Reinventing City Colleges of Chicago – interview with Cheryl Hyman – VIEWPOINT

Reinventing City Colleges of Chicago – interview with Cheryl Hyman – VIEWPOINT

August 24, 2019 1 By Stanley Isaacs


Cheryl: Community colleges themselves need
to be quicker to adapt. Ryan: Cheryl, it’s great to have you
with us today. Cheryl: Thank you, it’s a pleasure. Ryan: Welcome to the American Enterprise
Institute, we’re delighted to have you. Cheryl: Thank you. Ryan: You have a lot to say about how
to reform education for the needs and aspirations of young people at a time where it’s really
important. There are too many Americans that feel sort
of stuck in place, feel disconnected from their communities, some of them feel maybe
unneeded or that they don’t have the talent or skills to make it in this world. And there’s really no better place to start
than the kind of education that really gets people a vision of the future, it gets them
the skills and the abilities and the confidence that they need to move ahead. So, I wanna talk to you about what you’ve
done as a reformer in this space. But before we do that, I’d really, instead
of giving a formal introduction, I’d like to you to just tell us your story because
you have a powerful and unique personal story which is very related to these things and
so, why don’t we start there? Why don’t you tell us about your background
and then how it led you to this work? Cheryl: So I came to City Colleges from the
corporate world. I spent 14 years in the private sector and
was a corporate executive before I came to City Colleges of Chicago. Many of my colleagues questioned my sanity
when I decided to do that, “You’d leave a very successful corporate career to go into
the public sector?” Well, you have to know it wasn’t for the great
government benefits that I decided to go into the public sector. It very much was personal for me. I grew up on the West Side of Chicago and
in growing up my life was…had a good share of ups and downs, starts, and stops. Parts of my life was very challenging. I’ve publicly talked about my parents’ struggle
with substance abuse and my short stint with homelessness and dropping out of high school. I’ve been very open in talking about that
and I go from that to, you know, being the beneficiary of a great education, which gave
me my start in life, which led me to the corporate world. And so, having overcome a lot of that, and
a lot of those same struggles that our students at City Colleges were facing, having overcame
that gave me this incredible drive and passion to wanna help other students overcome those
same obstacles in life and ensure that their education was as valuable to them as mine
was to me. I believe education is the key to the American
dream and so our institutions have such a responsibility in that. And so it was not a hard decision for me to
leave the corporate world to go run the City Colleges of Chicago. My corporate career fulfilled me professionally,
but there was always this personal void. And I believe becoming Chancellor of City
Colleges of Chicago filled that personal void. I quite often tell people and I mean this,
I believe I left a career to take on a calling. Ryan: That’s great. Yeah, well said. So I wanna talk to you a little bit about
what you did at the Community College. But I should let our viewers know that they
can read all about it when you have a book coming out on June 28th called “Reinvention:
The Promise and Challenge of Transforming a Community College System.” Congratulations on finishing the book and
we look forward to reading it. Cheryl: Thank you. Ryan: So, when you got there, what
was the condition of the college and this whole reinvention effort? Talk to us through kind of the main components
of that. Cheryl: Right. So I’ll tell you at a very high level what
my vision and my goal was for City Colleges of Chicago. I can take you through a lot of statistics,
but I think what I was…and certainly, I was trying to change those. The completion rate or the graduation rate
was 7%, our remediation needs were in the upper 90%. And so I can talk to you about a lot of statistics
that’s not much different than a lot of other community colleges. But what I was trying to change most of all
and what you can’t quantify on top of academics is culture and having a culture of accountability,
having a culture of success. So I had two high-level goals with reinvention. One was to ensure that our institution was
set up in a way where students can come to us and really pursue achieving their dreams
both personally and professionally through a quality education. But two, it was about trying to create a culture
and shift a paradigm from one that had been historically focused on access to one that
was focused…a culture that was now focused on access and student success. And how did I do that? So I tried to create a collaborative effort
both…with both internal, the internal knowledge we had and external experts to one defined
student success. What does student success mean? How do you define that? There is no standard definition of success
in the industry. And so, I created what I call our students
