News & Politics » Feature

City Colleges Showdown

The faculty contract expires in June. The battle lines are drawn and the opening shots have been fired. Caught in the middle are the students who can't get the courses they need.



By midnight there were 30 students, all women, many mothers of young children, waiting in line outside Truman College. They were wrapped in blankets, in sleeping bags, in long underwear and several pairs of socks. This was December and the temperature was below freezing. Friends and relatives brought soup and coffee, and one bystander took off his own socks and gave them to a friend. In deference to the neighborhood, the students' gear also included a portable phone and cans of mace. After 3 AM the numbers began to grow and some men joined the line. At 7:30 AM, when the doors opened, the group numbered 120.

Eva Alarde was first in line. She told me her only hope of getting the courses she needed to graduate in June as a registered nurse was to line up outside the doors 12 hours before they opened on the first day of registration. This wasn't the first time she'd stood in line for her choice of courses, but she'd never had to begin her vigil at eight the night before. What made the pressure so much greater this semester was the massive reduction in classes imposed by the board of the Chicago City Colleges.

The cuts for the fall and spring semesters totaled nearly 1,000. In the fall of '91 3,700 classes were offered, in the spring of '92, 3,320, and in the spring of '93, 2,817. While the cuts had been made mostly in remedial math and English and in English as a second language, many of the classes canceled offered advanced study required for degrees in occupational programs such as nursing, child care, computer science, and substance abuse counseling. Nursing students like Alarde were especially inconvenienced. Their classes are limited to ten students and must be taken in a strict sequence.

The cuts also threatened the many students who depended on financial aid that was contingent on their going to school full-time. Students who can't put together a 15-credit-hour course load forfeit this aid; they then probably drop out of school for the semester, at whatever the disruption to their lives.

Eva Alarde, 27, a Greek American, is the divorced mother of a four-year-old son. She holds an associate in arts degree from Triton College, works 30 hours a week in a doctor's office, and goes to school full-time. She is maintaining an A average and is vice president of her class. To get to the head of the line she left her son's birthday party.

"But I'm just one," Alarde explained. "There are lots just like me. They give us this wonderful second chance to get a professional education and now they are making it so hard to finish." The nursing programs that five of the eight City Colleges offer graduate more registered nurses than any other single program in the state. The great majority of the students are like Alarde--women in their mid-20s returning to school. Most are black, Latino, or Asian. Many didn't graduate from high school.

On December 1, the City Council's Education Committee conducted a hearing into the class cuts. While enrollment at most community colleges in Illinois rose last fall by 3 to 4 percent, it dropped 12.8 percent in the city system, according to Mike Ruggeri, who teaches social science at Harold Washington College and is special assistant to Norman Swenson, president of the Cook County College Teachers Union.

One reason for the hearing was to deal with a resolution written by some City Colleges students asking that the classes be restored. Theresa McLane, 25, a divorced mother of a four-year-old, is an honors chemistry student at Truman, president of Truman's Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and coordinator of the Chicago City Colleges Student Coalition, which has led the opposition to the cuts. McLane and fellow students took their resolution to Alderman Helen Shiller to submit to the council, where it was signed by 28 aldermen. Now came this hearing before a standing-room-only crowd of students and faculty, if only a small representation of the council's Education Committee (despite nearly 15,000 letters sent by students to aldermen). The City Council would finally pass the resolution on March 8.

As the hearing opened, the chairman of the Education Committee, Alderman Pat O'Connor, announced that the City Colleges' board chairman, Ron Gidwitz, would have to leave after making a statement. Gidwitz--who's president of Helene Curtis Industries--spoke for about an hour, and after a few gentle questions were put to him by O'Connor and Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, Shiller, who is not a member of the Education Committee, took the microphone.

"Is it true, Mr. Gidwitz, that this hearing was arranged to fit into your schedule?" she asked. It had been postponed 24 hours before the original November 19 date when Gidwitz said he was unable to attend. He said yes. "And now you're leaving without hearing any of the people who question your decision to cut those classes?" Shiller asked. Yes, he said, he had to go to Springfield. Pressed by Shiller, he said he had "to go to Springfield at the request of the mayor's office to lobby for the casino bill." Mayor Daley had appointed Gidwitz to the City Colleges board. Now Daley needed him for a more urgent job. The gallery sent up a roar.

