to earn a college degree.

Friday's meeting drew residents who had graduated from the institution and many that work there.

"Chicago State University is an anchor for Chatham, Auburn Gresham and the Southland," King said. "It's an economic anchor, the home of historic documents. This university is a place where we all come together."

King said he believes it is in the best interest of the students and community that Watson be retained and the board work with him.

"The president has been very instrumental in making sure the university moved forward," King said. "Our (PUSH) ultimate goal is fairness."

On campus, the drama between Watson and the board has seeped into the classroom, said adjunct professor of political science Gideon Charles.

"We're demoralized. We don't know who is the President and who to report to," he said.

Charles said he believes it's time for Watson to be replaced.

"The school has declined under his leadership and enrollment is down," he said. "The faculty don't hold him in high regard. When he was brought in in 2009, the students didn't take a liking to him — and they still don't."

History professor Bob Bionaz also said he believes Watson should be replaced.  "He is a failure" he said, citing a decline in student enrollment and other factors.

Earlier this week, Watson sent a letter to trustees alleging that some board members are retaliating against him because he won’t accede to their pressures to hire and reward their friends.

In a four-page letter dated Feb. 26 and obtained by the Tribune, Watson told trustees that the “real motivation” behind the board’s efforts to replace him was his refusal “to capitulate to the incessant requests” from Rozier and Vice Chairman Z. Scott to “either hire, promote or give salary increases to their friends and associates.”

Langdon Neal, the board’s attorney, replied: “We are going to rise above this and deal with the matters that affect the students of the university and the university itself. We are not going to comment on the personal accusations.”

In the letter to trustees, Watson also wrote that there are now no financial improprieties at an institution that was plagued by fiscal mismanagement for years.

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