Q&A With Cheryl Hyman


Q&A With Cheryl Hyman

Cheryl answers questions about her book, higher education, innovation, and leadership.

Q: What led you, as a Fortune 500 executive with no higher ed experience, to become Chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago?

My professional background is in corporate America—I had moved up through the ranks to a senior leadership position at a Fortune 500 energy company.  But my story began 24 blocks away from City Colleges’ district offices. That’s where I grew up, in the Henry Horner Homes housing project, in a family that had its fair share of challenges.

Twenty-four blocks and many years later, I became the leader of the very community college that first put me on the path to a successful life.  

Appointed to the role by Major Richard M. Daley, it was very flattering to be asked to lead the institution that gave me my start in life. It was also a risk, but Mayor Daley took just as big a risk by appointing me, and later on so would Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who re-appointed me and encouraged me to double down on efforts to drive change.

They knew my story—a homeless high school dropout who, thanks to the community college system, found her way back and grew into an accomplished business executive—and believed it mattered.

Personally, I viewed it as an opportunity to help give students the same chance to succeed that was afforded to me. I walked those 24 blocks in our students’ shoes, and that informed my vision and daily purpose. In the process of changing careers, I found my calling.

Q: Why did you write a book about your time at City Colleges?

After leaving City Colleges, I had an opportunity to reflect on my experience over the past two decades. I realized we are living through one of the most progressive periods in human history, but that in communities across the country, people are trying to figure out how to grab their piece of the American dream. For many, attending community college serves as the on-ramp—and the best opportunity—for creating a better future.

As chancellor, I witnessed the passion and commitment of students. I learned they had an expectation that administrators were making decisions that would help to propel their future. But I also saw we had a long way to go to meet those expectations—when I arrived at City Colleges, the graduation rate was 7 percent, far below the already low average for community colleges nationwide. This realty drove me to launch the Reinvention initiative at City Colleges. The sweeping changes we made during my time shifted the paradigm of the institution from one focused mostly on access, which is the role that community colleges have historically played, to one focused on both access and success—as measured by the outcomes of our students.

Today, the results are clear in Chicago—and beyond. Graduation rates more than doubled during my time at City Colleges. Across the country, many of the strategies we embraced as part of Reinvention, including developing pathways, focusing on relevancy, providing new supports for students, and emphasizing operational excellence, are now commonplace in improvement plans at community colleges nationwide.

There’s a consensus that community colleges must be committed to supporting better student outcomes for all students. My worry, however, is that we still are not moving as quickly as the world is changing for our communities, our workforce, and our students. When we try to get things done using old frameworks, it slows us down.

The book documents the sweeping changes that took place at City Colleges during my tenure. It also demonstrates that change is possible and details how it can be accomplished within a short timeframe.

Q: People sometimes are critical of the “corporate takeover” of education. At City Colleges, you brought in leaders with little or no background in higher education. Why was that necessary?

People often think of education through the lens of their own experiences. But City Colleges had a $700 million operating budget and more than 4,000 employees. It’s a major employer and economic driver for the region. So it made sense to introduce MBAs into a world of PhDs and have them work together on solutions, which is what we did as part of Reinvention.

My overarching concern about higher ed is that we will be unable to move quickly enough as a sector to meet the needs of students. Reform-minded institutions need leadership teams with backgrounds in change management who are willing and able to make unpopular decisions when necessary. These administrators need to include both those with education experience as well as those with business or other professional backgrounds in results-driven organizations.

We have to stop being afraid of the so-called “corporate takeover of education.” Instead, let’s find ways to bring together business insights and academia to strengthen, not supplant, our programs and institutions.

Q: There’s an ongoing debate about the purpose of education at all levels—is it ultimately about careers, or broader learning and self-exploration?

To me, a student-centered education needs to be a career-focused education. But that’s not just my opinion—it’s how students feel, too. On that point, the data is clear and there should be no debate — in 2015, in UCLA’s American Freshman survey, the top reason freshmen listed for going to college was “to be able to get a better job.”

Students see college as a ticket to a job because they know that you can’t pursue life’s loftier goals if you can’t feed yourself and take care of your family. That was a lesson I learned along my 24-block journey. In debates about education, it can be easy to overlook the experiences of students with limited options in their lives and what they need most—which is to be prepared to enter a good career.

We know that employers need broader skills—communication, problem-solving, and teamwork among them. Just as importantly, students need to better understand how their educational choices match up with careers that can provide the means to support a family. We don't just have a skills gap—we have an information gap as well.

We definitely need to educate thoughtful people with the critical thinking skills needed to be responsible citizens in a rapidly changing world. But if you have no prospects for work that can sustain you and your family, it’s much harder to participate in the broader conversation. We do our students a disservice if we ignore this.

Q: You emphasize structure and relevance, but what about giving students choices?

The most important thing colleges can do is ensure that they don’t give students options that will lead them down a dead end. Students need choices—but they also need information to help them understand what opportunities those choices can create.

Once a student has made an informed choice, their institution must ensure that the programs of study and credentials they earn are aligned with what employers and transfer institutions value. This is why it’s so important that if students start in a general program of study, our colleges give them ways to easily shift to more specific, career-focused programs of study.

Q: How does your book address the resistance you experienced during the Reinvention initiative?

Questions, criticisms, and debate are necessary elements for constructive and sustainable change.  Changes that favor students at the expense of existing, long-established entrenched systems and practices often generate confusion, and at times, resistance and controversy within institutions.  In the book I discuss in detail the controversy that surrounded our efforts -- many of which I still think are worth replicating at other institutions.  My intent is to help other leaders be aware of the challenges they will face in driving transformational change.