One of the major complaints students and faculty make against Gidwitz is that he refuses to deal with them. He has failed to show up at several public meetings at which they were scheduled to speak, say McLane and hostile instructors, and he doesn't answer their letters and phone calls.

Many of Gidwitz's remarks were greeted derisively by the gallery. They loudly challenged his facts and proclaimed their own. As he got up to leave, about 50 students stood almost as one body and followed him out. In the foyer outside the chambers Gidwitz tried to hold a press conference, but the students' loud and persistent questions prevented it.

The class cuts promise to be only the opening campaign in a bitter struggle between Gidwitz, who is an active Republican and friend of Mayor Daley, and the faculty union, whose contract expires in June. Last June, about six months after he'd been named to the board, Gidwitz announced that to reduce a projected $9.4 million deficit, the faculty would no longer be paid extra for overtime.

A hiring freeze that's been in place for more than ten years, coupled with rising enrollment, created a demand for classes far beyond the City Colleges faculty's ability to satisfy while maintaining each teacher's normal 12-hour-a-semester load. Like most union contracts, the faculty's gives teachers the right of first refusal on all overtime work--although that work comes at just 60 percent of their base semester-hour pay. The average pay to a faculty member teaching a three-hour class on overtime is about $3,754 a semester. An outside lecturer teaching that class instead would earn about $1,200. Of the more than 500 classes that were cut from last fall's curriculum, about 400 were scheduled to be taught by regular faculty members. Gidwitz wants all classes that can't be taught within the faculty's regular schedule taught by outside lecturers. There's nothing unusual in this. Universities and colleges increasingly favor outside lecturers and graduate assistants, just as business and industry do "consultants" and day laborers. The savings on benefits alone are huge.

The union reacted swiftly to Gidwitz's order, demanding the board observe the conditions of the contract but also making a counteroffer. The faculty would relinquish the overtime, the union said, if the hiring freeze were lifted and 100 new teachers were hired at base salaries (about $24,000) to handle the overload. "We don't even want the overtime classes. We'd much rather have new faculty, new blood on our campuses. Outside lecturers have no commitment to the college or the students. They just come, teach a class, and leave. That's no way to run a college," union president Norman Swenson told me.

Gidwitz reacted dramatically. He eliminated overtime classes from the schedule.

The cuts infuriated students and faculty. They were made in courses where "there is the highest demand and the lowest supply of teachers," according to Maxine Chernoff Hoover, a novelist who teaches English at Truman College, which has the largest enrollment and largest faculty of the eight colleges in the system and which suffered the largest number of class cuts. These cuts were heaviest in Hoover's department, which led Truman in the demand for classes and therefore in the number of class hours taught on an overtime basis.

Ann Seng is president of the Chicago Council on Urban Affairs, which has been studying the City Colleges since 1991. "Some cuts may have been necessary to balance the budget," she told me in an interview, "but the cuts that were ordered were not driven by educational needs. I think these were the last cuts that should have been made, and once they were made there had to be more control and flexibility. If students aren't to suffer, if they are to get the courses they need to graduate, then the local presidents and deans need more flexibility than just the blanket order that came down. Every budget decision should be based on an educational plan and there was none, which is what accounts for all the hardships right now."

Gidwitz ordered that remedial classes be cut first. Students needing remedial work in English, math, and English as a second language--a large proportion of every entering class--would be better served, he said, in the City Colleges' Adult Skills Learning Program (ASLP). This is a free high-school-level program that teaches basic skills, offers a GED, and is taught at about 250 off-campus sites around the city by instructors with BAs. It's widely held to do a poor job of preparing students for college work. It also doesn't qualify students for the financial aid that supports many of them while they attend college.

Students unable to take an advanced class on their own campuses, Gidwitz said, could go to another college to get it. But many students also work or have children at home and can only attend classes that are near their home or job. Before traveling several miles to another school, they might drop out.

