A group of Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University board members who resigned last week said in a letter that they were “deeply discouraged” that top CEO candidates for an open post at the theater had dropped out of its search process.
“Two highly respected” finalists for the theater’s CEO role opted out after meeting with Roosevelt University President Ali Malekzadeh, according to a June 3 letter from eight theater board members who resigned. Among the theater board members who resigned were its chairman, Chicago private equity firm managing director John Svoboda, and vice chairman, former LaSalle Bank CEO Norm Bobins.
Crain’s obtained a copy of the letter and confirmed its authenticity. “We were deeply discouraged when, after meeting with Roosevelt’s President, each candidate declined to continue discussions about the CEO role,” the letter addressed to university board officers said. The letter didn’t name the candidates, nor did it detail what happened in their meetings with Malekzadeh or provide reasons why they didn’t continue with the hiring process.
In a response to inquiries about the letter, the university said: “The President has only the best interests of the university and Auditorium theatre in mind. We look forward to beginning a new CEO search and hope to announce a new Auditorium board chair and vice chair soon. President Ali thanks the former Auditorium board members for their time, contributions and talents to the theatre.” The school’s statement didn’t respond to questions about claims in the letter.
1:25 p.m update: The Auditorium Theatre board of directors has named Ann Nash as chairman of the board. Thomas R. Baryl was named vice-chairman.
Nash has served on the Auditorium’s board of directors since 2006 and chaired the board’s development committee before she was appointed chairman. She is an attorney and officer with Nash Disability Law and is involved in not-for-profits including the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Foundation, Northwestern University and Children’s Memorial Hospital.
Baryl joined the board of directors in 2012 and served as chair of the facilities committee before he was appointed vice-chairman. He is the vice-president of the parking company People’s Auto Parking.
The Loop theater is housed in a building owned by Roosevelt University, but the theater organization is separate from the school, and both have their own boards. Some members of the university’s board also serve on the theater’s board. Theater staffers are employed by the university, which is partly why the university has a say in hiring.
In 1998, a ruling in a legal dispute handed control of the Auditorium Theatre to Roosevelt University, saying the public council that restored the theater and ran it for 38 years had no right to do so. The theater began another extensive renovation in 2001.
“We have determined as a group of former Executive Committee members that it is best not to comment,” Svoboda said when asked about the letter. “We wish all the best for the great staff, employees and patrons of the magnificent Auditorium Theatre.”
Still, he also suggested exploring how “trustees of Roosevelt their plan to navigate the Theatre going forward” and suggested reviewing the non-profit’s federal 990 filing, including its financial statements. The theater’s most recent filing publicly available is from 2017 and shows an operating deficit of $101,646 on $15 million in revenue.
The resigning theater board members, who said they represented eight of ten non-Roosevelt University executive committee members, came to their decision to resign “reluctantly,” the letter said. Ultimately, the theater said last week that 13 of its 34 board members had resigned (that total included emeritus members).
The letter also knocked the theater’s governance structure and referred to a need to raise money. “The Theatre needs both strong ownership and leadership in order to succeed programmatically and financially in the highly competitive Chicago performing arts environment. Furthermore, the Theatre needs a governance and ownership structure that enables, not inhibits, its committed staff and Board to raise the significant capital, estimated to be $50 million or more, to restore this architectural jewel to its former glory,” the letter said.
In response, theater spokeswoman Lily Oberman said today that the $50 million cited in the letter “is not an official number,” and noted that “we are not in a capital campaign —so it’s not a public fundraising effort.”
When the theater board members resigned, its interim CEO, Rachel Freund, said only that they exited amid a dispute with the university over the CEO search process. The university declined to comment at that time.
The CEO candidates were identified by the theater’s search committee, led by then-board member Phil Lumpkin, who worked with executive search firm Koya Leadership Partners. When the board members attempted to meet with Malekzadeh in late May to discuss the search, they were rebuffed, according to the letter.
“As a result we lack confidence about the future outlook for the Theatre, are unable to advance the Threatre’s mission, and have been stymied in our attempts to work with the University’s leadership to find a solution,” the letter said.
Koya didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Formerly its web site noted it was working on the Auditorium Theatre search, but doesn’t now.