By J. Coyden Palmer at The Chicago Crusader
Earlier this week, Chicago State University (CSU) was named to a dubious list, joining nine other universities in the U.S., which are considered the worst for supporting free speech.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education listed CSU and the University of Illinois on its 2015 list. While there are a myriad of reasons CSU could have landed on the list, some recently documented cases serve as a template. Current and former students say they are not allowed to speak out against the University without retaliation.
In a court case last year, a jury found that former legal counsel, James Crowley was fired from CSU in retaliation for his reporting misconduct by University President Wayne Watson; CSU has not had a school newspaper for the last few years; and a blog run by tenured professor, Phillip Beverly—who has also served as Senate Faculty President—was targeted by CSU administrators to be stopped, according to a lawsuit filed by Beverly last year.
A spokesperson for the University said the list has no validity, no objectivity and is a special-interest group with its own agenda. The University believes the organization has its own axe to grind and that it mischaracterized a lot of issues.
Last month, former CSU student Willie Preston was found not guilty of criminal trespassing charges filed against him in 2013 by the University and had a restraining order that was filed against him by CSU Provost Angela Henderson rescinded.
This week, Preston told Crusader, Henderson lied when she accused him of threatening her and her family. He said the case against him was bogus from the start and he has also filed a civil suit against CSU.
“It was a long fight for over a year to get all of this cleared up,” Preston said. “All I did was go to the Board of Trustees meeting in October and was attempting to speak. As soon as I stood up to speak during the time allotted for questions and comments from the public, I was taken into custody by CSU police. They are subject to the Open Meetings Act and all members of the public are allowed to attend.”
Preston is accusing CSU officials of rigging an election in the spring of 2013 so that he could not win. He said the election results were not made public until he went to Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office and they forced CSU to release the results, which he claimed showed he won over 70 percent of the vote. Preston claims the election results were illegally voided, thus, vacating his position as the voting student representative on the board.
Preston believes the University did not want him on the board because he was seeking to have Watson removed. Watson’s relationship with faculty and students has been rocky during his tenure. Many had opposed him getting the position, and during his time at the helm, he has been accused of giving a job to a woman he was dating; trying to censor faculty from speaking out; and, in general, having an abrasive style of leadership that does not work well with CSU’s diverse student population, in which many of the students are adults with families of their own.
Last year, Henderson had her credibility questioned when the University of Illinois-Chicago reportedly began a review of her doctoral dissertation after a report ran in the Chicago Tribune questioning if Henderson plagiarized part of her dissertation. She was cleared of any wrongdoing late last year and has a pending lawsuit in Cook County against UIC accusing them of tarnishing her reputation and good name, shame, interference with her career, and emotional distress.
Preston said Stephanie Sanchez served on the Board when he was the rightful person elected. He said at the time Sanchez served, she also worked in Henderson’s office and had a 100 percent voting record lock in step with other members of the board. Preston believes Sanchez was not qualified and did nothing to keep fellow students informed with what was happening.
CSU spokesperson Thomas Wogan said the University would have no comment on Preston being found innocent in the criminal case because he is no longer a student there. He also declined to comment on the pending civil suit, explaining the University does not comment on matters in current litigation.
“Mr. Preston is an expelled student, so there really is nothing I can say about him,” Wogan said.
Wogan also declined to comment on why Preston was expelled. But, Preston told Crusader he was expelled after getting into an altercation with another student. Preston said the other student was not suspended or expelled after the fight and said he was instead given a job at CSU.
Preston said the CSU community is uninformed and has been ever since the demise of the student newspaper, Tempo, a few years ago. He said he and others were leading a campaign to bring back the newspaper because it was student-run and-controlled, which gave students a voice on campus and a chance to inform.
Wogan said he could not speak as to why Tempo was discontinued because it happened before he arrived on campus, but he said the University does use alternative outlets.
“As campus media moves into the digital age, there are a number of outlets that students, faculty and employees contribute to in terms of telling stories about what is happening on campus. Different departments have their own newsletters—some are online and some of them are printed and distributed on campus. But, we’ve found that to be a more effective way of spreading the news about what is happening on campus via those outlets, instead of an antiquated and outdated print newspaper,” Wogan said.
Campus communication is a part of the accreditation process. The Higher Learning Commission reviewed the topic when CSU came up for accreditation recently. According to Wogan, the University did get favorable reviews on their efforts to improve campus communication.
Preston is currently a student at Roosevelt University. He obtained over 60 credit hours during his three years at CSU, where he majored in political science. He said despite all that occurred, he would like to come back to CSU. He said the school saved his life and serves a great importance in the Black community.
Growing up in Englewood, Preston said there are “a lot of brothas who, if they could get in CSU, could turn their lives around.” He feels he owes it to the University to keep pushing it to change for the better although it has been resistant.
“That place can be a bridge for a better life to many people in our community,” Preston said. “But, the culture of CSU and philosophy of the administration is ‘give us your tuition money, shut up and just maybe you will graduate.’”