"I don't know how I could do it," Sheila Rogers, a student at Harold Washington College, told me. "I work all day in the Loop and take courses at night." Yet a Harold Washington student might have to go to Olive-Harvey on the far south side or Daley on the far southwest side or Wright on the far northwest side to pick up a needed class. The burden falls heaviest on single mothers, who make up such a large part of the student body, Rogers said.

While the battle over class cuts is probably the opening shot in the union contract fight, and negotiations presumably will focus on wages and working conditions, the backdrop to the battle is a lack of consensus about what the colleges' mission is.

When the first city college opened at Crane High School in 1911 with 20 students, it had been designed as a "junior" college preparing economically or academically disadvantaged young people to go on to a four-year college. The junior college's very low fees saved its students two years of expenses and gave them at least an associate in arts degree, which back then was a considerable step up the career ladder.

Over the years the one college became eight, a not-for-credit adult education section and ASLP were added, and the system's mission blurred. First came a stronger concentration on basic literacy training, then a trend toward straight vocational training--with many noncredit classes in auto repair, cooking, and so on. Meanwhile, a new program offered an associate in applied science degree in a variety of professional programs such as computer science, child care, and drug counseling.

The emphasis remains on degree programs leading to transfers to four-year colleges, but teachers and some students fear that it will shift to vocational teaching. (Other students, many of them Latino, clamor for more vocational programming.)

So the mission has become fivefold: literacy training, vocational training, professional training, preparation in the liberal arts for a four-year college, and adult education.

In an interview I asked Gidwitz, "Where do you see the colleges going in the next ten years?"

"Wherever the money is," he replied. "When Clinton was here [last November], what was his talk about? About career opportunities, which says to me that the federal government is going to be focusing on career opportunities as opposed to training people for four-year baccalaureate degrees, which then says that there's going to be money for career opportunities, not money for four-year baccalaureate programs, and we will find ourselves doing career training."

"Given a choice, where would you prefer to see the colleges go?" I asked Gidwitz.

"I don't care," he said.

"You don't care?"

"Hell no! That's the point. People are trying to get me to say I want to be the trainer for businesses. I want to give people an opportunity to make a choice, an informed choice among high-quality outcomes, whatever they are."

It may be this businessman's unwillingness to stake out a mission that has set teachers and students against him. They complain that he has no sense of what an institution of higher learning is or should be, and that therefore he would have made class cuts willy-nilly--as Ann Seng says, "without an educational plan."

On the other hand, the teachers and students who criticize Gidwitz have only the broadest, fuzziest notion themselves of the colleges' mission. I asked Theresa McLane what she thinks it is. She replied, "There's a letter on the wall at Truman College that Harry Truman's daughter sent the college that talked about her father's vision for education. It basically talks about the regular guy getting a chance. That's what this whole thing was set up for."

The sense of mission communicated to me by teachers consists largely of the idea that people who are disadvantaged either economically or academically deserve a chance at an education. Most teachers support all the parts of the program, but insist that the emphasis should remain on the curriculum's liberal arts core. Most strongly support open enrollment and oppose any standards that would turn students away. They are willing to work with students who read only at a fifth-grade level to bring them up to the point where they can do college work.

In his dealings with the faculty, Gidwitz seems to miss the fact that so many of them feel they're missionaries to the disadvantaged. For example, Elizabeth Bouchard, who teaches English at Wright College, says, "It helps people get out of the pit of poverty. It's an avenue out for minorities. Most of us came to the City Colleges for a real reason. Many of us are very committed. I wanted to teach. I could really teach here and my teaching would make a difference."

The basic issue in the faculty union's contract negotiations, now under way, is the pay scale. Gidwitz points to the union's claim that it's negotiated the best college teachers' contract in the nation as evidence that the faculty is overpaid and underworked. He complains that some teachers earn as much as $75,000 a year. Norman Swenson responds that those who do teach overtime, and that they are a tiny portion of the faculty. Overtime aside, the top faculty salary is $70,000 for a teacher with 30 years' experience. Ten of the 835 teachers earn that much, according to Swenson. The top faculty salary at the University of Illinois at Chicago is about $76,700. Starting pay at UIC is about $35,000, at the City Colleges $24,000.

Faculty at UIC carry the same teaching load--12 hours a semester--but many have graduate assistants paid by the university to teach sections and grade papers, a convenience not available to the City Colleges faculty.

