Credit: Michael Goss

On April Fool’s Day 2010, Cheryl L. Hyman—Mayor Richard M. Daley’s controversial choice for chancellor at the City Colleges of Chicago—stepped into her new job. A 41-year-old Commonwealth Edison executive, Hyman had never been a college teacher and her experience as an academic administrator was zero. Her most striking qualification for the top job at the huge, seven-college institution seemed to be the fact that she was an up-by-the-bootstraps product of the system she would now rule. A onetime high school dropout, Hyman graduated from Olive-Harvey College and the Illinois Institute of Technology, then earned two master’s degrees (from North Park and Northwestern) while fast-tracking through the ranks at ComEd, where she wound up as vice president of operational strategy and business intelligence. Daley gave her the job with a mandate for serious change. It may turn out to be a good thing, but it hasn’t been totally welcome.

Blame Obama. And his education czar, former CPS head Arne Duncan. With other countries outstripping the U.S. in the number of college graduates among their citizens (the U.S. ranked 12th in one 2010 study), they’re campaigning to get us back into first place. In 2009, noting that the majority of community college students wind up as degree-less dropouts with nothing to show for their college experience but student loan debt, Obama declared “The American Graduation Initiative.” He promised to fund programs that will strengthen the nation by keeping students on track. The bulk of the funding never came through, but Daley got the message that “a skilled workforce is necessary to compete in the global economy” and challenged Hyman to turn the City Colleges—Harold Washington, Harry S. Truman, Kennedy-King, Malcolm X, Olive-Harvey, Richard J. Daley, and Wilbur Wright—into “an economic engine for the city.” Mayor Rahm Emanuel has kept her on, regularly praises her efforts, and refers to the City Colleges as the “front line of our new economy.”

And that’s what’s making some people nervous. “Economic engine” seems to run counter to the long-time mission of the City Colleges of Chicago, which will celebrate its hundredth birthday this year and has been, since its founding, a gateway not just to a job but to broad educational and intellectual opportunity, regardless of social or economic status.

The question of whether the “People’s College” (its original name) should be a vocational school was chewed over at its birth by the likes of Jane Addams and William Rainey Harper—and discarded. In America, and in Chicago, city colleges would ensure a democracy of the mind. Vocational training was eventually added without changing that principle, at least in theory. But there’s a new, results-oriented trend in education that looks like it could turn community colleges into glorified job-training centers, providing a skilled workforce but “tracking” low-income students into dead-end jobs. These institutions would be run like businesses, with the decision-making power in the hands of executives rather than academics and an emphasis on efficiency. Serendipitous intellectual inquiry and academic autonomy would be luxuries and scarce.

There are logical reasons for this trend, including the ever-higher costs of higher ed, and a flurry of studies supporting it—among them, a November 2010 report by McKinsey & Company, a Washington-based consulting firm that’s playing a major role in the changes at City Colleges. Titled “Winning by Degrees,” it tells how to “improve productivity in higher education’s core process of transforming freshmen into degree-holders.”

The five practices the McKinsey report promotes for building “degree productivity” include “redesigning the delivery of instruction” (by, for example, “substituting full-time faculty with part-time faculty”) and “reducing non-productive credits,” which “may give students extra educational benefit,” but add to the cost. If these strategies are fully and widely adopted, the report says, “the nation could produce a million more degrees by 2020” without spending any more money.

CHERYL HYMAN HAS A COOLLY COMPOSED veneer and a reputation for being forceful—qualities that likely helped her survive a punishing Chicago childhood. She was born and grew up on the city’s west side, mostly in public housing at the Henry Horner Homes. An only child whose parents were drug addicts (she says they’re both recovered now), she left an unbearable home at the age of 16, dropping out of high school and taking a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken to support herself before concluding that fast food wasn’t a great career route for somebody pining for high tech. She returned to high school and graduated, and then made what she says is a common mistake for a young person.

“Sometimes, when you’re growing up and you’re faced with very tough circumstances, like I was, you look for those quick fixes: How can I quickly get educated and just get a job? That was the mind-set I was in, and I went to a six-month trade school. After six months the school closed, and I was left with a student loan and no job to pay it back.”

Hyman says she promptly came to the realization that “there are no short cuts in life.”

Moving in with her grandmother, she enrolled at the City Colleges’s far-south-side campus, Olive-Harvey, where a math teacher and a counselor helped her carve a path to a computer science major at IIT. She joined ComEd in 1996. She’s now riding herd on a City Colleges budget (for 2012) of $651 million.

Hyman says she was “humbled” by her appointment and did need some time to visit the colleges and learn about them. She was assisted by consultants from McKinsey & Company and the Civic Consulting Alliance (the consulting arm of the Commercial Club of Chicago) who worked, initially pro bono, to “dig into the metrics” with her. By midsummer she’d hired former McKinsey consultant (and Renaissance 2010 Fund official) Alvin Bisarya as vice chancellor of strategy and institutional intelligence. In March 2011, Donald Laackman, a principal at the Civic Consulting Alliance, was installed as president of Harold Washington College. And last January, McKinsey was awarded a half-million-dollar contract for work on City Colleges changes this year.

More consultants were hired to help Hyman craft her vision, and at a November 18, 2010, press conference with Daley and new board president Martin Cabrera Jr. (appointed to the board a month earlier), the trio rolled out the plan, branded in current business jargon as “the Reinvention.” City Colleges, previously focused on access, would now be focused on something more elusive: student success.

The reinvention had four broad goals:

(1) More students earning college credentials of economic value.

(2) More students transferring to four-year schools after graduating from City Colleges.

(3) Drastic improvement in remediation outcomes.

(4) More students in GED, ESL, and basic skill classes moving into college-level courses.

