To the editors:

I am disappointed that Florence Hamlish Levinsohn, an excellent writer, chose the easy path in her article on the City Colleges of Chicago. While nominally balanced, the effect of the story is to wave away the complexities of the practical issues for a story about a business leader run amuck in his role as chairman of the City Colleges’ board, misapplying business principles to the world of academia.

Like many major corporations, the City Colleges flourished for decades on the strength and growth of the American economy. Educational quality varied from excellent to questionable, but, regardless, the tax revenues flowed freely from state and local sources. The budget was locked into union contracts with accelerating faculty salaries, limited responsibilities, and provisions that kept instructional costs climbing. Faculty teach a load 20 percent lighter than in comparable colleges. College counselors–key staff in advising students–are paid full salaries for meeting students only 25 hours a week. Contracts favorable to the faculty had been won year after year with strong political support from incumbent mayors. Attempts to RIF faculty, including those teaching in fields with negligible student demand, have been defeated year after year under union pressure.

By the time Gidwitz became chairman, the economy had soured and revenues to the City Colleges had plummeted. Major noninstructional layoffs and a large tuition increase nothwithstanding, the district was spending more each month than it took in. Standards varied among the colleges, and in many cases were not defined. The structure of the district and of the colleges was almost unchanged from 20 years ago.

Gidwitz has been clear and straightforward with his intent: quality, efficiency, results. Does he believe strongly in work force training? Absolutely: that is clear from his work at the state level. But as chairman, he has taken great pains not to impose any single direction for the district. Instead, he has imposed process: he has demanded that the colleges develop their own plans and directions and be prepared to defend them, to him and to the public. He candidly raises all the issues, including the most sensitive ones. He asks tough questions. He demands clear, well-documented responses–listening carefully and accepting good answers when he gets them, which is increasingly often. In focusing on the faculty contract, he is facing up to what staff have regarded as the single most limiting factor in changing the City Colleges–and the single, toughest, most politically astute representatives of the status quo.

Has this been a good year for City College students? No. While class cancellations have probably been less deleterious to students than the newspaper reports have indicated, the reductions have undoubtedly hurt many students, some seriously. Has this been a good year for City College faculty? No. In 1991-2, about one-third of all faculty earned overtime for teaching extra classes–amounts ranging from $3-4,000 for an instructor who taught one extra class for one semester, to perhaps $20,000 for those teaching two extra classes each semester and during the summer. Loss of this income in 1992-3 was unexpected, and for most faculty was hard or impossible to make up from other sources. What about noninstructional staff? They too have suffered; positions have been terminated, vacancies dropped or not filled, staff given dual or triple responsibilities. In any office, at any time, many staff members are unsure if they will be employed next month. Finally, how has the year been for the board? Gidwitz and other board members have been personally vilified, picketed, and insulted, often based on charges regarding positions or actions that the board has explicitly rejected.

The pain of the City Colleges is obvious: it is the pain of America in the 1990s, needing to accomplish more with declining resources. To interpret the City Colleges’ union negotiations in issues of personal style or even in local terms is to miss the historical context. If there is a personal dimension, however, it takes the form of a question. Why would someone as successful and wealthy as Gidwitz, with his pick of new projects to tackle, take on so thankless and difficult a task as helping to refocus and reorganize a major, urban community college district that doesn’t want to be reorganized? It is hard to find a motive beyond the one that issue-oriented writers will never accept: a personal dedication to strengthening Chicago. Whatever the answer, the fact is that fixing the City Colleges is a job that desperately needs doing–and can only be done by someone with the leadership, experience, stature, and strength of a Gidwitz and by a board not afraid to challenge the past.

The issue, then, is not the union negotiations, but where will the City Colleges be three years, five years, and ten years from now? The current negotiations with the union obviously pose serious risks. But this is a time at which there is no alternative to taking risks and paying for the costs of change.

Name withheld