Hard to See City College's True Colors

More than 100,000 students return to classes this week at one of the seven community colleges known collectively as the City Colleges of Chicago.  But as the new school year looms, one group of professors says there are systemic problems, including bulging classrooms, problems obtaining supplies and a District Office which is more focused on marketing than education.

The $659 million budget for City Colleges this year shows a 300-percent increase in money allotted for travel, a newly created Central Office department with a budget totaling just nearly $7 million, almost all of that for salaries, according to the FY2013 budget, and a teaching staff made up largely with adjunct or part-time professors.

“The real problem is that the District Office exists at all,” said Professor Sheldon Liebman, Chair of the Humanities Department at Wilbur Wright College since 1996.

This is the 101st year for the City Colleges.

They spread throughout the city like the spokes on a bike:  Richard Daley, Harold Washington, Kennedy-King, Malcolm X, Olive-Harvey, Harry Truman and Wilbur Wright.

At the center is the District Office, headed by Chancellor Cheryl Hyman.

Hyman, handpicked by former Mayor Richard Daley in 2010 to lead City Colleges, launched a new program to improve student’s experiences and increase graduation rates.  The program is called “Reinvention.”

“It is a collaborative, student-focused effort,” she said. “To try to reverse declining trends that we have not only seen at City Colleges of Chicago, but that many community colleges are faced with.”

And in two years Hyman says graduation rates have edged up from seven- to 10-percent.

“Now that’s not a statistic that we’re happy with, but it does show that the things that are happening are working,” said Hyman, who is a graduate of the City Colleges system.

Five professors, including Liebman, agreed to speak to Unit 5 about on-going concerns at City Colleges. All have tenure with the exception of Sociology professor Claire Boeck.

When asked how big a risk Boeck takes in speaking publicly, due to the fact that she could lose her job at any time, Professor Sonia Csaszar replied, “Tremendous. And all her students love her.”
Bulging classrooms, with 35 to 40 students, is one concern.

“Sometimes we don’t have enough chairs in the classroom for our students,” Boeck said.

Requisitioning supplies, like new markers, is another problem they cite.

“We have to submit a request to central,” she said. “And then hopefully a month from now we’ll get our markers.”

Asked how things have changed during Hyman’s two-plus-year tenure, Julius Nadas, a co-chair of the Mathematics Department who has taught at Wright, located on Chicago’s northwest side, since 1976 replied: “It appears to be more marketing-oriented.”

Hyman says over the last two years her administration has saved millions in unnecessary spending and reallocated those dollars to new technology.

“When I became Chancellor,” Hyman said. “There were many non-student faced functions that were duplicated seven times across this District.”

Earlier this year Unit 5 began asking the chancellor’s office a number of questions about budgets, staffing and travel at the district office.

For instance:  Last year travel expenses increased seventy-five percent.  Hyman says that was for, among other things, professors and students.

“Now our student governments have a presence in Springfield, they have one in D.C. representing City College students.” she said.

But this year the travel budget jumps again -- nearly 300 percent -- to more than $2.7 million. 

When asked if Unit 5 could look at individual travel receipts in the District Office Hyman replied, “Oh, sure.”

Hyman said that on August 2.  To date, we have not been allowed access to the records.

Also part of the City Colleges’ “Reinvention”:  A new department called the Office of Strategy and Institutional Intelligence. It has, according to the budget, a Vice Chancellor, an Associate Vice Chancellor, and Executive for Operational Excellence, and a Director of Strategy and External Affairs. It’s nearly $7 million budget goes primarily for salaries and benefits.  When asked if the positions are necessary?”

“They are absolutely necessary,” Hyman said. "They are a big part of why we’ve seen a three percent increase in graduation rate.”

Many of the jobs at the District Office pay six-figures. In fact, Unit 5 counted more than 50 positions which pay $100,000 or more.

But for many professors, whose mandate under the Emanuel Administration is to turn out graduates who make middle class salaries … it’s a different story:

“I’ll make around $17,000 this year,” said Claire Boeck.

Boeck will teach nearly a full load of courses this year – but will earn barely more than poverty-level wages – and no benefits.

To make ends meet, she waits tables at a Hyde Park restaurant.  The overwhelming majority of City Colleges’ professors are adjuncts, like Boeck.

Citing contract negotiations, Chancellor Hyman would not discuss salary specifics but said: “I’ll tell you we value and we know that we will look at fair compensation for everybody.”

As a part of Reinvention, the Central Office mandated that all schools change their colors. In some cases it was a very minor change. Malcolm X for instance went from one shade of red to another shade of red. (See the adjacent chart to compare)   The total cost---plus a new slogan: $50,000. Or about the same as three adjunct professors at the current rate.

The Chancellor said the color changes provided an uptick in website traffic and more interest at the information centers.

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