To achieve these goals, a “collaborative” process was set up: task forces managed by Bisarya’s office and made up of appointed (and paid) constituents from the college community (faculty, staff, and students) would spend a semester studying one of eight predetermined areas. By the end of the semester they would come up with recommendations that would, according to a slick, 44-page “Reinvention” brochure, be evaluated by “CCC leadership.” Sixty task force members were selected from 300 volunteers; each task force worked with an external “advisory council” made up primarily of businesspeople.

The four goals quickly became a mantra, though no numerical targets were attached to them. What was spelled out in hard numbers was a case for change that made it clear that the City Colleges—at least in recent years—have been stupendous failures. One of the biggest community college systems in the country, CCC has 120,000 students on seven campuses and seven satellite locations. But, according to data cited by Hyman, very few CCC students who are seeking a degree or certificate actually get it. The City Colleges graduation rate, calculated by following first-time, full-time students for three years, is just 7 percent.

That’s the most controversial figure in the reinvention story, but it’s not the only bad news CCC’s been spreading about itself. A video on the official reinvention website, backed by a bouncy score, notes that more than half of first-year students drop out during or after their first semester. The reinvention brochure points out, among many statistics it cites, that only 16 percent of CCC students manage to transfer to a four-year university and a mere 4 or 5 percent wind up with a bachelor’s degree.

And then there’s the stat that explains a lot of those dismal numbers: more than 90 percent of CCC students require remedial work. Among those coming from Chicago Public Schools, it’s 97 percent.

Every faculty member I spoke with took issue with the way the graduation rate, cited frequently by both the chancellor and the mayor, was calculated. They say limiting the group to first-time full-time students, with a deadline of three years, can’t be representative of schools where the majority of students are part-timers, holding down jobs and/or juggling families, and where many (at CCC about half) are in noncredit classes, not necessarily aiming for an associate’s degree. And they say claims of declining enrollment, also prominently cited in the arguments for reinvention, are misleading and “erroneous,” tilted by huge programs that have been phased out (including one on military bases that served 32,000 students). On the contrary, they say, relevant enrollment actually increased between 2006 and 2010 by more than 13,000 students.

One of those pissed-off profs is Wright College humanities department chair Sheldon Liebman, who notes that the same district research office that put out the 7 percent figure conducted a six-year study concluded in 2008 that had CCC’s graduation rate at about double Hyman’s figure: 13.3 percent. (When Hyman’s team, in response to this argument, lengthened the time span to six years, they got 13 percent as well.)

“Here we are, working hard, in many cases for half the salary of university professors, teaching five courses instead of three, an earnest, dedicated staff,” Liebman says. “I’m afraid that when you bring in businesspeople, they just don’t understand it. There’s a real disconnect between the dedication and seriousness and ability on one side, and a kind of distrust and lack of experience on the other.” Meanwhile, Liebman says, “decisions that have been made supposedly in the interest of improving education have been wrongheaded.”

Among them, a corporate-style push for centralization that, among other things, replaced individual graduations this spring with one unwieldy combined ceremony at the UIC Pavilion, and an expensive rebranding effort, including an arbitrary change in each school’s logo and colors that many perceive as an attempt to diminish the individual identities of the colleges. Then there was the new zero-based budgeting, introduced with a nearly zero time frame.

But the most startling was the simultaneous dumping of four of the seven college presidents. (Only Laackman and another relatively recent hire, Daley College president Jose Aybar, were given a pass; the former head of internal audit at the district office is serving as interim president at Kennedy-King.) Told in February that they’d need to reapply for their jobs because of a “new job description,” they were all replaced in June.

Hyman says she saved $30 million by making cuts this year. She laid off 225 “non-instructional” employees (about 40 from the district office) and is adding advisers, financial aid counselors, and 66 full-time faculty. But she’s also added to the upper echelons of her staff. The Central District Office operating budget for 2012 is nearly $62 million, about the same as the budget for Truman College or Wright. And Hyman’s top officials now include nine vice chancellors, a chief of staff, a chief operating officer, and a “chief advisor to the board of trustees,” all drawing $100,000-plus salaries.

“Meanwhile,” says Liebman, “we have classrooms of 35 to 40. And the average ACT score is 17. Reading levels are [often] fourth, fifth, or sixth grade. As far as we’re concerned, we’re quite successful when somebody comes back the next year.”

At the June meeting of the board, with the discarded presidents lined up in front of the trustees like so many sitting ducks, All-College Faculty Council president Polly Hoover reported on the “profound disappointment of the faculty” about the process of the presidents’ replacements and the “erosion” of shared governance. “We support the goals of reinvention if they reflect a nuanced understanding of the complexities of the issues,” Hoover said, noting that “the faculty have been here before; we’ve undergone waves of reforms with little substantive change. Consequently, we are profoundly skeptical and cautious. We hope this is a brave new world. We fear it is Huxley’s brave new world.”

A new provost, Kojo Quartey, was hired last month without input from the faculty. Quartey is an economist and former dean of the business school at Davenport University, a private, nonprofit institution in Michigan with an enrollment of about 13,000 students. At press time, the list of task force recommendations had not yet been posted, but it’s a safe bet that the reinvention will show positive results. From the baseline that’s been drawn, there’s nowhere to go but up. Whether the numbers will be meaningful for students is another question. Hoover says, for example, that students who are transferring to a four-year college don’t really need everything that’s required for the two-year degree, which is why many of them haven’t bothered with it. The graduation rate went up this year, she says, “simply because we were out there pushing it.”

And if those fears of colleges being turned into factories, cranking out degrees like so many widgets—faster, faster, cheaper, cheaper—seem overblown, consider the remarkable new tutoring program developed under Aybar at Daley College that’s said to be doubling pass rates for remedial courses.

Its official acronym is CASH-to-ROI.