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Emil Jones: Chicago State President Wayne Watson is a ‘true leader’

Cordell Reed Student UniChicago State University. | Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times

Cordell Reed Student Union at Chicago State University. | Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: April 8, 2013 7:42AM

In my many years as a state senator, I learned that leadership is rarely a popularity contest. Today, although I have retired from the Legislature, I’ve been reminded of just how unpopular a true leader can be while witnessing the political shenanigans visited on my alma mater by its own board of trustees.

I attended Chicago State University, as did my late wife, Patricia. I am proud to note the convocation center bears our name. We pursued higher education with scant resources but a fierce determination for upward social mobility. That determination remains the chief motivation of most Chicago State students. These hard-working people — many of them adult and other nontraditional students — deserve every opportunity to attend a four-year school whose programs measure up to the standards of our other fine public universities.

These students also deserve a university that is run like a university, not a patronage machine operating at the whims of its board. The seven members of Chicago State’s board of trustees are appointed by the governor; the terms of three of those members, including its chair, expire within a few months. It is these three board members who have repeatedly overreached their mission to interfere with day-to-day operations and, far worse, to demand that the president hire their cronies, raise the salaries of their chosen faculty and staff, and even award contracts to vendors of their choice.

To his great credit, the university’s president, Dr. Wayne Watson, has resisted these highly inappropriate pressures while making changes that have made him unpopular.

When Dr. Watson took charge in 2010, he replaced a president tainted by allegations of improper spending. Coming to Chicago State after retiring from the City Colleges of Chicago, Dr. Watson brought extensive experience to the thankless task of reducing an indefensibly large faculty. At the same time, he led an essential culling of enrollment to drop students carrying unacceptably low grade averages.

It’s no wonder that Dr. Watson is not the most beloved man on campus, though respected throughout the educational community. It’s no wonder a resisting faculty voted no confidence in the president who reduced their unionized ranks. It’s no wonder enrollment is down when the correct standards are brought to bear for the entire student body. And it’s no wonder, given the low expectations many apply to an institution serving mostly minority students, that he has experienced cheap politicking. He courageously corrected institutional wrongs and mishaps that had history as long as 20 years.

Dr. Watson has brought order and a higher standard to the school that educates so many of the city’s disadvantaged. Now, under intense fire from the three hostile board members, he is resisting their demand that he resign his post before his contract expires next year. These board members are trying to force Dr. Watson out before they lose their chance.

This kind of vindictive blood sport has no place in an institution of higher learning. It comes with no consideration for students or prospective students who will be preparing for midterms and graduation or weighing whether they will choose Chicago State as the institution they want to study at over the next few years. I am calling on Gov. Pat Quinn and the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus to address the impropriety displayed by these shameless board members.

Now is the time to replace Chicago State’s outgoing board members with people committed to education, not personal gain.

Emil Jones is the former president of the Illinois Senate.

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