While UIC may not be fairly compared to the City Colleges--faculty standards are higher and, because UIC is not unionized, salaries are not standardized--other unionized community colleges can be. At the College of Lake County in Grayslake the average faculty salary is $56,000; at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines it's $54,000; at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, $53,000; at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, $52,000--the same as the average salary at the City Colleges--and at Triton College in River Grove, $51,000.

Aside from the English departments, where the teaching loads are 12 hours, faculty members at these other community colleges teach 15 hours, three more than they would at the City Colleges. But a survey last June by the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) shows City Colleges faculty teach more students. The average class size at the community colleges of Illinois is 18.7 students, but at City Colleges it's 29.6. A teachers' union analysis of the ICCB figures found that the average number of students taught per semester at nine other community colleges in the Chicago area was 96.9, but at the City Colleges it was 118.6. Furthermore, although the average teacher load in the nation's community colleges is 15 hours, it is 12 in Philadelphia, New York, and Alaska, all of which are like Chicago in trying to educate high concentrations of greatly disadvantaged students.

When I asked Gidwitz whether he stood by his comments that the faculty is overpaid and underworked, he said, "I said it, I absolutely said it, and I believe it. They've got the best contract in the country."

"Is an average $52,000 a year an overpayment for people averaging 55 years old, with 25 years' experience and PhDs?" I asked.

"I believe very strongly in the free market system. I believe people should sell their services and get paid based on market prices. Education people don't make the same kind of money people selling shampoo do. These people knowingly went into this business when they were underpaid relative to the rest of the world."

"Does it necessarily follow that because the union has a good contract the faculty is underworked and overpaid?" I asked.

"Their performance doesn't justify their high pay. The transfer rate [to four-year colleges] shows that. I believe in pay for performance. You concede that the colleges don't do a lot of things well. I think if we don't do a lot of things well we ought not to be paid the best."

Cary Israel, the Illinois Community College Board's executive director, has a different view of the quality of the faculty. "The faculty is productive. Can they be more productive? Absolutely! Are they good teachers? Absolutely!" Contradicting Gidwitz, Israel says, "The transfer rate indicates that the faculty is good. [An ICCB survey last fall showed that the transfer rates at some of the City Colleges exceed the state average.] And the students are doing as well as those students who start in four-year institutions. If we look at occupational follow-up, those students who get associate in applied science degrees are getting good jobs and they're keeping their jobs and they're staying in their districts. I think the City Colleges are doing some stellar things. They have one of the best international Phi Beta Kappa programs in the country. And they have some desktop publishing programs and health care programs that are just stellar."

But Israel agrees that the City Colleges faculty may have to make some sacrifices. "I think the majority of the faculty are just fine and they work hard. But they are working under a contract that is not as productive as a work-load model compared to all the other community colleges. I think maybe they see Mr. Gidwitz as a threat. I don't think it's Mr. Gidwitz. It's me, Mr. Gidwitz, the legislature, the nature of the taxpayers out there. No one wants to pay more taxes, and the community colleges are going to have to make some real choices . . .

"We've all got to be a little more productive. So if the union is under pressure, I think that's the nature of the beast today."

There are bound to be some slackers in the system. The board recently discovered that nine members of the automotive mechanics department at Kennedy-King were being paid for a full course load they hadn't worked for the last 34 and a half semesters because of a lack of enrollment. A spokesman for City Colleges said they'd been overpaid about $300,000. But most of the teachers I talked to described at least a 35-hour work week, with several claiming to work as many as 50 hours a week largely because their students needed so much personal help. Israel told me, "The biggest problem in the City Colleges is the large number of people who need simple basic skill training before they can do anything else."

Last September, in a plebiscite called by the faculty council, City Colleges teachers gave Gidwitz a vote of no confidence by a margin of 698 to 37. Gidwitz said about this, "I think it was a part of the strategy on the part of the faculty union to discredit me publicly. They are concerned that I will make some changes, if I'm in a position of strength, in what they characterize as the best contract in the country. They have had over the last 25 years a series of contract negotiations where they've prevailed in an extraordinary fashion, and I think--I'm not sure, but I think--they're concerned that I'm not the kind of patsy they've negotiated with the last bunch of times. That's what all this is about."

