The last few years have been troubling times for the City Colleges of Chicago, and for Ron Gidwitz, the colleges’ chairman of the board.

Since Gidwitz took charge in 1991, the system has lost nearly $50 million in high-risk investments; it’s closed classes and turned students away, thus losing $2 million in a per-student state subsidy; and it’s enraged faculty by getting the state legislature to approve a bill that, among other things, makes it easier to replace teachers with TV sets.

One might assume that Gidwitz would quietly retreat to the private sector, where he’s chief executive officer of Helene Curtis. On the contrary, in the last few months Gidwitz was renominated by Mayor Daley, reconfirmed by the City Council, and extolled in a Sun-Times editorial that dismissed any criticism as baseless whining by “underworked and overpaid” professors. City Colleges teachers have received a humiliating reminder of their own impotence in this new age of Chicago politics, where titans of commerce are worshiped and public employees scorned, the record be damned.

“No matter what happens, Gidwitz gets praised and we get criticized,” says Peggy Shapiro, an English teacher at Harold Washington College. “They talk about accountability, but it never applies to Gidwitz.”

Gidwitz was out of the country and unavailable for comment, but the college press office responded to my questions by sending a fact sheet that praises him for leading “a top-to-bottom cleanup of the City Colleges–possibly the most comprehensive such effort in the nation.”

As Gidwitz’s backers see it, the college payroll is bloated by lazy professors, and the faculty’s howls of protest indicate the chairman’s “reforms” are working. “No one likes change,” Mayor Daley said at the July 13 City Council meeting where Gidwitz was reappointed. “We have a crisis at the City Colleges. You have to take drastic steps. Education is not accountable. When you get them accountable, they don’t like it.”

The different perspectives can partly be explained by changing demographics. For all the talk of a crisis, most veteran teachers contend the system is no better or worse than ever–it’s still the best place for working-class students to find conveniently scheduled and affordably priced college courses. It’s just that over the years white enrollment fell while black and Hispanic enrollment rose. (The system is largely minority.) And now many taxpayers apparently regard it as a colossal waste of public money–yet another unsuccessful social welfare experiment involving alien beings.

At the City Council hearings, white aldermen barely veiled their contempt, dismissing the colleges as dumping grounds for Mayor Washington’s hacks and cronies. “The consultant list read like a who’s who of politics,” 40th ward alderman Patrick O’Connor, said during the debate. “It had nothing to do with education. It had to do with hush money–keeping community groups quiet by giving them contracts. Gidwitz cut that out and the pressure started to mount.”

In reality, most faculty members are white men and their tenure predates Washington. Their average age is 55; they’ve averaged 28 years on the job. Most teach four three-hour classes a week; with office hours, prep time, paper grading, committee assignments, and other duties they put in at least 40 hours. For this they average $53,000 a year, far less than what most administrators make. “I want to make a decent wage but this was never about money or politics,” said Shapiro. “I teach. I make my students write and rewrite and rewrite until they get it right. I work hard and I take offense at anyone who says otherwise.”

In the last 15 years the system has attempted to hold back salaries by replacing full-time teachers with part-time staffers who work without benefits for about $1,000 a class. The low pay breeds transience, teachers say, as the better part-timers rarely stay for more than one or two years. “As soon as they see there’s no future in the job the better ones move on,” says Thomas Gillespie, chairman of the mathematics department at Washington. “It’s hard to build continuity. You have to wonder, if this trend continues what kind of college will we have in the next 10 or 20 years?”

That’s a question neither Gidwitz nor Daley apparently posed when the chairman took office. Instead, Gidwitz strode in determined to run the system like the businessman he was, bringing over his top staffers from Helene Curtis. As a rich Republican with strong ties to both parties (he’s one of Daley’s top contributors), he had more power than his predecessors and he showed it. From here on out, he commanded, needless classes would be clipped. If a class’s size fell too far below 35, the union contract’s limit, he’d cut it. If a department couldn’t draw students it was gone. To tolerate anything else would be an inexcusable waste of taxpayers’ money.

In 1992 he abolished faculty overtime, which closed about 600 classes; about 6,000 full-time college students left the system, which lost about $2 million in state aid as a result. “He meant to save money but he wound up costing us money,” says Mike Ruggeri, a history teacher at Washington. “The state pays $25 for every hour a student is in a classroom. If you cut classes you cut students and you lose state aid, in this case $2 million. We told him it would happen but he wouldn’t listen. Apparently, there’s nothing he thought he could learn about education from teachers.”

Since then Gidwitz and the faculty have been at odds, a battle that escalated after the chairman’s Republican legislative allies quietly passed a bill that abolished class-size limits, allowed teachers to be replaced by videocassettes, diluted tenure, and encouraged the privatization of teaching jobs.

For the faculty, the new law stirred apocalyptic nightmares of an educational wasteland in which future students dimly stared at TVs while classrooms spilled into the hallway and whole departments were turned over to private contractors, who paid their instructors a pittance.

“There was no discussion, no debate–his language was slipped onto a bill about public school education when no one was looking,” says Shapiro. “Most legislators didn’t even know what they were voting for. Certainly no one asked if it was good for education. I mean, is it good to stuff 50 students into a classroom? As it is we have some biology classes where there aren’t enough microscopes to go around. Can you imagine how little individual attention I could afford a writing class of 50? Can you imagine a public-speaking class of 45? Each student would get one minute and 45 seconds to speak.”

The deceptive brilliance of Gidwitz’s legislative maneuvering also revived accusations of duplicity, particularly in regard to a $100 million investment. In 1993 the board sunk almost its entire portfolio into high-risk, no-interest 30-year mortgages securities known as derivatives. As interest rates went up the values of the securities sank. “Haven’t they heard of diversify?” says Ruggeri. “If they’d invested in a treasury certificate at 6 percent they’d make $6 million a year.”

Gidwitz says the funds were invested without his knowledge or authorization by a treasurer who has since been fired. The faculty argues that if Gidwitz didn’t know about the investment he should have. “He’s either ignorant or incompetent,” says Ruggeri. “But what really irritates me is the way he attempts to divert responsibility.”

According to the fact sheet issued by the colleges’ press office, “Funds were invested by the treasurer without knowledge or authorization by the Board of Trustees and in violation of state laws. This practice pre-dates Gidwitz [sic] membership on the Board.”

This statement is misleading, Ruggeri charges, because “most people would read that and assume the investments were made before Gidwitz came on board.”

In fact, the Sun-Times editorial made that very assumption, absolving Gidwitz of any role in the matter on the grounds that “those investments were made before he was appointed.”

But the investments were made during Gidwitz’s tenure. “During my tenure, the treasurer did not have the authority to make such investments,” says Salvatore Rotella, who was chancellor from 1983 to 1988. “We always urged investments in government instruments that provided interest. If anyone said that we made such investments he’s not only irresponsible but he’s a liar who’s trying to dump the blame on others.”

In the days leading up to the July 13 council confirmation vote, faculty members lobbied against Gidwitz, substantiating their allegations of incompetence with mounds of documentation–all for naught. The final vote, 34-14, was delivered amid heckles and howls from protesting professors.

“The mayor really applied the heat,” says Ruggeri. “Can you imagine if Washington were mayor and one of his big contributors was running the college board like this? The papers would be all over them. The City Council would demand an investigation. But now there’s silence. It’s depressing. They look at the City Colleges and say, “That’s not our constituency; we don’t care.”‘

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.