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Chicago State gets $40 million surprise
The president of Chicago State University was scanning the newspaper before an executive staff meeting when he did a double-take. Frank Pogue learned his South Side school would be building an extension campus on the West Side, and state lawmakers were allocating $40 million for it.
"Quite frankly, I was not informed," said Pogue, who served as interim president for the 2008-09 academic year. "I don't recall seeing a plan for the project in the year that I was president."
Legislators -- not academics -- proposed the Chicago State West Side campus, which became part of a huge public works program signed into law this summer by Gov. Pat Quinn.
State Sen. Rickey Hendon (D-Chicago) championed the project, citing a need for more higher education and economic opportunities on the West Side, which he represents. Asked for details about the campus, such as a budget, enrollment and academic offerings, he said they're up to the university.
"I appropriate the money. I don't tell the campus what they're going to do," Hendon said. "The West Side has always been treated like the stepchild. We're not going to accept second-class status."
No site has been announced because Hendon said he's waiting for funds to be released.
Funding for the public works projects depends on new revenue from video poker and taxes on liquor and candy and other items slated to go into effect Tuesday. But since communities are beginning to mobilize against video poker and the taxes have been challenged in court, it's uncertain when -- or if -- the money will materialize.
Three Chicago State leaders -- the provost, associate provost and spokesman -- would not comment on the new campus, referring all questions to incoming President Wayne Watson, who doesn't officially start until Oct. 1.
Chicago State has had a tumultuous past year or so. A recent audit revealed accounting troubles. Former university president Elnora Daniel left under fire in June 2008 for questionable spending practices.
Faculty and students protested the selection of Watson, former head of the City Colleges of Chicago. In April, the faculty senate asked the governor to remove the Board of Trustees, which he did not do.
The proposal for a new West Side campus bypassed the vetting process for most higher education developments. Typically, state college and university leaders submit an annual "wish list" of capital requests to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and the projects compete against one another to be placed on a master list. The General Assembly uses that as a guide to determine what public projects get funded.
Chicago State did not request funding for the West Side campus in its 2010 priority list. The higher education board has no reports on the expansion project, only a letter indicating the school's desire for a satellite campus.
"To my knowledge, they haven't done any studies that compel them to say this is an important project for us," said Don Sevener, spokesman for the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
It's not unheard of for lawmakers to push higher education projects on their own, as the final expenditures are at the discretion of the legislature and governor. But the examples cited by Sevener -- new buildings on an existing campus or the emergency replacement of infrastructure -- were much smaller, simpler projects.
A second Chicago State campus had been discussed in previous years by an advisory committee of politicians and university officials. A panel formed by trustees also explored the issue. University memos and minutes of meetings contain numerous options for degree offerings and projected costs and locations, but no final decisions. Documents also say the school would not be able to pay most day-to-day costs or any unforeseen expenses, leaving them to the state.
A 2007 feasibility study indicated strong community and prospective student support for a satellite campus. Enrollment projections vary in different reports, but 2,000 students seems to be the maximum.
In 2008, $10 million was set aside for a campus, but the money never came through, according to the state education board.
Some faculty and students question whether Chicago State -- a 7,000-student university plagued by leadership turmoil, struggling to improve its 16 percent graduation rate -- can handle a second campus. Opponents fear the university's political strife and past accounting troubles might be duplicated on the West Side and that it would siphon resources needed elsewhere.
Student Renee Brown in a November 2007 letter to the university Board of Trustees complained about bureaucracy, poor customer service and failing campus infrastructure.
"I have also heard of plans to form a campus on the West Side of Chicago," she said in the letter, which was included in meeting minutes. "While these operations are certainly exciting, they are not appropriate given the conditions of the already existing facilities on campus."
Professor Phillip Beverly said he fears the project is motivated by politics and the economic needs of one neighborhood, at the expense of quality higher education.
"This is about contracts. This is about cronyism," he said. "I'm a little tired of the university being used as a pass-through for this kind of cronyism."
Even some trustees initially rejected the project. At a meeting in September 2007, one trustee "reiterated that the board is not in support of a West Side campus, and that the board has been in opposition to such [an] initiative since the proposal was presented," according to meeting minutes.
Chairman Leon Finney at the same meeting questioned the need for expansion "given the fiscal challenges facing the state, as well as the documented $55 million unmet needs of the university."
But Finney reversed his stance at a January 2008 meeting, saying he supported the project after being assured it would not drain resources from the South Side campus. Finney did not respond to calls for comment.
The board unanimously approved the project in March 2008, before Pogue started. After that, the idea seems to fall off Chicago State's radar. It's barely mentioned again in board minutes, university reports or memos.
Trustee Peggy Montes, the only board member to respond to requests for comment, said she didn't have specific details about the new campus. But Montes said she favors the project because there's a pressing need for a four-year school on the West Side. Roughly 700 university students already live in that area, according to 2006 data.
Chicago State has had campuses on the West Side before. In 1957, the university shared space with Crane High School and Junior College. Ten years later, that extension was replaced with a campus called the "West Center" at 500 N. Pulaski Rd., which initially served about 600 students, according to the university's archives. The West Center closed when the existing campus at 9501 S. King Drive was built in 1972.
Recently, the university has offered some courses at Malcolm X College on the West Side as a pilot program. And a university-commissioned 2007 survey of current and prospective students indicated high interest in attending a four-year school in that area.
"I had a great experience, but the commute was crazy," one student responded. "CSU should open a West Side campus, and I would definitely attend."
Ald. Ed Smith (28th) said a university would help those on the West Side advance their education and careers. He said he has faith that Watson will bolster the school's reputation and help build a great extension campus.
"I would love to have a university on the West Side with the credentials of Oxford," Smith said. "But you take what you can get and you work to embellish it, working to make it the best that it can be."
Yan Searcy, president of the faculty senate, said professors were not consulted about the expansion project. Beverly, also a faculty senate member, wondered whether existing professors would be expected to teach on the West Side, and he said the issue could become contentious in September contract negotiations.
Faculty members also are concerned that expansion will hinder efforts to raise academic standards and graduation rates.
"Now we're going to open up another campus, when we can't take care of what we already have?" Beverly said.
Pogue, whose interim term ended in June, said the birth of the West Side campus was the strangest process he's witnessed in his 46-year career. While not against the concept of expansion, he said academic leaders should be involved in the planning. Success will rely on shrewd recruitment, curricula and admissions decisions, he said, adding that otherwise the university could be left with impressive buildings it can't properly operate.
"During these days, I can see that a university would appreciate getting support from anywhere it can," he said. "On the other hand, one must always be prudent about starting new projects."