In 1965 the faculty union became the first public service union in Chicago to negotiate a contract. Their success opened the way for the police and firemen. The union called six strikes in its first dozen years, and twice Swenson went to jail for violating the no-strike state law that once controlled public employees.

The union insists that budget cuts could have been made more wisely by firing administrators. A comparative study done by the union last July of the Chicago system and a quite comparable system in Los Angeles found that LA had 11 full-time faculty for each administrator while Chicago had only 3.8. Gidwitz has conceded that the colleges are top-heavy, and last December he asked Cary Israel to survey the administrative structure. Gidwitz claims he's already fired 40 administrators; however, he hired three others. (He also hired Helene Curtis's public relations firm at $162,000 a year.)

Israel says, "If you are asking me if there are too many administrators in the City Colleges, the answer is yes. I'm not going to smoke-screen and tell you there aren't. There's no question that the system needs restructuring."

On March 12, Israel presented his findings to the board. He said that the number of administrators had been reduced from 266 in 1990 to 219. But the faculty also had shrunk--from 947 in 1991 to 835--leaving the same ratio of administrators to full-time teachers.

Israel told the board that the administration needs to be cut, but he didn't offer any specific numbers. He also recommended that administrative responsibilities be decentralized and the central office shrunk. Furthermore, he told the board to take a hard look at the part-time noninstructional staff. "We're not sure what their function is," said James Howard, Israel's associate who helped prepare the report. "The costs for that group have risen immensely. They're up to five to six million dollars."

But Israel also believes the faculty needs to be overhauled. "The faculty has been very successful in negotiating one of the finest union contracts in the United States," he says. "It's fine for them. But it might not be the finest for that system in the 1990s. That is, they have the lowest work load of any college in the state, they have the lowest contact hours with students, they have the lowest office hours, and on and on. I think we have to come to grips with that."

The union agrees with Gidwitz that the battle over class cuts is actually a battle over union wages and benefits. Swenson insists that Gidwitz's projected deficit is a phantom, one that's been seen annually for the past 15 years only to disappear at year's end. Swenson says there was a $28 million surplus at the end of 1991 and one of $12 million last year. Yes, says Gidwitz, but the surplus may evaporate altogether this year and cuts are a way to prepare for that. Cary Israel adds, "Colleges need to have a decent surplus. Any good accountant says that if you're carrying 5 percent of total operating expenses or about two months of all your costs, that's adequate. City Colleges has about two and a half months of reserves." (In the context of an annual budget of $225 million, the savings from the class cuts, estimated by Gidwitz at about $4.7 million, increase those reserves by about a week.)

Mike Ruggeri, who is the union's "data man," adds, "The fact is that they may have gone down some this year, simply because they hired still more administrators at very high salaries. And their health costs are going up. But in fact they actually park money for contingency health costs. Furthermore, they have $101 million sitting in banks in CDs, Ginny Maes, and so on. When we asked them to show us where that money fits into the budget, what the history of that money is, they say, "It's part of the $225 million budget. It's being used."' The union has asked the board to open its books, but, says Ruggeri, the board always refuses.

"If they actually fire 50 more administrators this year, as Gidwitz said he would, and as faculty retire [the average age of the faculty is 55], costs this year are going to go way down, so there was really no need to cut those classes. It was really a blow aimed at the union."

The union claims the class cuts will actually cost the colleges about $4 million in lost tuition and state revenues (funds are allocated on the basis of enrollment), while the board claims the colleges will save about $4.7 million in overtime and in wages to outside lecturers. Gidwitz said tuition losses are negligible because tuition is so low--$31.50 a semester hour--that the losses in state revenue would not show up for two years and hence couldn't be counted. When I asked him whether living on future revenues wasn't the way all government bodies operated, he brushed me aside. "We have to work with our current budget," he said.

The issue of Gidwitz's management style comes up again and again in talks with people associated with the colleges. Since Gidwitz fired Chancellor Nelvia Brady 14 months ago, the colleges have been without a top administrator, and nearly five months went by before a search committee was set up. A number of teachers think Gidwitz moved so slowly because he wanted to run the colleges himself. Gidwitz told me the search committee was slow to form because the colleges had more immediate concerns and "we wanted to get the best possible search committee."

