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Emanuel names Paula Wolff to head City Colleges board

Mayor Rahm Emanuel presents his 2012 budget, Wednesday, October 12, 2011, at City Council. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

Determined to deliver on his “college-to-careers” makeover of the Chicago City Colleges, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is bringing new leadership to the board that oversees the system for the third time in two years.

Board member Paula Wolff, who spent eight years as president of Governor’s State University, will replace Martin Cabrera Jr. as board chairman.

The City Hall shuffle calls for Cabrera to become chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission, replacing Linda Searl. Cabrera is the founder and CEO of Cabrera Capital Markets, one of Chicago’s leading Hispanic investment banks. The firm is long-standing recipient of pinstripe patronage from city bond issues.

The massive City Colleges system is in the midst of a makeover to prepare students for jobs in growth industries, including health care, transportation, aviation, information technology and hospitality.

Companies that specialize in those areas will help write the curriculum, teach and mentor students and, hopefully, place them in jobs when they graduate.

Given Wolff’s background at Governor’s State, the mayor apparently feels she is a better choice to deliver a plan he considers critical to Chicago’s economic future.

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley was such a big fan of Wolff’s, he tried and failed to muscle her into the job of chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago, his father’s pride and joy.

“I bring a lot of enthusiasm for making City Colleges a place that actually helps people be successful in education and in their careers. The connection with employers is absolutely essential. We need to be training people to go into the jobs that employers are going to be hiring for,” Wolff said Thursday.

Pressed on why past efforts to boost the seven percent graduation rate have failed, Wolff said, “There may not have been the discipline and focus over the years to define how resources need to be deployed. That’s one of the things the mayor and chancellor are coming to grips with. That’s what the reinvention is about. What’s the mission and how do we implement it?”

After a decade of stability under the late Jim Tyree, the City Colleges have now had three board chairmen in two years. Gery Chico succeeded Tyree before stepping down to run for mayor.

Emanuel can only hope that the third time is the charm.

“The changes we’re making at our community colleges for college-to-career are part of ensuring that we have depth and strength in our workforce,” the mayor said Thursday.

Emanuel said the “quality and energy” of Chicago’s workforce is defined, in part, by its two top-ten business schools: Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.

But, he said, “I want the same type of commitment to our community colleges that hasn’t been there because there’s 127,000 people educating at community colleges, which is more than all four-year institutions combined in the city.”

Since August, 2009, Wolff has also served as chairman of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. She plans to keep that job even as she assumes even more responsibility at City Colleges.