Collectively, they are in charge of budgets with a sum total of over $2.4 billion, they help to educate more than 150,000 students and have more than a half-century of collegiate and business leadership experience. It’s likely no other major city in the union except for Chicago could say it has three African Americans running the public higher education show.
Paula Allen-Meares was tapped from University of Michigan and appointed chancellor of University of Illinois-Chicago as of January 2009. At Chicago State University, President Wayne Watson, Ph.D., has been working to transform the school since taking the reins there in October 2009. And the seven colleges that make up the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) are run by an alumnus. Cheryl Hyman made the leap from corporate to academia when she started in the role as CCC chancellor in April 2010.
The occurrence of having three Black leaders in such powerful position in academia is a sign of how far the nation has come, Allen-Meares told the Chicago Citizen.
“Certainly it’s a sign of progress that society has made,” she said. “It is an interesting phenomenon.”
Watson said the three of them, in their own way, work to ensure that the “Chicago community benefits from the synergy that this unique, historical leadership opportunity presents.”
But novelty is overshadowed by the challenges each leader faces at their respective institutions. Allen-Meares said she is doing all she can to stretch her university’s $1.7 billion budget so that world class faculty can be retained and attracted, students can afford a UIC education and age-old facilities don’t crumble. She runs the largest higher education institution in the metropolitan Chicago area with over 27,000 students; more than 12,000 faculty and staff; and the nation’s largest college of medicine.
“I want students to come to UIC, enjoy an excellent experience and leave prepared to find their way where life takes them,” she told the Chicago Citizen.
Watson assumed his role following a tumultuous vetting and selection process for CSU that pitted students and faculty against the board of trustees. Some were so adamant to not have Watson considered for the position to lead the school that they appealed to the governor for intercession. But Watson received unanimous support from the trustees and many elected officials heralded his appointment as President, saying the Northwestern graduate was the man for the job who could fiscally, academically and administratively revive CSU. And now, he is in charge of a $125 million operating budget and over 7,200 students.
Watson is particularly proud of the fact that 62 percent of CSU undergraduate science majors perform research.
“That’s unusual,” he said. “That puts them head-and-shoulders over a number of other students. Our students can’t be just as good they have to be better.”
Next month CSU will graduate its first class of pharmacy students. Watson was proud to announce that the rigorous program had a 98 percent retention rate over five years.
“That’s unbelievable,” he said of his university, which also has turned out 58 percent of the city’s Black public school educators.
Last year CSU was in the hot seat for several poor audit findings. This year’s audit revealed a school sorting through its issues and working to blaze new, more productive and sustaining trails. For the first time in a long time, the school has a 21 percent graduation rate and not one in the teens as had been the norm.
“We have a strong faculty at Chicago State and we’ve built a new administration,” Watson said. He said previous issues were “embedded” into the university but now he is “systematically” dealing with those issues.
It was the former Mayor Richard M. Daley who first appointed Hyman to lead the City Colleges of Chicago. Her up-by-the-bootstraps life story included being educated in the CCC system, graduating from Olive-Harvey College before going on to the Illinois Institute of Technology. She worked in the corporate sector as she got her MBA from Northwestern University and rose among the ranks of the utility giant ComEd.
Hyman took over after Watson was set to retire as CCC chancellor. She took the lead of a community college system that she decided need to be reinvented. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office last year, Hyman was one of only a few agency leaders he kept on in his administration from the previous one. That meant the vision of “Reinvention” she had for Olive-Harvey, Harold Washington, Richard J. Daley, Harry S. Truman, Kennedy-King, Malcolm X and Wilbur Wright colleges would continue –with her leading the way.
Hyman oversees a budget of nearly $600 million; some 120,000 students; and over 5,800 faculty and staff.
“I inherited the chance to lead the institution that gave me my start,” she said. “I inherited an asset that has the greatest potential to be the economic engine of this city, that is going to play a vital role in even this nation’s economic recovery.”
She plans to ensure that city community college students have an opportunity to be as proud of their experience as she is of hers.
“I came in right away with the mindset that I want every single student to have the same experience I did,” she said. “I don’t want students coming here feeling like ‘ok I’m at a community college’ and somehow that’s less than any other institution of higher education, Hyman said, adding that she is looking to change the paradigm of the two-year college experience.
But as she looks optimistically at CCC’s future, Hyman knows the past and even some of the current state of affairs is sobering. Still, the Reinvention project has brought for CCC some measurable results so far, bringing graduation rates from7 percent up to 8 percent, cutting student/advisor ratios in half and bringing the seven campuses improved open registration processes.
Hyman said the financial, academic and other issues that CCC faced up until the Reinvention were not unique to Chicago’s higher education system, but was par for the course for community colleges nationwide. The CCC transformation started last year and could take several more years to goal, she said.
The effects of educating students in a metropolis like Chicago shows up in school by way of graduation and retention rates, number of students needed money to pay for their education.
Watson said being in an urban setting is “an opportunity to become a solution, to become a force.”
CSU and most of the city colleges are nestled in communities beset by poverty, crime and unemployment. UIC is only blocks away from such neighborhoods. But Watson said he looks forward to CSU being engaged in the community through studies and other research and resources. His social justice hopefully mirrors what Allen-Meares wants to do more of at UIC. Hyman is tasked with ensuring that the city’s community colleges are able to put people on a path to careers locally or anywhere in the world.
All three leaders speak of honing and sustain a global presence, even in the face of super-tight budgets. But they continue to dote over their faculty, boast about their progress all around, and forge relationships and partnerships locally and around the globe.
“I don’t think I’m going to get any additional revenue right now from the state, given its predicament, so we have to be prudent with the resources that we currently have,” said Allen-Meares. She has already established partnership in China and is looking forward to new ones in Israel.
Hyman began to reach out to faculty shortly after becoming chancellor.
“I think every single faculty member or staff member that I have met, we all have the same goal. They’ve come here every day wanting to see the students succeed,” said Hyman.
Allen-Meares wants to bring and keep more minority students to the university. But she knows it takes money – that right now she doesn’t have but says she’s on the fundraising trail trying to get.
All three leaders are staunch believers in education as the tool for leveling playing fields
“Education has been the wind in our sails for anything our community has wanted to do,” Watson said.
By Rhonda Gillespie