The committee that finally emerged (it was made public only after pressure was applied by the Council on Urban Affairs) was not "the best possible," Ann Seng says. "We encouraged them to move as quickly as possible to put together a state-of-the-art search committee consistent with what has long been regarded as best practice in academic institutions. This was never done before. When they finally released the information, it turned out that the committee was not in keeping with traditional methods. There was very little representation of faculty, deans, support staff, and students. There are a few, but not nearly enough. What we were concerned with was, unless you have some real internal representation you'll continue to have the same kind of politicizing and factionalism that has immobilized the institution in the past. The committee looks like the kind of committee the City Council would have put together with concerns about ethnic and racial representation rather than knowledgeability about institutions of higher education."

I asked Seng if she thought Gidwitz was running the colleges pretty much by himself. She hesitated and said, "Some good things have happened under Gidwitz, but, yes, I guess you'd have to say that."

Another outsider who questions Gidwitz's style is George Kalidonis, a business consultant who served with Gidwitz for six years on Chicago's Economic Development Commission. Kalidonis has accepted appointments to various City Colleges management committees during the past ten years. He told me he believes that "no one is paying attention to the real issue, which is the structure of the administration so it's conducive to the education of the students. We're getting wrapped up in side issues.

"Ron and I speak often. We do disagree on this one. I think his approach to it is very counterproductive. The system is obviously not meeting the needs of its students by any objective measure. It's run into the same fiscal problems all other educational institutions have.

"The difficulty is that what was needed was for Ron to rally the troops around him and start building consensus within the system about how to fix it. What he's done instead is to alienate one of his biggest sources of support, the faculty. I'm not sure that he realized--he may now realize it--that in an academic institution your faculty is really a partner. This isn't like a private sector business where you've got a plant and different kind of prerogatives. Businesspeople are not very good at building consensus. What he's done now, regardless of what is right or wrong because I think all the parties share some blame, is create a situation where the single most powerful group in the institution, the faculty, is at odds with the board and the central administration and I think that's tragic. I don't know how you begin to solve the problems without collegiality.

"He's got three union contracts coming up and I can't imagine how he's going to settle those without enormous turmoil. I know the faculty union is completely dug in. I don't think it's too late. He still has time to set up some effective working relationships with Norm Swenson and the faculty but he's gonna have to really want to do this. The situation is getting worse all the time."

I told Gidwitz that Kalidonis had said he thought it was his "process" in dealing with the faculty that had raised their ire. Gidwitz responded, "I don't think there's anything I could have done short of caving in on their next contract negotiations to make them happy. George has his views. But I think the faculty is very concerned that we will be taking back. We don't have money. They're not going to be happy if we take back. Don't kid yourself."

I asked Gidwitz what concessions he might be looking for. "I'm not going to sit here and negotiate a union contract with you. But what I've said all along is that we need to increase revenues and cut costs. We need to do a better job, a more cost-effective job of delivering education. We're not in the business of employing people, of making sure administrators get paid. We're in the business of educating students."

After talking with Gidwitz for an hour and a half I left his office with the feeling that this was one task for which the fiercely bright, aggressive, often arrogant executive was not well suited. Mayor Daley likes to have take-charge businessmen like Gidwitz in important executive posts--Vince Lane at the CHA and Robert Belcaster at the CTA are others--but this is one instance in which the strategy might backfire. The cultural clash of business and academia may do more harm than good.

On the other hand, I reflected later, maybe a college system whose faculty constitutes a powerful union ought to be run by a CEO type who knows how to deal with labor disputes. The faculty does appear to want it both ways: the collegial atmosphere found on most campuses in which the faculty council plays a significant role, and also the benefits of a powerful union shop. That is something most college faculties resist, presumably because most teachers believe an academic atmosphere thrives on individuality and merit.

Then again, Gidwitz also seems to want it both ways. He wants a college system that can do the job of education as well as any other college, but he wants to run the system like a business. It may be a long hot summer at the City Colleges.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

Add a comment