success goals. But on top of that, I wanted those goals to
be quantifiable and measurable. It’s hard for you to achieve something that
you can’t really measure. If you’re not measuring, you’re just doing. And so, I wanted to establish quantifiable,
measurable goals, build strategies, a long-term strategy around those goals and which we can
measure ourselves against, hold people accountable for those goals and then be transparent about
how we were performing with those goals. And I felt like all of that would help us
establish that institution that would be set up in a way for our students to succeed. But it was about defining student success,
being acutely focused on every student succeeding in a timely manner, measuring ourselves, holding
ourselves accountable and then being transparent about how we were performing. Ryan: That’s great. And so, I mean, those are great objectives
and goals for the students, but the status quo when you got there was not doing those
things. And so, what are the two or three things that
sort of defined the culture that you inherited. Why until you got there, had people not had
that much of a student-centric focus on outcomes or goals? Cheryl: I don’t think that was unique to City
Colleges of Chicago. I think traditionally as I’ve said before,
historically, community colleges were created around a paradigm of access. It never was created around a paradigm of
success and holding ourselves accountable. And so I don’t think that was unique to City
Colleges of Chicago. You are right, the status quo…that does
go against the status quo and challenging the status quo. But I also think you know, as much as we look
at institutional performance, we need to take a deeper look at our governing and regulatory
bodies and policies. A lot of policies dictate the culture that
we see within our institutions. So you hear a lot of talk today about being
more completion focused, being more outcome focused. But are we trying to change policies to reflect
the outcomes that we’re advocating from our institutions? So I don’t think it was unique. I think it’s historically what the…how these
institutions have been established and the policies that govern these institutions. Ryan: That’s a great point. Yeah, that’s a really good point. And so, you’ve said before that you want to
shift the culture in a community college from being degree focused to being career focused. That seems to be related to what you’re just
saying. What does that practically look like? Cheryl: So I think that looks like starting
with the end in mind. So, let me just talk a little bit more about
you mentioned the status quo. I think that the status quo needs to be challenged
and we need to totally rethink both academically and operationally how the…how our institutions
are run. When you’re dealing with institutions, like
many complex institutions, complex entrenched institutions, academia is not quick to act
or adapt and they’re very resistant to taking big steps and to taking big bets. But it’s those very big steps and big bets
that are holding us back. When I spoke on a panel earlier, we talked
about pathways, we talked about credits, we talked about credentialing. A lot of systems now get that and a lot of
systems are doing good work around those particular initiatives. My concern is that we’re not moving fast enough. We’re not moving at the same pace labor markets
are moving so many Americans are trying to grab at their piece of the American dream
and they’re grabbing that error right now because we’re not adapting quick enough, we’re
not moving fast enough. But sometimes, as I said before, a lot of
this pain is not self-inflicted because what we’ll find is that we’re trying to deliver
new outcomes in old delivery models, around old frameworks. And so when I say we need to be far more career-focused,
we need to let go of our old habits and our old delivery models and our old frameworks
and look at creating new delivery models, new ways of credentialing, new ways of operating,
those that are more reflective of the labor market and know now, we’re preparing people
to go right into skilled…a skilled labor force. And so we need to start with the end in mind,
get input from employers and then reverse engineer our programs and our operations back
from that. If we don’t, someone else will. And if I can I’ll use a bit of a recent example. So if you look at the recent announcement
of Amazon and other investors who are now getting ready to enter the healthcare workforce
space. So healthcare was an industry that typically
innovated around its products but a little less so around its delivery methods and its
cost controls, right? But then here’s what happens when you’re in
a capitalist system, where there’s a need, you will have an entrant to enter the market
to try to solve a problem and they usually do that by disruption of the old traditional
ways of doing things. And I think as we think about the labor markets,
we hear a lot about automation. We know that a lot of employers are automating
now. There’s a big debate that they’re automating
