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Under Fire, Chicago Colleges Step Back From Outsourcing Classes.

CHICAGO -- The board of the City Colleges of Chicago, which recently drew fire for contracting with American Express Tax and Business Services to handle its financial operations, is apparently postponing plans to look at the possibility of cost-cutting by privatizing some academic departments.

"My understanding is that we're not privatizing academic departments," said Yvonne Davila, district director of marketing and public relations for the system, which serves about 160,000 students at seven community colleges in Chicago. Dr. Wayne Watson, chancellor of the City Colleges, was not available for comment.

The City Colleges Board of Trustees announced Feb. 5 that it would turn over payroll, budgeting, grants accounting and other functions to American Express Tax and Business Services. The community college system is currently evaluating its information technology and maintenance operations to see if they should be outsourced, too.

In the aftermath of the announcements, unionized faculty and employees of the city colleges became concerned about comments by college administrators indicating that academic departments could be next.

Board Chairman James Tyree told the Chicago Tribune last month that he would consider outsourcing some academic programs, such as computer science.

"We realize that in these times of change, we must continue to seek new ways to improve the quality of services that City Colleges delivers," he said in a news release. "We must also take into account past business cycles and the new economy and make tough choices that are required for positive change."

Watson asked all college presidents to evaluate their administrative and instructional services by early March, according to a Feb. 5 news release.

It was that kind of talk that made faculty members such as Dr. Paul Janus nervous. Janus, a biology professor at Wright College and special assistant to Cook County College Teachers Union President Norman Swenson, said about 300 faculty members, employees and students picketed the board's March 1 meeting in support of employees affected by the American Express contract.

"Our biggest concern was that we thought a lot of the employees would lose their jobs," Janus said. "But at the meeting they reduced the number of employees who will (lose their jobs). A majority of them found other jobs."

Janus said there was no more discussion about studying academic departments for possible outsourcing. And Davila said Watson has now pushed back the date by which college presidents must evaluate their administrative and instructional services.

"I definitely think they felt the pressure," Janus said. "How can you privatize a biology teacher or history teacher?"

Despite union officials' contentions that the protest may have deterred the administration for now, the issue is far from settled, Community college and higher education experts say the situation in Chicago may be part of a larger interest in privatizing higher education.

"You have to take seriously their decision to study this," said Dr. R.P. Pedersen, who runs the Web site junior According to Pedersen, the most profound effects of privatizing some academic programs would be in the area of interdepartmental cooperation. "How are they going to guarantee a level of cooperation to ensure that students' needs are being served?" he asked.

In fact, Pedersen said, "You'll notice that the thing that's been missing from all this is the word `student.'"

Dr. John Roueche, director of the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin, said because the idea is so new, the higher education community hasn't studied how students are affected when services or instruction are out-sourced to private companies. "It depends on the quality of the team that's brought in," he said. "We don't have a lot of data."

While many institutions have privatized food and maintenance services, experts say they have heard of few schools taking the step of outsourcing regular academic programs. Susannah Crane, a spokeswoman for Towson University in Towson, Md., said her college had entered into a contract with Sylvan Learning Centers Inc., to provide remedial math help to students. But when the contract came up for renewal two years ago, the school decided not to renew it. Crane said it wasn't clear why Towson ended its relationship with Sylvan but said that the contract was more expensive than providing remedial math with school faculty.

Higher education experts say what's going on in Chicago is really part of a larger trend -- both in education and in the nature of the American job.

"Sociologists have recognized that we're increasingly dividing the work force into `permanent' and `contingency' employees, Pedersen said. "I see this as a general trend and not as an anomaly."

Roueche said privatization efforts should send a message to community college faculty that they had better find ways to continue innovating and improving their services before someone else tries to do it for them.

"It's very clear that more is going to be expected of faculty at the college and university level. We're seeing more and more pressure from those who fund us to document the positive impact we're having," he said. "l think we'll see more of this and not less."
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Title Annotation:City Colleges of Chicago
Publication:Community College Week
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Mar 19, 2001
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