Almost 34 years since he graduated from Northern Illinois University, Wheeler Coleman returns as the chairman of the NIU Board of Trustees.
In 2011, Coleman, a CEO and Entrepreneur, joined NIU’s alumni board. He’d always felt a special relationship with NIU because it was the place that he met his wife, the place that he fine-tuned his technology skills, and the place that allowed him to “grow and develop as a person, as an individual, and as a leader.”
After graduating from NIU with a degree in computer science, he started his career working with Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC), where he was a software developer. From there, he moved up through the company, eventually becoming Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. He then became the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Lifetime Health Care companies, the biggest health care company in upstate New York. There, he shifted the direction of the company’s IT operations and prepared the company for the changes that came with the Affordable Care Act. And in 2014, while he was on the alumni board, he started at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Michigan, managing a $320 million dollar budget and 2,000 employees. All this experience, along with the additional half dozen non-profit boards that he’s served on, has given Coleman a wealth of experience in doing everything from managing teams of people, to dealing with budgets, to organizing and leading efficient meetings. And it’s this experience that made him such a perfect fit for his new role at NIU.
Like many institutions right now, NIU faces some challenges, and as chairman, Coleman has already pinpointed a lot of the main issues that he wants to address over the next few years. One such example is NIU’s enrollment problem: over the last 5-6 years, they’ve experienced a decline in enrollment, especially among non-freshmen. To combat this, the board plans to revisit and improve upon current strategies for enrollment, work with junior colleges to create a program that would allow their students to receive their B.S. from NIU, and try to find more scholarship money for students in an effort to make their college education more affordable.
Another thing Coleman looks to address is the financial stability of his students. With each year, the state has allocated less and less money to NIU, making it more and more difficult for the school to do everything from maintain/improve on their current facilities, to providing the best quality education for students. To combat this, Coleman plans to work towards improving the school’s fiscal responsibility and gaining more financial independence. This strategy is very much interconnected with NIU’s enrollment, as improving their enrollment numbers is the most effective way to lessen the school’s dependency on the state for funding. However, the board also plans to lobby the state in an effort to get them to fund higher education. And lastly, the board wants to improve education. They want to increase the number of graduates they have every year, and make sure that they, as Coleman said, “go on to do great things in the state, the city, and nationwide.” This too, is determined in large part by the success of their push for funding.
Coleman’s willingness to give back, however, doesn’t only extend to NIU. In addition to the board, he’s a fellow at Leadership Greater Chicago, has been a Little League coach on the South Side, writes career blogs, and started his own scholarship, named the Wheeler & Sharon Coleman Family Scholarship at Trinity United Church of Christ. This scholarship is an excellent representation of who Coleman is. The scholarship isn’t for students who excel in school, but for students who, like he did, try hard but stay in the middle of the pack. And this all comes back to one of his core beliefs: a successful person, especially a person of color, can’t just focus only on his or her own career, but also has to think about how to give back to the community and empower those people.
He says he gives back in three areas: “Time, Talent, and Treasure.” And giving back is what he’s most proud of. He’s happy to have opportunities to interact with students on campus, and share his story of being a kid from the projects who was able to get to NIU, graduate, and become successful in corporate America.
Coleman says that he inspires these kids by letting them know that, ”If I can do it, you can do it. All the disadvantages I’ve had in my life, I’ve never used that as an excuse. So no matter what they’re facing, no matter where they came from, the hardships they engaged in, there are people who came before them that were able to overcome those hardships, and they can too.”
You can read Wheeler Coleman’s blog at wheelercoleman.com/blog/.