Education

Connecting City Colleges

Juan Salgado goes to work as chancellor

Turtel Onli

When Juan Salgado received a call in March telling him that Mayor Rahm Emanuel was going to appoint him to become the new chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago (CCC), he said his first instinct was to get to work immediately. After the tumultuous year where Salgado’s predecessor, Cheryl Hyman, stepped down, one can imagine Salgado had his work ready for him.

Salgado has the task of rebuilding the relationship between students and faculty and the chancellor, as well as improving CCC overall, despite the budget crisis that has been affecting community colleges across Illinois. Already Salgado has made significant changes in response to these challenges by selling CCC’s downtown headquarters and making staff layoffs.

City Colleges of Chicago is the largest community college system in Illinois, according to its website. It serves more than one hundred thousand students, employs 5,500 faculty members, and consists of seven community colleges and six satellite sites. Salgado, as chancellor, acts as what he describes as the “connector” between these various entities.

The search for a new chancellor came after Hyman announced in June of last year that she intended to resign. Hyman, who had been chancellor for six years, faced significant criticism from faculty, students, and local politicians, mainly due to her decisions to make large changes to CCC without input from students and staff. This led the faculty council of CCC to support a Declaration of No Confidence in Hyman in February of 2016.

Hyman pledged to resign after a year, allowing time for a nationwide search to find her replacement. Following an extensive selection process, Emanuel informed Salgado of his new position in March with an official start date shortly thereafter on May 1. Salgado was a natural choice. He is a dedicated advocate for education, a fighter against income inequality in Chicago, and a recent recipient of the nationally recognized MacArthur Genius award—not to mention a community college graduate himself.

Salgado’s path to where he is today has been marked by an intense motivation to help others. He received an associate degree from Moraine Valley Community College and then a bachelor’s degree at Illinois Wesleyan University, majoring in economics with a “lens of income inequality,” as he describes it. Upon a recommendation from his professor, he went on to earn a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While studying, Salgado spent time in East St. Louis.

“I got a real education being in East St. Louis,” Salgado said. “[It’s] a place with so much income inequality and almost no tax base for that city to do anything about it, and yet there were these people in these churches and these communities that had hope and had belief and saw possibilities where other people never saw them, and so that’s sort of been my frame throughout my life.”

After Salgado graduated, he pursued a career in education, which he believes to be the main vehicle for reducing income inequality. In 2001, he joined Instituto del Progreso Latino, working there as CEO until his appointment as chancellor. Salgado describes Instituto as doing “everything that city colleges do on a smaller scale.” The nonprofit strives to provide education, vocational training, and employment opportunities for Latinx immigrants.

Alejandra Garza, the current interim CEO and president of Instituto, has worked with Salgado for over twenty years. According to Garza, Salgado “has an understanding of what’s happening on a national and a local scene when it comes to education.” Garza described him as a hard worker, a risk taker, and a family man—as well as an impressive dancer.

During Salgado’s time at Instituto, Salgado said he learned smart budgeting. “When you run a nonprofit, you have to be extremely efficient in the utilization of your resources in order to draw maximum value from every resource,” he said. “When I see a dollar that’s not well utilized, I see how that dollar can go back to a student.”

This skill will be particularly useful considering CCC’s financial struggles.  Without a state budget for two years, community colleges around Illinois have faced severe budget cuts. Since 2015, CCC decreased its operating revenues by ten percent. Hyman struggled with these constraints during her time as chancellor, and they influenced some of her more controversial decisions such as program consolidations and tuition hikes. The passage of a 2018 budget two weeks ago will provide much-needed relief to the school system, but Salgado now has the responsibility of grappling with the aftermath of this financial crisis.

Salgado moved quickly to deal with the situation dealt to him. At the end of June, he announced a decision to lay off 120 employees, as well as to do away with one hundred percent pension contributions for district officers. CCC has not walked back these changes after the restoration of a state budget—for the CCC system, as with other public colleges and universities, it will take time to recover from years of running on nonexistent or stopgap state funds.

The Weekly asked Salgado about how he would deal with both the successes, and, more strikingly, the shortcomings of Hyman’s administration. He was hesitant to criticize his predecessor. “There’s a lot of success to build upon,” he said. 

Salgado agrees with many of the initiatives spearheaded under Hyman and recognizes the need for some program consolidations. “Much has been said about consolidating things,” he said, in reference to the debate during Hyman’s tenure.

However, he added, “In some places, it makes all the sense in the world. You just don’t have choices because your investments are very, very capital intensive, and they have to be that way because you’re trying to meet a standard.”

Already at the end of June, Salgado has acted on this sentiment, deciding to sell the downtown headquarters of City Colleges in an effort to use CCC’s resources more effectively. If CCC makes the sale, the plan is to move its staff to the Kennedy-King College campus and Dawson Technical Institute, both located on the South Side. 

