If you ask Juan Salgado — the newly minted chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago — about how having led a not-for-profit prepared him for his current role, he has no shortage of answers.
“The thing that not-for-profits have to rely on almost 100 percent to be excellent is mission focus,” Salgado says.
City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Juan Salgado
“If you’re not completely mission-focused and everyone in the ecosystem is not completely mission-focused, you’re not going to be a high-performing not-for-profit,” says Salgado. He was tapped by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel earlier this year to become chancellor after having served 16 years as CEO of Instituto del Progreso Latino, or Institute for Latino Progress, a community-based not-for-profit located in Chicago’s Lower West Side neighborhood.
In addition to mission focus, Salgado stresses the need to inspire the people who work in the organization through “servant leadership” and efficiency.
“You gotta operate at the absolute optimal performance so you can drive every dollar back to value to your student,” Salgado says.
Salgado, a former community organizer, says he has an “additional layer” of skills stemming from the fact that the not-for-profit he ran was based in the community. He first joined the institute as CEO back in 2001 because “it was at the crux of education and economic development.”
“It’s where investments in human beings in local communities, aligned to the local economy, can actually create more income, better family stability and upward mobility,” Salgado says of the institute, where he oversaw two schools, including one aimed at out-of-school youth and another that prepares students for college or jobs in health care.
“So I’ve actually been quite engaged with City Colleges as a partner, someone who was feeding students on the front lines, right in the neighborhood,” Salgado says. “So from my perspective this is a very natural progression at a very critical time.”
Indeed, while Salgado’s path to the chancellorship may be nontraditional, it is the kind that a recent report from the Aspen Institute — a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on “values-based leadership” — says there should be more of in order to diversify and expand the presidential talent pool. This is especially crucial at a time when an aging cadre of community college leaders are eyeing retirement.
“The traditional academic pathway to the presidency includes too few senior leaders who aspire to the college presidency and too few women and people of color,” states the report, titled “Renewal and Progress: Strengthening Higher Education Leadership in a Time of Rapid Change.”
“Filling the vacuum of impending retirements may necessitate expanding the pool of potential presidents beyond traditional academic candidates,” continues the report, which notes that the average age of college and university presidents has risen from 52 to 61 over the past 20 years and that 80 percent of current community college CEOs expect to retire in the next decade.
Salgado says community colleges would benefit from having more unconventional leaders like him who hail from outside the system.
“It’s not that we don’t respect the process and the players, because I do. Tremendously,” Salgado says. “But fresh eyes and a new lens is in many ways welcome.”
Thus far, Salgado has earned high marks from faculty — a constituency that fomented the ouster of his predecessor, Cheryl Hyman.
Julius Nadas, a secretary for the Faculty Council of the City Colleges of Chicago and professor in the computer information systems department at Wilbur Wright College, says Salgado represents a welcome change.
“I was very involved in the no-confidence vote against Ms. Hyman. My primary concern wasn’t what she was doing, but rather the fact that she was unwilling to sit down with faculty and talk about the process by which she came to her conclusions,” Nadas says. “She referred us to her vice chancellors [and] basically told us that our only option was to do as we were told since they themselves did not know the reasons behind her decisions.”
Salgado isn’t like that, Nadas says.
“I have met with the new leadership many times, and I am very pleased with what I have seen so far,” Nadas says.
Jennifer Alexander, president of the Faculty Council of the City Colleges of Chicago, gives a similar account.
“He definitely, definitely, definitely is trying to work with us a lot more than the previous chancellor did,” Alexander says, noting that Salgado got in touch with her before he even started the job and met with various faculty council leaders about 10 times during his first two weeks on the job.
“He made it a point to get out to every college and meet with every local faculty council as well in his first two weeks,” Alexander says. “That’s not easy to pull off.”
She adds, “He’s bringing priority back to the seven colleges,” referring to Salgado’s leadership of the seven-college system that serves 120,000 students a year, according to the district website.
Alexander says Salgado has also demonstrated that he is very focused on students.
She points to a recent decision to sell the system’s 14-story office building in its downtown location — which she says Hyman treated “as a fortress” from which she issued directives — and to instead relocate district staff to the Kennedy-King College campus in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood and Dawson Technical Institute, one of the system’s satellite schools in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
“Selling this underutilized asset allows us to invest more in our colleges, in our communities, and bring our staff closer to students,” Salgado told the Chicago Tribune recently.
Alexander says Salgado could have easily opted to move headquarters to Harold Washington College, which is also downtown, or the “fancy new building” that is Malcolm X College.
“The neighborhood at Kennedy-King is one of the most depressed neighborhoods economically in Chicago, one of the most violent,” Alexander says. “It’s a real bold move to say, ‘We’re gonna work out of Kennedy-King.’”
Community colleges are often judged by their completion rates. At City Colleges of Chicago those rates are about 18 percent, Salgado says. But Salgado wants to look beyond completion rates.
“We’re actually going to be looking at key performance indicators, and I’m looking at it with fresh eyes,” Salgado says. “There are things we already know matter. Graduation rates matter to us. But there’s something broader.
“The graduation rate measures a certain number of students. There’s overall completion. There’s transfers. But there’s something called, ‘Did people at the end of the day actually earn more?’ So going back to earnings potential, what is your earnings potential now? How did your actual earnings grow?
“We’re gonna be looking at in the next few months: What are those key performance indicators that really drive forward the value proposition of the community college, because you can’t get the value proposition in one number. You’ve got to look at the plethora of things that a community college system does.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org