Wayne Watson will soon have a very long to-do list.
When Watson, the newly appointed president of Chicago State University, takes office, he'll contend with falling enrollment and the remnants of the financial scandal that sank his predecessor, among other challenges.
First on Watson’s list: Sit down and listen to what people on campus have to say, and then start going through the university’s accounting books, ordering an internal audit if needed, he says. Then start rebuilding the school’s public image.
“We’ve got to clean up our administrative act and push up to the surface what we’re doing academically,” Watson says.
Next, he'll tackle finances.
The last three years of the school’s audits showed a broad range of accounting problems; the most recent audit, for the 2007-2008 school year, has not been publicly released yet. According to those previous audits, CSU’s former president, Elnora Daniel, used a business credit card for personal purchases including wine, meals and a Caribbean cruise. Much of that money was eventually repaid.
Board Chairman Leon Finney has also called into question contracts the school has with vendors, and whether they were properly vetted and approved.
Addressing those issues is an important first step that could go a long way toward winning over skeptical faculty and students at CSU, says George Providence, the editor of Tempo, the school’s student newspaper.
“The best thing that he can do to make an immediate impact on the credibility of the school is to go in and tackle those (audit) findings,” Providence says.
Watson may yet face some resistance, though. While some faculty have watched the presidential search process from the sidelines with wariness and concern, others have been much more vocal. Getting them on board may take some work, says history professor Ann Kuzdale.
“That’s going to be interesting to see,” he says. “We’re going to have to work with him, but he’s going to have to come in trying to be a reconciler.”
Watson and many on the faculty share some of the same concerns about the school’s current standing.
Media coverage of the school’s contentious presidential search process in the last month could hurt enrollment for the coming year further, Watson says.
“I see very little impact I can have for this first semester or this first year,” Watson says.
Within the next two years, he envisions making broad changes to the school’s business side, overhauling everything from customer service and student financial aid to protocols for buying equipment. And by 2012, he wants top-to-bottom assessments of every academic program in preparation for CSU’s next accreditation.
Part of the overhaul will require putting employees in the right mindset, Watson says, to fix years of sloppy accounting and to cut down on bureaucratic tangles students say can take weeks to navigate.
“You’ve go to change people’s behavior or you’ve got to fire them,” Watson says.
While that goes especially for administrators and staff, Watson says, it doesn’t mean the faculty is immune.
“If for any reason they refuse to do their job and to do research … then those faculty have defined… their future status,” he says.
Such an approach, executed the wrong way, could do more harm than good, Providence says.
“The students and the faculty and the staff, they want the school to be better, to be better perceived and better received,” he says. “If Watson comes in and is ready to work in that same kind of a way and that same kind of a spirit, he’ll be all right.”
Meanwhile, as enrollment at other state universities has been steadily climbing in recent years, CSU’s has fallen, down 33 percent since 1994 to 6,800 students last fall.
The school's six-year graduation rate was just 16.2 percent in 2007, the most recent year for which data was available from the Illinois Department of Higher Education. By comparison, the University of Illinois at Chicago's graduation rate that year was 50 percent and the rate at Northern Illinois University was 52.3 percent.
Watson, the former chancellor of the City Colleges system, says the experience he gained there will come in handy at CSU.
"We need to garner all of our forces and all of our energies and all of our skill sets to be going in the same direction ... and that is the enhancement of the university," he says.
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.