When Wayne Watson starts talking about the intuitive sense needed to keep one of the largest community college systems in the nation running smoothly, he quickly turns to an anecdote about flying.
He was high above Cincinnati, Ohio with his instructor – decades ago -- stuck in clouds and trying to navigate around thunderstorms in the area. Air traffic controllers told them to turn one way to get out of the storm, but his instructor did the opposite, and moments later, the plane emerged unscathed into clear air.
“Just like running this system, nothing is for certain,” Watson says. “There is a lot of third eye.”
Watson is one of two finalists to become the next president of Chicago State University on the South Side. Carol Adams, the secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, is the other finalist.
CSU has had more than its share of smudges on its reputation in recent years and is looking for a new leader to take the institution forward.
In 2008, the former president’s contract was not renewed in the wake of a 2007 state audit that found she had spent thousands of dollars of the college’s money on personal expenses like clothes, movies, meals and hotel rooms. She repaid the money and chalked up the purchases to accidentally confusing two similar credit cards.
“Chicago State has been run by people who don’t have a clue about Chicago, Illinois, and what it takes to lead what potentially could be a world-class university,” says Conrad Worrill, the director of the Center for Inner-City Studies at Northeastern Illinois University, and who knows both Adams and Watson.
“For the first time, we would have candidates selected locally,” Worrill says.
Watson’s colleagues call him a visionary and courageous leader, someone who’s not afraid to push the envelope – even if that means alienating and angering some people along the way.
Watson has served 11 years as chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. Before that, he spent 20 years working at three different campuses in the district.
At the start of Watson's tenure, the academic rigor of some programs was lacking. By requiring faculty to raise their teaching standards, those programs have turned around, administrators and faculty say. Watson brought in money to build one new campus and add dozens of new programs, even as state funding has declined in recent years.
“He’s been a great leader,” says Keith McCoy, the president of the faculty council and a math professor at Wright College. “Has he had some faults? Sure, no one is perfect with faculty. Are there faculty who have their issues with him? Sure, but there’s no denying that he has done great things for the City Colleges of Chicago.”
Watson required more training for faculty and more rigorous curricula, but also initiated a controversial shift to adjunct instructors over full-time faculty, a practice now common nationwide. The number of degree programs and online offerings ratcheted up, as did programs like study abroad trips and, starting this fall, a foreign language requirement.
Not all of Watson's changes have been greeted so well, though. His shakeup several years ago of how campuses handle counseling services is one of those issues.
“We had a very good counseling department and I think the City Colleges are really hurt without having counselors on campus,” says Anthony Johnston, the tutoring coordinator at Truman college and the chapter chair of the faculty union there.
The most prominent confrontation was 2004’s three-week-long teacher’s strike, as Watson pushed faculty to accept a contract increasing the number of courses they taught. In early 2005, as a result, the faculty issued a vote of no-confidence against him.
Watson and the faculty, for the most part, have moved past those times, though it lowers Watson's overall grade in Johnston's eyes.
“I would say a C-plus,” Johnston says. “If you would have asked me that two years ago, I would have said a failing grade, because we’ve been able to transcend the labor problems.”
Watson acknowledges he learned an important lesson during that episode: the need to communicate openly and often, and not to assume everyone will understand one another’s perspectives.
“Those mistakes laid the foundation for where we are today,” he says.
A start in airlines
Watson, 63, started his career in education at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., where he quickly rose to be the chairman of the school’s education department.
Then in 1975, he was tapped to be the general manager of Wheeler Airlines, an upstart charter and passenger service also based in Raleigh.
“At a moment’s notice, I would have to go fly to one of my other airports to see how things were going,” Watson says. “It was like heaven.”
The company grew to serve several states, flying passengers in small planes during the day, then using those same planes at night to transport cancelled checks and cargo.
But deregulation hit the airline hard and Watson left it two years later, recalling feeling at the time that “people in business are too cutthroat.”
Watson got his first job at the City Colleges in 1978, at the urging of a friend. He was an assistant to a grant writer, he says, and his starting annual salary was $16,000.
He now makes $300,000 a year as chancellor.
Watson ascended quickly through the ranks at the City Colleges, and in the next 20 years he moved from deanship to vice presidency at Malcolm X College, then interim president at Harold Washington College and then president of Kennedy-King College before Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed him to the chancellorship in 1998.
Balancing politics and education
Many of Watson’s colleagues agree that for him, educational priorities come above everything else.
“He believes that every child should have the opportunity to succeed,” says Diedra Lewis, who worked with Watson for most of his 30 years at the City Colleges. “It’s a passion for him and he genuinely believes it, and you can see it in him.”
In an hour-long interview in his 14th-floor corner office in the Loop recently, Watson said he appreciated having three children who stayed out of trouble and allowed him to focus on his career.
“My children afforded me the opportunity to not only be their parent… (but also) the opportunity to focus a lot of my time to my job, education,” Watson says.
His colleagues agree that he has learned to master the politics that run throughout such a large institution, as well as the region’s politics.
“I’m talking about the politics in education: those things that affect the decisions you make,” says Zerrie Campbell, the former president of Malcolm X College. “I basically see politics as a way of getting things done. It’s not something to shy away from or to be avoided, or anything that’s necessarily negative.”
Being a political insider has helped Watson execute his plans, says Wellington Wilson, the president of Kennedy-King College from 1999 to 2003.
“He’s been a major player,” Wilson says. “I think he’s gotten the district funds from the state legislature that normally would not have come had it not been for his persistence.”
One big example is the completion of the new Kennedy-King College in Englewood, says Perry Buckley, the president of the Cook County College Teachers Union.
Watson's political connections would serve him well at CSU, Buckley says.
“He’s changed a lot over the years,” Buckley says. “He’s become far for collegial, he doesn’t blindside us anymore.”
Political connections have worried some at CSU that Watson and Adams are the wrong types of people to be running the campus. But Watson’s backers urge the campus to give him a fair shake.
“There is a history with him and how he performs with respect to administration and labor,” McCoy says. “He’s certainly not anti-faculty. I would say to them, to think honestly about it and don’t rush to judgment.”
Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.