because they can’t find a skilled workforce, some say they’re automating because it makes
their businesses more efficient. I would say it’s a combination of both. Nonetheless, it doesn’t matter why, we know
that it is and more of it is to come. So, are our institutions equipped to help
those who enter our institutions remain competitive in a world that is quickly automating? Are our institutions equipped to help our
current workforce feel less disruption from that automation? I would say we’re not. And I would also warn that if somehow we believe
academia is exempt from the same kind of disruption as healthcare, then we’re living in denial. And that’s what I mean. Ryan: Yeah, very good. That’s great. And let’s talk a little bit about this changing
nature of sort of the economy right now. I mean, there’s a lot of people fretting about
it, the automation that you talked about for very understandable reasons, technological
change, new work arrangements. Are there limits to what a community college
can actually do to move fast enough in your terms? Given some of the policy constraints that
you said, I mean, is it inevitable that some third-party disrupters are gonna come in just
because the policy environment at some point makes it too hard to change or should we be
more hopeful? Cheryl: I think community colleges have the
ability to be far more flexible and nimble more so than other institutions within higher
education. However, again, if our policy doesn’t catch
up to what our world reflects, we will…they will have a problem. But also, community colleges themselves need
to be quicker to adapt and they need to take the big steps and the big bets. They have to stop trying to deliver new results
within old delivery models and old frameworks. Do they have the capability? Yes. Do they have the will to do it? I’m not so sure. I quite often get criticized by some who said
I move…that I was moving too fast. And as much as I try to build a collaborative
effort, the world, particularly our students, don’t have time for us to build consensus
on everything. We have to make decisions and we have to move
because the world is moving. So can community colleges do it? They certainly have the ability. Will they do it? I’m not so sure. But if they don’t, I’m, for sure, someone
else will. Ryan: Is there a role for employers
here? From your experience of working with employers,
I mean, should employers be more aggressive in the demands that they’re making of the
partners at the community college level? Cheryl: I think employers have a huge responsibility. They have a huge responsibility to inform
our educational institutions on what they need and what they’re looking for. I’ve found in my work that they were very
receptive to that. They thought we were a breath of fresh air
when we created a new infrastructure around having them being more integrated into our
system so that they could have a continuous way to constantly inform us. I think employers have good metrics on the
skills that they’re looking for, but it’s up to the community colleges to turn that
into a one for one curriculum or program for the students. So, I think employers have a huge responsibility
but they have to have the infrastructure and they have to have the means by which to communicate,
interact with our community college systems and our community college systems have to
create those new models for them to operate in. Ryan: Let’s talk about the students
for a second. I remember touring a community college campus,
not yours, with the president of the campus some years ago and I was just asking about
the sort of appalling graduation rates and completion rates and his response to me was,
“Well, life happens. You have to understand for our population,
life happens.” And that was sort of the end of the discussion. You worked on a very student-centric, student
outcomes focused model that you spoke about a few minutes ago. What sorts of interventions did you do? What sorts of interventions did the college
do to help people stay engaged, be able to deal with life when it happens so that they
could make it across the finish line? Cheryl: So let me first say this, as someone
who has truly walked in the shoes of our students, we have to be very careful not to let our
students’ struggles become an excuse for allowing them to fail. I am a perfect example of that. But having said that, you give students structure
and ongoing proactive supports, they thrive, they do complete. But community colleges were not necessarily
set up that way. Community colleges were set up in a way where
it’s kinda a la carte, come in, pick your choice and you know, put the pieces all together
yourself. Well, they just get lost inside of our walls. Not to mention, very few, as you have just
noted, complete and the few that do complete, they don’t see any true economic payoff when
they do. So if they don’t get lost, they get discouraged. So yeah, life happens, but we don’t have to
fail while life happens. Life happened to me and it still happens to
me. But our students have determination. They have grit. They have all of that. They have shown up at our doors so that says
