The Reinvention of City Colleges of Chicago

In a new book, Cheryl Hyman discusses her controversial seven-year stint as chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, including her attempt to improve its low graduation rates.

March 19, 2018
 
Cheryl Hyman

In 2010, Cheryl Hyman was a shining example of what City Colleges of Chicago could do for its students.

A Chicago native, raised in the city’s housing projects, Hyman earned an associate degree from City Colleges’ Olive-Harvey College. And in 2010, as the vice president of strategy and business intelligence for Commonwealth Edison -- the state’s largest electric utility company -- Hyman was tapped to return to her alma mater as the chancellor of the seven colleges.

The colleges at that time had single-digit graduation rates and low transfer rates.

Hyman’s tenure was marked by her ambitious "Reinvention" plan, which made improving student outcomes the top priority and sought to fundamentally change nearly every aspect of the way City Colleges operated. The effort included attempts to, reform remediation, build better relationships with transfer institutions, increase completion among adult learners, implement guided pathways for students, make the system more financially efficient and redesign academic programs to align them with the job market.

The graduation rates increased. And Hyman was heralded by everyone from Bill Gates to President Obama as a leading community college reformer.

But for every change Hyman and Reinvention brought to City Colleges, so too came backlashes over her "outsider" status, criticism about her alleged lack of understanding of shared governance and scrutiny of how Hyman and her administration calculated data about their achievements.

Hyman resigned early last year after faculty members voted no confidence in her. And she and City Colleges continue to face allegations about softening standards and fudging numbers. Hyman’s critics also have challenged the reforms she pushed.

But Hyman stands by the work she and her administration did at City Colleges. In her new book, Reinvention: The Promise and Challenge of Transforming a Community College System (Harvard Education Press), Hyman explores her tenure as chancellor. She explains the purpose and goals of Reinvention, what it did to improve outcomes and the setbacks and backlash both she and the program faced.

Hyman spoke with Inside Higher Ed about the book in an interview and provided written answers to some questions.

Q: You faced resistance from the moment you started the Reinvention project. But reforms to fix developmental education, improve transfer, implement guided pathways, etc., are taking off across the country. Why were these changes difficult to make in Chicago?

A: Before you solve a problem, you need to recognize that you have a problem. The changes required to transform the community college education system in the U.S. are deep and profound. Institutions must have greater accountability for driving better outcomes for our students. In the book, I share my perspective on the resistance that I faced while driving needed transformation at City Colleges of Chicago.

The three layers of resistance included the who … driving the change (nontraditional leaders), the what (challenging the status quo and people’s comfort zones), and the how (things such as replacing presidents and changing policy). As detailed in the book, from the beginning there was resistance to nontraditional leadership at all levels, starting with myself, and there was resistance to challenging the status quo. More importantly, there was resistance to even acknowledging that the system had problems.

Despite the resistance, we persisted in making the changes needed while trying our best to build consensus along the way. The marketplace was changing rapidly, and the future livelihood of our students depended on our ability to drive transformational change quickly.

Q: In the book, you mention a controversy that arose around graduation rates and that the system was being accused of inflating the rate by counting posthumously awarded honorary degrees. Last year the Better Government Association made more allegations of City Colleges fudging graduation numbers and softening standards. The group also asserts that City Colleges used the graduation numbers from a nearby pastry school to inflate the system’s overall rate. How do you address these allegations? Did City Colleges manipulate numbers to produce better outcomes?

A: Questions, criticisms and debate are necessary elements for constructive and sustainable change. In fact, pushback is inevitable when challenging the status quo and driving transformational change. What is unfortunate are claims that are not factual and misleading.

To be clear, there was absolutely no softening of standards or unethical reporting of data during my tenure. Our work was overseen by several governing bodies, including the Illinois Community College Board and the [U.S. Department of Education], and many of the changes that drew controversy were done at their behest and approval.

While I provide responses to several criticisms in my book, additional questions emerged after I wrote the book which are important to address.

First, the posthumous degrees -- six in total -- were awarded in honor of students who lost their lives; not a single one of these degrees awarded counted toward graduation rates.

Secondly, prior to 2010, the French Pastry School (FPS) was operating as part of Kennedy King College (KKC) but had failed to complete the required approval process with the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) [the system’s accreditor]. They were using a different tracking system from City Colleges, so we took the necessary steps to ensure that the HLC approval process was completed and that we were all on one system.

As a result, FPS students had to be counted and evaluated using the same standards as KKC students and faculty. Since KKC was City Colleges’ center of excellence for culinary and hospitality and home to the Washburne Institute, it made sense to add FPS to this existing infrastructure.

In my opinion, this was ultimately good for the people who mattered most -- FPS students. KKC nearly doubled its graduation rate (it was 8 percent prior to Reinvention) during the Reinvention initiative -- by all accounts above and beyond the impact of adding the FPS program.

