Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

College President

Charles Guengerich '70 of Wright College is a leader on the front lines of higher education in America.

Charles Guengerich, the president of Chicago’s Wilbur Wright College, wants a visitor to see one of his school’s unofficial branch campuses. “Let’s go to Eli’s University,” he says, grabbing his suit coat and leaving his glassy corner office. Guengerich weaves through the maze of modernist buildings that make up the campus of the community college he leads on the city’s Northwest Side, stopping to pick up a few stray pieces of trash here and there. Then he takes a shortcut out a little-used side gate and across a neighboring industrial park.

Eli’s University, it turns out, is located in the bakery plant of the storied Eli’s Cheesecake Company. For the last fifteen years, Wright College instructors have taught adult education classes on-site at the famous bakery—everything from vocational training to management theory to English as a Second Language.

When you think of higher learning in America, classes in the backroom of a (literal) cheesecake factory may not be what springs to mind. For Guengerich, however, the classes at Eli’s go right to the heart of his college’s particular mission. “We’re a community college,” he says. “We’re here to serve the needs of the community.”

By reaching beyond the traditional boundaries of higher education, Guengerich believes, urban community colleges like Wright serve a vital role in U.S. society. No other type of institution of higher learning in America serves a broader or more diverse constituency. Like most community colleges, Wright provides a point of entry to many students who eventually will seek a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college. At the same time, it provides many other students with vocational training across a wide range of trades and disciplines, and helps still other students begin their assimilation to a new society.

Eli’s University (the name was coined by the cheesecake company’s CEO, Mark Schulman) is the product of just one of the partnerships that Guengerich and others at Wright College have forged with local businesses. The relationships provide many practical advantages to all parties. For company management, the classes provide an added benefit that helps attract and retain dedicated workers. For the workers themselves, the classes are an opportunity to gain the skills they need to advance in the workplace. For the college, the classes provide a kind of feeder school, preparing some workers to enroll in more traditional college courses on the Wright campus.

Of course, a chance to sample Eli’s myriad varieties of cheesecake is another attraction of the partnership for Wright’s faculty and president. “You can’t come here and not have a piece of cheesecake,” Guengerich tells his visitor.

To talk with Guengerich about Eli’s University is to be reminded of the immense variety of educational experiences available to American students. A review of the president’s own scholastic career provides another reminder. Guengerich began his studies at a community college—Triton, in River Grove—then transferred to a liberal arts college, Elmhurst, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1970 with a major in chemistry. He did graduate work at a comprehensive state university (Northeastern Illinois) and at a nationally ranked, private research institution (Illinois Institute of Technology) before beginning his teaching career in the City Colleges of Chicago in 1977.

Without really knowing it, he had found his life’s calling. “Having been a product of a community college, I thought I’d give it a try,” says Guengerich. “I thought I’d be here for just a short time. It’s twenty-seven years later now.”

His first teaching job was at Citywide College, a City Colleges experiment which billed itself as “a college without doors” and offered classes at various remote locations across the city. Guengerich taught college chemistry courses in high school classrooms and hospital laboratories. The arrangement made college courses highly accessible to many students, but presented logistical problems. “I carried my chemistry labs and setups around with me,” he remembers. “After a while I thought it would be nice to have an office that wasn’t in the trunk of my car.”

In 1986, Guengerich joined the faculty at Wright. The following year, he was named the college’s dean of instruction. It was a job that, more than ever, allowed him to call upon the breadth of his academic experiences at Elmhurst. “I found that, coming from a liberal arts background, I had an appreciation for what happens in the arts classroom, the humanities classroom, and not just in the science classroom,” he says.

Guengerich became Wright’s president in 1999. It’s a job that presents challenges that go far beyond the academic. Last year, for example, the president had to lead the college through a bruising three-week system-wide strike by City Colleges faculty. Even after its resolution, the strike left some administrators, faculty, and students bitter.

“Strikes are never pleasant for anyone. I know, because I went through one as a faculty member in 1978,” says Guengerich. “It’s like a family fight. But this one was especially difficult. For me, being viewed as an enemy by my faculty was a tough role to be in. We still need to do a lot of healing.”

As the strike begins to recede in memory, the president can focus again on fostering the indispensable work of the Wright faculty. “My goal now is to make what happens in our classrooms easier for our teachers,” he says. And what happens in Wright’s classrooms covers an awful lot of territory and reaches an expansive range of students. The college offers everything from literacy training to preschool classes for toddlers to the only Latino Studies program in Illinois. It enrolls more students in GED, adult education, and non-credit classes than it does in traditional college courses. Its classes in English as a Second Language attract recent immigrants who don’t speak a word of their new culture’s language. Its “Mom and Me” preschool classes bring three-year-olds into college classrooms. Last year, a 102-year-old woman signed up for one of Wright’s seminars in literature.

For Guengerich, the variegated academic offerings of his college reflect a straightforward educational philosophy. “We reflect our community,” he says. “It’s our job to meet the needs of the folks who live and work around us.”

By Andrew Santella
Campus photo courtesy of Wright College

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