Education in Chicago: Wayne D. Watson is the Wrong Man at the Wrong Time for Chicago State University.

06/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bill Sweetland Staff writer in corporate communications at Ragan Communications

Chancellor Wayne D. Watson is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a bad pick as the next president of Chicago State University.

Yes, I know he's never been indicted for corruption, or cited for nepotism or even cronyism. There's never been a hint that he spent public money to, say, remodel the den in his home.

But what Chicago State University needs now is radical reform, if not revolution, and the thought of Dr. Watson stepping on the toes of important local politicians, community dignitaries and the educational establishment to make Chicago State a haven and a fortress of excellence is simply ludicrous. It will never happen.

At a public meeting the morning of Wednesday, April 29, the Chicago State University Board of Trustees picked Watson to be the next president of their school.

The students and faculty at the meeting, all but unanimous in their dislike for Watson and his only rival for the job, Carol Adams, secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services, booed and hooted the Broad of Trustees until chairman Leon Finney threatened to have them removed.

Curiously, the new president had planned to retire as an "educator" this year. He is 63. For the last 11 years, he has been chancellor of the Chicago City Colleges, the head of a system that enrolls 115,000 students each year.

He took a 24-percent pay cut to come to Chicago State from City Colleges, where he had made $300,000 a year. (He'll be making $229,000 at CSU.) He agreed to be president of CSU for at least the next five years.

What do I know about Wayne Watson? I know this: He's not a man fitted by temperament or education or vocation to be a revolutionist or even a radical in educational reform.

He has a Ph.D. from Northwestern in education administration, a common enough degree in a branch of educationist non-science usually used to justify paying some stunningly average, or incompetent, white man in the suburbs upwards of $200,000 a year to be a district superintendent, while young women working for that same district get $30,000 a year or less as beginning teachers in the primary grades.

As chancellor, Watson gets credit in the Tribune for having "overseen the development of the new Kennedy-King College, and expanded athletics and vocational training."

Wow. Those are heady credentials.

What cannot be denied is that Mr. Watson is a skilled self-promoter and a man experienced at political maneuvering. If you don't believe me, just go to his Web site at for a quick lesson.

What you'll find there is a facile, glib list of meager accomplishments which Mr. Watson has accumulated over the last decade by dint of ignoring the enormous real problems plaguing City Colleges.

Problems such as the thousands of students who swarm into the City Colleges every year unprepared for even the modest intellectual demands that will made on them there.

Problems such as how to overcome huge academic deficiencies of these thousands and how to make them literate and numerate in a matter of a few months, how to teach them to study for tests, take notes, pay attention in class and turn in assignments on time.

Far too often, City College professors are asked to do the teaching work that should have been done in the third, fourth or fifth grade. It understandably makes them testy to be teaching the alphabet in freshman English or the times table in Math l0l.

If you look on Dr. Watson's Web site for evidence of his seizing the bull by the horns, and vowing to get Chicago's high schools to turn out many more graduates who are decently schooled, you will search in vain.

And this is part of Dr. Watson's political genius: In his circumscribed education administrator's world, faculty members are to blame if students flunk out of the university. How convenient -- for Dr. Watson's career.

After all, it would be political suicide, would it not, if Dr. Watson were to admit that hundreds and thousands of Chicago high school graduates enter Chicago State University each year woefully lacking in the fundamentals?

Mayor Daley would be offended -- after all, these are the students who graduated, who got the diploma -- and now you're telling me they're reading below a ninth-grade level and the badness of their writing simply beggars description? That they need at least two years of intensive remedial boot camp in a junior college before they can even think about applying to Chicago State University? Who do you think you are?

And this accounts for the fact that Wayne Watson's plan for Chicago State calls for an upgrade in every academic pursuit, department, discipline, group and employee at the university -- except for incoming students.

Yep, he's full of ideas for improving teaching -- and some of these ideas are actually good, and their being put into effect even at the august and mighty University of Chicago would be a good thing for that proud institution.

But when it comes to improving what comes in through the doors at CSU to be educated, well -- here are some of Dr. Watson's ideas:

He wants to expand the number of undergraduates in the Honors Program from 50 to 600. That's a 1200-percent increase.

Is Dr. Watson out of his mind? This is rank inflation. This is devaluation of the very thing he's trying to make more valuable. This is the self-esteem movement gone wild. This is perverting the very ideal, excellence, he claims to want to serve.

Consider this. Let's say that every year 2,500 students enter CSU as regular freshmen, i.e., freshmen who intend to graduate in four years.

How many of those will actually graduate on time? Exactly one in twenty-five. That's 100 out of the original 2,500. Which leads to the question:

Where will you get those 600 students who can do and profit from true honors work, Dr. Watson? If you enroll 2,500 freshmen, and you lose 2,400 of them between freshmen and senior year, how likely is it that you'll find 600 who are truly capable of doing honors work?

Watson wants to "add a Great Books curriculum." A noble goal, yes. But who will sign up for it? How many will want to study a canon written mainly by Dead White Men? Do you have the faculty to teach the Great Books? Would the dislocation involved in setting up the program be too great to justify the effort?

I am certain that some such idea as the following is the force compelling Dr. Watson's thinking: "All that the high school graduates of today need is to find an outstanding teacher who will inspire them to work hard. That was all I myself needed in the Sixties in college. I got bad grades in high school, but the potential was there. You can't tell me kids have changed that much."

This thinking is plausible and persuasive, Dr. Watson, but it won't do. There IS a fundamental difference between you and them. First, you were well-schooled but badly educated. When you entered college, you knew how to read and write fluently, and you knew that you knew.

Yes, some very few in the modern crop of Chicago high school graduates are in your situation. But unlike you, today's great majority is not only inadequately educated, but badly schooled. They lack instruction in the fundamentals. And until they get those fundamentals, there is no possible chance of their ever being "educated."

You make the mistake that everyone who has never attempted to teach a teenage illiterate makes: You assume too easily that college will readily and quickly repair the rooted intellectual mistakes and deficiencies of ANY 18-year-old.

And how do you plan to fight your own Board of Trustees' determination to water down the milk of college instruction even further? These misguided guardians of mediocrity want to admit high school graduates who score as low as 15 on the ACT.

This is folly. The Trustees are bent on swamping student body and faculty with a flood of half-literates who will make themselves, their literate school mates and the faculty miserable while wasting huge sums of the nation's money and patience.

That "system" has produced the present crisis. Only one in six freshmen at Chicago State graduates in six years right now. Yes, many of these non-graduates undoubtedly faced family emergencies, lack of money, etc. But thousands more simply recognized facts: That 20-plus years of fooling around and being systematically lied to about their unlimited "potential" had crippled them and left them unfit for intellectual work.

The Rev. Leon Finney, in a May 14th Tribune story, said some silly things about a university education. He seems to think that the function of a modern university is to make its students happy, to induce them to think well of themselves.

The truth is just the reverse. A good college education makes the apt student intensely dissatisfied with himself, and determined to change his ways. That is the very definition of the beginnings of a true education: to be ashamed of one's ignorance. And to realize that the more one knows, the greater the mountain of one's ignorance looms.

Good luck, Dr. Watson. With a Board of Trustees like yours, and an attitude like yours, one that holds everybody but the students responsible for the students' academic shortcomings, you'll need it.