Q: Do you think some of the controversy and backlash came from trying to change so many different things at City Colleges at once, including the system’s tuition structure and program consolidations that some faculty members felt hurt students?

A: We decided we were going to tackle it all at once. You cannot imagine the pace you move if you say, ‘We’re going to do remediation first and once we figure out remediation, we’re going to do curriculum.’ Some people would say it would make the resistance less … But one of the things in the end that brought about the greatest controversy was the consolidation of programs. I was not willing to sacrifice quality for quantity. One thing we can do a better job of is giving students real expectations of the real world. There’s a real, competitive world out there, and we need to make sure we’re preparing them for that. So just like the environment I’m going to be competing in, a job isn’t always conveniently located around the corner, nor is anything else. I tell people don’t underestimate students. Students will go where they can get the best quality.

We tried to ease that fear [of faculty members losing jobs] because consolidation didn’t mean laying off. I’ve been consolidating a number of years -- it means we were probably going to need more. My intention was to grow the programs, but instead of having it in seven places, we would create a high-quality one in one place. It didn’t mean demand would decrease, just the location … in some cases, I saw us as needing more faculty because we were adding more relevancy.

Q: Are you concerned that despite your stepping down as chancellor, Reinvention is continuing to be attacked?

A: While I do worry that these criticisms can damage the integrity of the institution and the people who work hard for it, I think some of the steps taken at City Colleges are worth replicating. The changes to our degree programs -- based on national best practices and at the request of our governing boards -- reflect a broader and very important reality: too many community college programs are simply not relevant. Most four-year institutions will not accept more than 60 transfer credits, yet we have students accumulating unnecessary classes.

This is exactly why we reduced the credit-hour requirements for City College’s [associate of arts] and [associate of science] degrees, as well as revamped a broad range of prerequisites and requirements in many programs that no longer met the needs of students, employers or transfer institutions. As detailed in the book, these programs weren’t just shortened or simplified -- they were reshaped to be more meaningful, rigorous pathways that included relevant course work. Math requirements weren’t eliminated; they were targeted to each student’s career goals. As a result, an engineering student no longer took the same sequence of math courses as a nursing student, because their career paths were different.

Community colleges must do more to align their offerings with employer and transfer institution needs. That means developing semester-by-semester pathways that detail specific courses that students should take and get credit for when they transfer or seek industry credentials. When students are undecided about their future plans, we need to ensure that they obtain skills as they progress in their studies and guide them to these pathways that lead to industry-recognized credentials and/or transfer credit. The more that these changes result in fewer unnecessary courses and less time spent by students on the path to their goals, the better. If anything, we’re moving too slowly to change these practices and expectations.

Q: Much of the criticism you received was about being an "outsider," coming into the system’s top position from a Fortune 500 company instead of moving up through the academic ranks. What advice would you give for how to ease the relationship between those who have spent their careers in higher education and those who are coming into it from other industries?

A: Current recruitment of executive leadership within higher education places an outsized premium on having grown up in the “system.” Hiring processes are often institutionally focused on large groups of people making hiring decisions. As a result, the sector’s inability to recruit the best and the brightest from across all sectors of society only sustains the status quo. This is especially problematic at community colleges, whose mission is to support their region’s economic needs. Achieving this requires meaningful involvement from industry and work-force leaders whose experience and engagement can help our students reach their goals. When we don’t appreciate and accept the experience and perspective of “outsiders,” we resist the very students we once educated in their attempts to come back and give back!

Institutional change absolutely requires the input of academic leaders, but the scope of change needed requires leaders with business and change-management skills.

Q: You write about stepping down for Reinvention to succeed. What more do you wish you could have done?

A: Despite criticism and untrue claims, Reinvention was a success, and not just for me but to so many hardworking faculty, staff and administrators -- and some of the faculty who led the deepest resistance. Everybody deserves credit for that. Primarily I left to ensure the institutions could be free to write their next chapter. A leader, particularly one driving transformative change, needs to be mature enough to recognize when they’ve taken that change as far as they can. And when resistance is personal, you’re not doing the institution any good.

Leaving also gave me the opportunity to focus on sharing what I did as chancellor in hopes of helping other leaders navigate change.

Q: Looking back on your tenure as City Colleges chancellor, is there anything you would have done differently?

A: No … but sometimes I believe the resistance got bigger than the change itself. My biggest concern with the whole community college movement is not that people are not doing good things. People are doing good things and a lot of states are making progress, but my concern is that we’re not moving quick enough … We see so much disruption taking place in so many industries, and higher education is not exempt. Somehow our traditional institutions have some level of complacency where there is a belief that this disruption won’t impact them as much, but I can tell you employers are not going to wait for institutions to get it right. There are people who every day are trying to figure out how to grab their piece of the American dream. They come to these institutions to figure out how to make that happen. We have to move out of our comfort zone and stop fighting things that challenge the status quo for our sake and understand we’re working on behalf of others.

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