Trustees at financially troubled Chicago State University voted Friday to approve a separation agreement that includes a $600,000 payment for President Thomas Calhoun Jr. after he spent just nine months on the job.
The vote was 6-1 to accept Calhoun’s resignation after a meeting interrupted by protesters supporting Calhoun, with neither the board nor the outgoing president having explained the reason for his departure. His contract, which was supposed to run until January 2021, paid him $300,000 a year and included wording that Calhoun could be removed without cause and accept two years of salary to leave immediately.
The departure comes after a troubled year for the 4,500-student campus, at least partly due to a loss of public funding stemming from Illinois’ budget crisis. In February, it declared a financial emergency and about 40 percent of its employees have been terminated or laid off since the beginning of the year. Academic programs and services have been reduced.
More than 100 faculty members signed a letter urging trustees to keep Calhoun. Faculty said upending top administration at the school would continue turmoil and possibly harm the school even further.
The board appointed Cecil Lucy, campus vice president for administration and finance, as interim president.
“We’re going to essentially pay for two presidents over the next two years,” said associate history professor Bob Bionaz, one of the faculty members who signed the letter. “This university, I guess, can afford that, although we can’t afford a number of other things. It’s something I don’t think the taxpayers of Illinois will be happy about.”
Gov. Bruce Rauner also has expressed worries about the cost to Illinois taxpayers, saying that he was concerned about the price of severance payments.
“We don’t have that many taxpayer resources to go around,” he said at an unrelated news conference Thursday. “Taxpayers are supporters of that institution. And you hate to see a lot of money going out for not productive uses. The money should be in the classroom with the students and the teachers.”
It wasn’t immediately clear why Calhoun left the top position, which he took in January. He, trustees and the school did not provide details. In a statement Friday, Calhoun merely praised Chicago State students, saying they persevered under difficult financial conditions.
“While I am leaving after only a short time, I believe that many signs are now pointing to a very bright future for the university,” Calhoun said.
State Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat whose district includes Chicago State and who is a graduate, said the school “is still at war” and Calhoun is “not a wartime leader.”
“With all the pressure they’ve been under, they need a plan,” Trotter said. “Without a plan, I’ve been told he hooked up with those fighting the administration and didn’t work with the members of the board.”
Trustees in February created a four-person management committee that oversaw hirings, layoffs and other personnel decisions at the school. A majority vote of the committee, which included Calhoun, was needed to make employment changes. Lucy was on the board as well.
Bionaz said the arrangement didn’t allow Calhoun to make decisions that a chief executive of a college should be able to make.
Friday’s meeting was crowded with Calhoun supporters, who greeted trustees with shouts and heckles. The one vote against accepting the agreement came from student trustee, Paris Griffin, who told the crowd: “I did speak for you.”