something. They come to us for help. We should be structured in a way that helps
them seamlessly navigate our system in a timely manner down a relevant path that pays off
for them economically. Ryan: Great. So you’ve hinted at what it really takes to
be a successful leader of a community college where I can say we can infer it from the things
that you’ve said, but your advice to the future class of leaders, of institutions like you’ve
led, what are the three or four sort of, you can’t compromise about them, attributes and
qualities that we need in the leaders of the future of these institutions? Cheryl: Yeah, so I would very simply say we
do need transformative leaders who have a cross-section, cross-sector of skills. We have to be very open to nontraditional
skill sets, number one. So a lot of times particularly in academia,
leaders have typically come up through the ranks. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong
with that because those are the experts who understand the institutions and the students
that we serve. But now the world is calling for us to operate
quite differently. So you need people who understand change management. You need people who understand operations. You need different…a different sort of skill
set now, and so typically that skill set hasn’t been embraced in academia. So you really need a different skill set. But for me in addition to having a team that
was incredibly smart, many who had, you know, similar skills, nontraditional skills like
my very creative team, I had a few golden rules for recruiting my own leadership team
and I share these rules with leaders as I talk to them. I always try to hire people smarter than me. If I was the smartest person in the room,
that was a problem. And so, hire people who know something you
don’t, particularly when you’re entering an industry that’s new to you. And that’s something I tried to do. I tried to hire people who would challenge
me. So, I think this is no secret to anybody,
I have a very strong and passionate personality. I needed people who were not intimidated by
that and who could challenge me, so I had to be honest about who I was and what my strengths
and what my weaknesses are and then hire people who complement you. So, I know that with my personality I need
someone who could take a softer approach in more critical situations, or call me if you
need somebody to fire up the crowd. That’s the right mix of both skill sets that
I think leaders should look for. It certainly has helped me but in academia,
I would say we certainly need to embrace a new cadre of leadership style. Ryan: That’s great. Great advice. Last question is, is advice you’d give to
younger people. As a father of teenagers and also a former
college professor, I can say that there is a mood, you know, there is a mood out there
right now of 18-year-olds that they’re just not sure that this country or the economy
that they’re going to enter into is gonna give them the benefits that their parents
said that they had. When you’re talking to a young person or one
of your former students there at the college who’s 18 to 20 and looking at the future and
they say, “What do I have to do to succeed in life?” what’s your life advice for them? Cheryl: So there’s a few things I tell them. One is always arm themselves with information. I think we as professionals spend a lot of
time studying the labor market, looking at data analytics study and trends, looking at
how the job sectors are changing, but we don’t encourage our young people to do enough of
that. Even if our institutions are not informed
enough, if we can arm our students with the right information, they can at least make
the right choices for themselves. And so I always try to encourage them to stay
informed or some kinda way, and then make your choices based on the information that
you have. Another thing I tell them is work harder,
work hard, and if that doesn’t work, work harder. Just keep working. Three, I tell them life will always throw
you curveballs. Students will see me and hear my story and
go, “Oh, Chancellor, how did you make it? You’ve overcome so much.” And what I have to remind them is I did overcome
a lot, but every day I’m still overcoming something else. Life doesn’t stop throwing you curveballs,
but what matters is that you keep running towards the finish line. And then lastly, I tell them, let nobody,
no person, or no special interest steal their future. To keep going. Ryan: That’s great. Cheryl Hyman, it’s great talking with you. Cheryl: Thank you. Ryan: I really appreciate you being
here with us today. And good luck with the book “Reinvention.” Cheryl: Thank you so much. Ryan: We all look forward to buying
it and reading it and learning from it. Cheryl: I appreciate that. Ryan: Thanks again, yeah. Cheryl: Thank you. Ryan: Hey, everyone. That’s the end of our discussion with Cheryl
Hyman. Thanks for watching. As always, let us know what other topics you’d
like AEI Scholars to cover on Viewpoint. And to learn more about Cheryl’s book “Reinvention,”
check the links in the description below.