Thursday marked a homecoming for Wheeler G. Coleman.
Thirty-four years removed from his arrival on the campus of Northern Illinois University as a freshman, he stepped to a podium in Altgeld Hall and was sworn in as the university’s newest trustee.
“I’m glad to be back home,” Coleman said after taking the oath of office from his wife, the Hon. Sharon J. Coleman, who serves a federal judge for the Northern District of Illinois.
She is also an NIU alumna, graduating with a degree in political science in 1981
“Less than 34 years ago I was admitted to NIU and I came through these doors wide eyed, naïve and ill-prepared for the academic and social challenges I was about to face,” said Trustee Coleman, who grew up on the West Side of Chicago.
“However, with the help of great people – from the faculty, my fellow students and from the administration – I was able to get through this university with a degree in computer science in 1983.”
Immediately after graduation, Coleman took a position as a programmer at what was then a small, nearly bankrupt company: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois.He moved into management four years later and was part of the team that built the company into what is now the largest, non-investor owned insurance company in the nation.
He currently holds the position of vice president and chief technology officer at what is now known as Health Care Service Corporation. That experience, he said has prepared him to assist NIU as it moves ahead, and he hopes to apply some of the lessons and philosophies that helped turn that company around.
“We have a philosophy at our company that there are no excuses. No excuses for failure, no excuses for being average, no excuses for not winning and no excuses for being unethical or for not working as one team,” Coleman said. “And I hope as I come to you today that some of that no excuses philosophy is something that we can adopt as a university.”
Such an attitude, and a laser-life focus, will be required to move NIU ahead, he said.
“I am not naïve to the challenges that we are going to be facing and that we are facing as an institution. I am also not naïve to the financial ills and the lack of funding that we have or to the social challenges that we have to address. I am not naïve to the fact that industry is changing, and that we must change our academic offerings in order for us to stay relevant,” Coleman said.
“We must address our shifting, changing and shrinking enrollment. We have to address our housing and our campus image. We have to shore up our infrastructure, our operations and our technology. And we have to compete for the very best talent that is out there – be it students, faculty or administrators.”
Coleman, who lives in Chicago, is active in many civic organizations.
He sits on the boards of the Black Ensemble Theater and the Daniel Murphy Scholarship Foundation. He was a fellow of Leadership Greater Chicago in 2006 and was named Chicago United’s Leader of Color in 2007 in recognition of his business accomplishments and civic contributions.
He also has served on the NIU Alumni Association Board of Directors since 2010. In addition to his degree from NIU, he also holds an MBA from the University of Notre Dame.
Coleman was appointed to the NIU Board of Trustees by Gov. Pat Quinn in November 2011 to fill the unexpired term of Manny Sanchez.
Coleman’s full address to the NIU Board of Trustees
President Peters, Chairmen, Dr. Williams, fellow trustees, administrators, faculties, students, family and friends,
I am humbled and honored to join this prestigious body, the NIU Board of Trustees. I cannot begin to tell you how special this is for my family and me. NIU holds a very special place in my heart…it is the place where I met my wife of 29 years, it is the place that gave me a “Chance” to develop the necessary skills to have a successful business career.
First of all, I want to thank Governor Quinn for appointing me. I want to thank my friends who helped me during the process. You know who you are. I also want to thank my best friend, my biggest cheerleader and my toughest critic for loving and supporting me not only in the good times but also in the bad times, my wife.
Since most of you are not familiar with me I would like to spend a few minutes sharing my background and providing you with a prospective of our challenges.
Nearly 34 years ago, I was admitted to NIU from a small private high school in downtown Chicago. I came through these doors, wide-eyed, naive and ill-prepared for the academic and social challenges that I was about to face. However, with the help of my fellow students, administrators, and faculty members, I was able to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science in 1983.
Presently, I work for the largest non-investor owned insurance company in the nation which means that we can make long term strategic investments that are in the best interest of our organization without dancing to the tune of Wall Street. We have over 16,000 employees severing over 13 million members. If you compared our revenue to Chicago’s largest publicly traded companies on Crain’s Chicago top 100, we would rank in the top five with the likes of Walgreens, Boeing, Kraft and Sears.
After developing software for almost 5 years for Health Care Service Corporation, I moved into management and have held various leadership titles over the last 24 years, living out the true creed of NIU…”Learning Today, Leading Tomorrow”.
Ten years ago, while working full time, raising two kids, I went back to school full time and got my MBA from the University of Notre Dame. I currently hold the title of VP and CTO with the responsibilities for setting the technology standards for the company, developing Information Technology or, “IT” strategies, overseeing the IT Budget and leading the transformation activities for IT division. In the last two years, I led the effort to reduce the IT budget by over $140m (70M a year) without any adverse impact to our operations, innovation, system reliabilities and availabilities. If you do not know it by now, I come from a large institution that is highly regulated with a lot of constraints.
I am sharing my personal background with you not to brag nor to boast but to let you know that I know that I did not get to this point in my career alone…I did not get through this institution alone. I had a lot of support and help from great people like Dr. Mitchell, the late Leon Miller and a host of others from NIU. Furthermore, I understand the value and role that people who came before me played in opening doors of opportunities for me and others.
Twenty years after NIU opened its doors in 1895, the first African-American by the name of Fanny Ruth Patterson graduated from NIU with a degree in education. She was a trailblazer and many people who came after her continued to open up more doors of opportunities for me and others to succeed. I am grateful for these trailblazers for they had a tremendous impact on NIU, our society and on me directly.
This is like a home coming for me. After 34 years since first enrolling into NIU, I am proud to say, I’m BACK! I am back with stronger eyeglasses, some grey hair and I am still a little naive. However, I am not naive to the magnitude of the responsibilities associated with being an NIU Board Trustee.
I return to NIU knowing that we have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us…NIU, as are other institutions, is at a reflection point. We have to address some of the social challenges of our society, the financial ills and the lack of funding. We have to address the changing needs of industries and adjust our academic offerings to match those needs to stay relevant.
We have to address our shifting and shrinking enrollment, housing shortages and campus image. We have to sure-up our infrastructure, our operations, our technology, and compete for the very best talent among students, professors and administrators.
I return to NIU knowing that if we are going to conquer the challenges that we face, we have to have laser-like focus and collectively work as a team – and time is of the essence!!!
In order for us to achieve the 2020 strategic plan, developed by a team of visionaries, collectively, we have some very difficult decisions to make! The things we do well today will not be enough to compete tomorrow; these things we do well today will not sustain us in 2020. Clearly, we will have to do more to compete!
Over the last three years working with the Alumni Association and specifically the last two months, I had the privilege to meet with many outstanding individuals at NIU and I am very impressed by the talent, commitment and love they have for this institution. I am inspired and very hopeful because we have the core ingredients and people to build upon the work so many others have started in shaping NIU as an outstanding University among universities.
In closing, Dr. Peters, Chairmen, fellow trustees, administrators, faculties, students, family and friends, let’s collectively go to work because greatness is our destiny and I want to thank all of you in advance for the opportunity to work with you and to help create new paths for generations to come. Thank you!