Among the programs Salgado applauded Hyman for was the College to Careers Program (C2C). C2C is an initiative spearheaded by Hyman and celebrated by Emanuel, aimed at  maximizing students’ success when they graduate by locating different career programs at different colleges. This includes facilitating internship opportunities, bringing in business leaders, and overall gearing students’ education in a way that will prepare them for their careers. The program has received both criticism and praise, even leading to the notable visit of a group of World Bank officials in 2013. The officials came to learn how Chicago was building effective partnerships between students and businesses.

“This is a thing that I think is somewhat misunderstood about our College To Careers effort is that there is nothing limiting about any of this. Any company has opportunities all along a vast number of career ladders,” Salgado said. “So when somebody gets into one of those occupations, it doesn’t mean they stay there. Instead, they’re now in the workforce and can grow.”

Some students have reasons to criticize the program, however. Alexa Cruz, the Student Trustee for the Board of Trustees of CCC, explained that although C2C has a net positive impact, it requires improvement. According to Cruz, certain colleges have a more successful C2C program because of increased resources or closer relationships with business communities. Cruz said she and other students agree that the program needs to be more effective across the board. 

Other critics of the program have also argued that it deprioritizes helping students transfer to four-year institutions, and that the curriculum needs to be less focused on providing students skills and more focused on producing students who are creative thinkers and problem-solvers.

Despite Salgado’s stated support of Hyman’s tenure, he expresses a will to diverge from some of her priorities. The previous chancellor pushed the system to increase graduation rates, leading to both a ten percent raise in graduation rates and accusations of inflation. But Salgado said he believes that CCC leadership needs to look at the whole picture, or as he describes it, the “full-value proposition,” when making decisions and formulating a vision for City Colleges.

Instead of just focusing on graduation rates to measure the success of City Colleges and the value it poses to the community, Salgado wants to examine other factors such as graduates’ income earnings and student performance academically and subsequently in the work force. Using that data, Salgado said he wants to more effectively communicate City Colleges’ success to Chicagoans.

“The value that they represent to their families, to their colleges, to their communities, to their employer community here in Chicago and beyond is phenomenal,” Salgado said. “And we’re going to make sure that that whole ecosystem, the whole world understands that and has an opportunity to engage with them.”

Salgado’s decisions to lay off 120 employees and move the downtown headquarters have received mixed reactions. Jennifer Alexander, a professor at Richard J. Daley College and President of the faculty council of CCC, declined to comment, but Kevin Woo, last year’s chairman for the District Student Government Association, told the Weekly that moving the headquarters finally saves individual colleges from bearing the brunt of the budget cuts. He said the entire CCC community believes that “the cost minimization effort should come from the District first as all the affiliated colleges are already suffering due to the significant budget cut.”

“As the prospect of getting any state aid is not conceivable, somewhat drastic action must have been taken to save the institution from insolvency,” he added.

The issue of saving CCC from insolvency applies to Salgado’s move to layoff employees. Although Woo is reluctant to support Salgado’s decision, he also said that he understands why Salgado had to find more funding.

“I believe Mr. Salgado is doing his best to sustain the livelihood of the CCC. As a newly minted chancellor, he seems to be capable of doing things that the previous administrators were reluctant to do,” Woo said. “As desperate times call for desperate measures, his decision to sell the District building and lay off staff members may seem controversial but are necessary steps to keep the CCC from spiraling down even more.”

Perhaps where Salgado stands out most is in attitude and not in policy. Salgado has made a concerted effort to regularly communicate with students and faculty, a responsibility that many criticized Hyman for neglecting.

In his first few weeks on the job, Salgado met with each of the faculty councils for all seven colleges. Each college has its own faculty council. The district-level faculty council, also referred to as FC4, consists of four representatives from each of the college’s own councils.

Alexander, the president of the faculty council for the district, described the role of the council as a group of mainly volunteers who “represent all full-time faculty in all academic matters.” The FC4 traditionally meets with the chancellor every month, but according to Alexander, Salgado has already met with this council several times in the weeks since taking on his role as chancellor.

For Alexander, this constant communication and assurance that the chancellor is addressing the faculty’s concerns is especially crucial to ensuring success,” she said. “It’s collaboration and communication. It’s so elementary but also it’s kind of revolutionary.”

Cruz, the student trustee, reaffirmed Alexander’s sentiment about Salgado in her conversation with the Weekly. Salgado has already met with students several times and has attended the District Student Government Association meetings. Already, Salgado has addressed a long-standing concern of student government by providing them their promised budget, which had fallen short this past year.

According to Alexander, Salgado’s insistence on communication is essential as the chancellor and the faculty work together to achieve shared goals. It seems that so much of what Salgado is striving toward and is beginning to achieve falls in line with the way he describes the role of chancellor: “the connector.” Representing the various interests of the various parties involved in City Colleges—the students, the faculty, potential employers—Salgado has to serve as an administrator, a lobbyist, and perhaps most importantly, the students’ and faculty’s biggest fan.

Drawing on his experience at Instituto and now his time at CCC, Salgado said, “You have to inspire and invest in and work with people… You have to be a servant leader to all of them for your outcomes to be phenomenal.”

Correction, 7/20/2017: 

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Chicago City Colleges had decided to lay off faculty members; in fact, all the staff that were laid off are administrative, non-teaching staff. 

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