Mismanagement at the City Colleges of Chicago

The following is an open letter to the City Colleges of Chicago Board of Trustees by Sheldon Liebman of Wright College.

Dear Chairperson Wolff, members of the Board of Trustees, and Chancellor Hyman:

When I spoke to you last November, my concern in my very brief remarks had to do exclusively with the issue of shared governance. Like the sixty or so members of the full-time faculty at Wright who had signed the petition, I felt that the administration of Cheryl Hyman had made a serious error in dismissing an employee who had served Wright College loyally and effectively for many years. However, as I was speaking to you, it occurred to me that you, as Board members, had little sympathy for my concerns because you had very little knowledge of the larger context in which this mistaken decision was made.

The point I wish to make today is that, for us at Wright College, the decision to fire a seasoned and valuable employee without any faculty input was not an isolated issue. Rather, it was the last in a long line of outrages that we believe have made Wright College a less effective educational institution. I assure you that this opinion of the Hyman administration’s negative impact on education at Wright is shared by the vast majority of the faculty at the College.

Our first impression of the Chancellor was based on two actions on her part. The first was the characterization of the City Colleges of Chicago as a failed institution. The worst aspect of this charge is that it was false, at least insofar as it applied to Wright College. The new chancellor went around the city addressing public and private organizations, telling them that the City Colleges were graduating only seven percent of their students. Strange to say that Dr. Gutierrez, head of the District’s own Office of Research and Evaluation, had stated that the success of any community college could not be measured by a single number.

What we know (and what no one in this current administration appears to know) is that because students come to community colleges for a variety of reasons, success must be measured by using a variety of criteria. Furthermore, the percentage of graduates of any educational system is meaningless unless you measure it against national averages. In a city like Chicago, where students in the city’s community college program graduate from a notoriously bad public school program, it’s ridiculous to lay the blame for their underachievement on the colleges, which have only two years to make up for the failure of CPS to prepare its students for college-level work over a period of twelve years. 90% of our incoming freshmen need remedial work. This requires teachers who will do the hard work of planning intensive remediation to compensate for an education system which had never advanced these people above developmental thinking, calculating and creative production skills. Measured against students at other community colleges nationally, at least based on the results of standardized achievement tests, the students at Wright have typically performed at an above-average level. No failure here.

Nevertheless, after discrediting the work of the City Colleges among local business and civic leaders, the Hyman administration went national and international. That is, both The Wall Street Journal and The Economist magazine reported that the City Colleges of Chicago was a failed enterprise. CCC faculty could now travel anywhere in the world and be considered incompetent. What a brilliant marketing achievement! No doubt the Chancellor’s attempt to discredit the City Colleges also discouraged some students from enrolling in these colleges that was reputed to have so utterly failed.

As if global embarrassment were not enough, the Hyman administration took its second step in demeaning the faculty and staff at Wright College by making sure that in every way possible way we were identified as a single college system, the CCC. We could no longer use stationery that displayed our 75-year-old logo, but had to use an expensive redesign of the CCC logo instead. We were required to include our affiliation with CCC on our course syllabi. We must also wear CCC I.D. badges around our necks. Students can now reach us online only through a District website. The first sign, however, of the ineptitude of the District Office was the first centralized graduation at the UIC Pavilion. Students and their families across the city now have to attend a 6-hour-long ceremony to graduate in a single location with an expensive rented pavilion when previous to the Reinvention administration, each of the seven colleges had long held successful and reasonably-timed graduations in their communities free of charge in their own auditoriums. Instead, families, faculty and administrators stood in the UIC Pavilion parking garage for two hours before being admitted into the auditorium.

Shortly after this, the District Office began to publish a district-wide schedule. It was the size of a small city phone book—about 350 pages–and clearly served no real purpose. Fortunately, printing was suspended and we have now returned to a separate schedule for each college. However, we still have to submit our schedules to District Office for approval, which requires that we begin preparing the fall term schedule at the beginning of the spring term when faculty have not yet had time to observe the efficacy of adjustments from the previous semester.

Every year, department chairs receive emails from the District Office demanding that some form be filled out, that some information be provided, or that some document be reviewed. We have been asked, for the last two years, to write out an annual budget in exact anticipation of that year’s costs, and we are twice yearly asked to review the class schedules we have provided. The problem with these requests is not that they are unnecessary, but that does not allot enough time to do an adequate job. This semester, we were required to review the schedules and prepare a budget at the same time and were given exactly two days to finish the schedule and a week to finish the budget. We were also told that the job candidates whose applications we received on the first of March had to be vetted within the next 25 days, with the names of our recommendations submitted to our administrators at the end of that short period. How anyone is supposed to review applications, interview candidates, and make recommendations in that brief period of time I don’t know, especially when we are at the same time making budget requests and reviewing the schedule simultaneously. This is simply bad planning.

Unlike any other community colleges in the state of Illinois, we are constantly being watched over by an Inspector General’s office, whose job is to investigate residency and other violations committed by City College employees. The problem with these investigations is, first, that they are conducted with the same kind of peremptory manner as are all requests coming from District Office. For example, I was told last fall that somehow my official Ph.D. transcript was missing. I had submitted it to the DO in 1994, and it was later reviewed when I became a full-time instructor in 2006. The email to me said that I had one week to get a new official transcript to the DO. There was no explanation. There was only a deadline. And the clear implication was that I was guilty of something. After I anxiously and hastily ordered the transcript, I awaited a response from the DO indicating that I was off the hook. But this is one step the IG’s office never takes. Nobody I know who has been investigated by the IG has ever been told that the case was closed. We all continue to be guilty.

The above are some of the results of the Hyman administration’s attempt to solve a problem that didn’t exist in the first place by centralizing every function in the District and to allow no decision to go forward without the explicit approval of the District Office. The net effect of this change is that too many encounters faculty and staff have had with the central administration have been obtrusive, misguided, irrational or ineffectual–at best, inefficient. The essential problems are twofold. First, a large bureaucracy moves more slowly than a small one. Second, decisions made at a distance are likely to be less useful than decisions made at the point of implementation.

The most outrageous fact about this administration, however, is simply its constant expansion, the ongoing addition of $100,000-plus salaried administrators who are entirely expendable. When you consider that no other college in the State of Illinois is blessed with even a tiny outside bureaucracy, you can begin to understand the utter absurdity of this institution which employs 41% percent of all the administrators in the entire District. Can anyone imagine other colleges in the state lining up to join each other and creating such a bureaucracy? No, like all of the four-year colleges in the country, these colleges have everything they need to provide a good education for their students. The last thing they need is a $50,000,000 appendage that has no purpose except to interfere, disrupt, misguide, and undermine, which is what we at Wright College have been dealing with for the past few years. Why are we going on? Why doesn’t the IG’s office investigate this waste of money, this fraud, this obviously useless operation?

Sheldon Liebman, PhD
Wright College
Faculty Council Member
Humanities Department Chair

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