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City Colleges chief to end stormy six-year run with long goodbye

City Colleges Chancellor Cheryl Hyman is stepping down from her post in about a year, and faculty want a voice in the selection of her successor. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel considers the colleges-to-careers makeover of City Colleges such a cornerstone of his education agenda he made the system’s $250,000-a-year Chancellor Cheryl Hyman the star of one of his earliest re-election campaign commercials.

Now, the makeover will go on without its chief architect.

Hyman announced Tuesday that she’s calling it quits after a one-year transition that will give the revamped seven-member board plenty of time to conduct a nationwide search for her replacement.

“I am now almost half-way through this five-year plan and I’m almost exceeding every goal in this plan . . . That’s a perfect time for new leadership to come in. . . . It also allows me to be more involved in a national focus,” said Hyman, claiming she has “created a model that could be implemented anywhere.”

Hyman, 47, flatly denied reports of a rift with the City Colleges board.

“We had the conversation about my three-year contract, and I was offered to stay. I decided to stay a year,” she said.

The changing of the guard at the seven-college system serving 100,000 students comes just four months after faculty members took a vote of no-confidence in Hyman.

Faculty members were alienated by Hyman’s dictatorial management style, by program consolidations they viewed as callous and by a tuition increase that penalized part-time students who make up the backbone of the system.

More recently, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel most outspoken City Council critics, introduced a resolution demanding hearings on Hyman’s decision to consolidate child development programs at Truman College.

“There’s no way you can achieve the student and operational outcomes that we have achieved without challenging the status-quo. . . . It does not come without push-back. And you shouldn’t be afraid of that . . . When your No. 1 goal is student success, push-back . . . has to be the least of your concerns,” Hyman said Tuesday.

“Re-invention involved collaborative teams. Everyone had a voice in this. Did everyone agree? No. Everyone did not agree,” she said. “But as a leader, there’s a time to listen and there’s a time to act.”

When former Mayor Richard M. Daley chose Hyman, faculty members had high hopes for a strong partnership.

As a former Orr High school dropout who left home to escape drug-addicted parents, Hyman had a captivating personal story.

She was a former student at Olive-Harvey College who went on to graduate from the Illinois Institute of Technology and earn master’s degrees from North Park University and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Surely, Hyman would have the sensitivity to understand the formidable challenges facing City Colleges students.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

“She does not engage in any kind of constructive dialogue if she perceives that what you’re bringing to the table is negative,” said Tony Johnston, president of the Cook County College Teachers Union, which represents nearly 600 full-time faculty members.

“There’s no place in any administration for a thin skin . . . You need to be able to hear what’s happening from the trenches and have an open dialogue with people working with these students,” he said.

Johnston pointed to Hyman’s decision to close child-development programs at Olive-Harvey, Kennedy-King, Daley and Malcolm X Colleges and move them to Truman, forcing students to travel long distances.

He also cited the recent tuition increase that offered discounts to students who choose to go full time, instead of part time. It “penalized the vast majority” of students who take classes at the seven city colleges part time, he said.

“That is insensitive. It is essentially saying we are not going after our typical community college student. They are part-time students. They are commuting students. They have families and work obligations and cannot afford to go to school full time,” Johnston said.

“Because of her unique story, she should have that compassion,” he said. “But the one time I met her face-to-face about a month ago, it didn’t go well . . . She was defensive. She did not have an open mind.”

Hyman countered that the system’s first tuition increase in nearly seven years was accompanied by the elimination of 150 fees.

“It penalizes no one. . . . What it does is incentivize our students to make it easier for them to take more classes where it’s not a financial burden so they can get through our system in a more timely manner,” she said, noting that part-time enrollment has increased by 1 percent.

Hyman can point with pride to the colleges-to-careers makeover that is preparing City Colleges students for the burgeoning number of jobs in growth industries.

She presided over construction of a new, $251 million Malcolm X College to prepare students for an estimated 84,000 jobs in the health care industry over the next decade, even as she grappled with state budget cuts that shut down construction for months at Olive-Harvey College.

Hyman can also point to a graduation rate that stood at a dismal 7 percent when she arrived on the scene and has since more than doubled — to 17 percent. That’s still short of the national average of 20 percent.

Six years ago, Hyman said she wanted City Colleges students to be motivated by her compelling personal odyssey.

On Tuesday, the outgoing chancellor declared that mission accomplished.

“I’ve given many students hope. I hear it every day. I have also shown them the road map to my success — that I would let nothing and no one get in the way of achieving what I needed,” she said.

“What I want them to remember is my 24-block story from Henry Horner on the West Side to a Fortune 500 company to now chancellor of City Colleges. . . . I want them to know that no circumstance that they’re in today should dictate their destiny. Nothing and no one has to get in their way.”