 Attacks are inevitable when challenging the status quo. But it is troubling when those attacks are purposefully untrue and misleading, or based on misunderstandings or misinterpretations of the data. Like all of higher ed, community colleges have long-established ways of doing things, including how they track student progress and completion. These practices and metrics are often opaque and can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the data, but one thing is very clear: our goal was to improve outcomes for the students who need them the most. And the results show we made significant strides towards doing just that, even though City Colleges, like most higher ed institutions, still has much further to go. 

 I wasn’t the first leader who faced resistance because he or she pushed for change, and I won’t be the last. I do worry that without being prepared for the pushback and misleading accusations that can come with making difficult but necessary decisions, leaders will move away from the transformational change their institutions need. That's a big part of why I wrote this book.

Q: Reinvention focuses largely on one system—the City Colleges of Chicago. Do you see systemic issues that should be addressed nationally?

Yes, many. The entire system needs to fundamentally change.

As a sector, community colleges have made tremendous progress in a relatively short period of time. Most have successfully shifted to an institutional focus on ensuring students are successful and have implemented a variety of initiatives that research has shown lead to improved student outcomes—pathways, improved advising, and student supports among them. Faculty and staff at all levels are increasingly committed to supporting students through completion. 
All this is encouraging. However, my fear is that these changes aren't happening quickly enough. Institutions may be considering new initiatives, but are they changing longstanding systems and transforming operations at scale? Everyone may be committed to supporting students, but are they willing to move out of their own comfort zones and challenge the status quo?  To drive change at scale, we have to look at systemic change—and that’s change that goes beyond our institutions. Our governing bodies, accreditors, and policymakers must also change policies to reflect the outcomes we collectively want for our students and institutions.

Q: Our institution is evaluating different initiatives and pilot programs. Where should we start?

First, I would say don’t waste your time with standalone programs. To truly change as quickly as our students need us to, our institutions must dramatically transform themselves. This includes evaluating all aspects of operations and changing the culture in ways that encourage risk-taking, change management, and a willingness to tear down long-standing structures.  

Higher education is famously resistant to change, so that’s not an easy path to take. That’s why it’s so important for institutional leaders to be change agents, despite the many roadblocks they may face.

Reinvention is my story of attempting to provide that kind of leadership. It’s my hope that reading this book will inspire others to be agents of transformational change.

Q: What would you have done differently at City Colleges?

In my book, I write about things I could have done to avoid some of the resistance I faced during my time as chancellor. However, I was willing to accept being the target of criticism for what I believed to be the greater good of our students and the institution.

As for the reforms we carried out, there were things I wished we could have scaled up more quickly, but I still believe we pushed for changes in the right places—including the entrenched structures that make it so hard for higher ed to innovate. And I will always remain grateful and proud for what was accomplished at City Colleges by so many people who dedicated so much time and effort to meaningful change.

Q: Do you feel like you fulfilled your vision?

My vision going into City Colleges was to ensure that every student had a chance to succeed and fulfill his or her personal and professional dreams, so that when they completed their studies they’d have a better chance of reaching (and staying) in the middle class.

Meeting such an expansive vision can be a moving target. Leaders must ask themselves every day how well they and their institution are moving towards their overarching goals. That’s why it’s so important for leaders to build strategies that have quantifiable, measurable goals to meet their vision, communicate those strategies and goals to all stakeholders, and then monitor progress and hold people accountable for meeting them. Otherwise, it’s impossible to know if you’re making progress towards your vision.

During my tenure at City Colleges, I didn’t meet all of the goals we set forward for our institution. But we achieved quite a bit in a short period of time, including reforms that are now being replicated in community colleges across the nation. Just as importantly, as detailed in my book, we created a framework and template that helped translate that vision into systematic change. Those frameworks helped me see where we were moving and what changes still needed to be made, and hopefully they can help other leaders achieve their own visions.


Q: You always talk about rapid change and pace—is it necessary to move quickly in every situation?

At City Colleges, there was really no choice—when I first arrived, graduation rates were at 7 percent, and half of our students were dropping out before completing their first semester. It was an emergency—not just for the institution, but more importantly for the students who rely on it to improve their lives. Emergencies require a rapid response and difficult decisions.

Leaders have to assess their situation and determine the appropriate pace at which to move their organization. Less urgent scenarios may not demand such an urgent response. It may make more sense to take longer in building consensus, forging coalitions, and collaborating on finding solutions. Even in these cases, though, the search for consensus can lead to complacency if leaders aren’t mindful of the overarching need for change. Higher ed’s cultural emphasis on consensus, which comes from its long history of shared governance, is valuable and important for leaders to understand and respect. At the same time, waiting until there’s universal consensus to move all but guarantees the pace of change will grind to a halt.

Even institutions that are doing well need leaders capable of creating urgency. After all, a community college that graduates 60 percent of its students is still leaving nearly half behind. Remember there are faces and lives behind these metrics—and our students are counting on us to make good on the promise to give them opportunities they can’t get anywhere else.


Q: What will you do next?

That’s the question everyone wants me to answer—including people who have made me offers! When I made the announcement I was leaving City Colleges, I said what I would do next is recharge and refocus. My life has been a series of starts and stops, and sometimes we all need to stop, take a deep breath, and reassess.

I’ve spent much of my time since then writing a book, speaking and serving on panels, committees, and boards, including leading the search for the next president of one non-profit of which I am a board member.  What I’ve found is that my voice and advocacy have become a lot more powerful when they are not bound to any system or institution. So I mean to keep speaking out about innovation and the urgency of transformational change while continuing to rest and recharge—but maybe not for much longer, so watch this space.


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