College of DuPage President Brian Caputo

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A former Eagle Scout, Army officer and CFO, Brian Caputo brought all those skill sets to bear in steering the College of DuPage through the pandemic.

If you’re facing a real crisis — say, the need to keep a 21,000-student college going through a global pandemic — it’s not a bad idea to have a guy like Brian Caputo in charge.

Caputo started honing his leadership skills as a teen in the Chicago suburbs, earning his Boy Scouts of America Eagle Award, then attended the United States Military Academy at West Point. He served in the active and reserve military, gaining a specialty in finance and human resources and eventually becoming a lieutenant colonel.

Enjoying the precision of working in finance, he earned a master’s degree from DePaul and served in several suburban governments, eventually spending 19 years as chief financial officer (CFO) of the city of Aurora. Along the way, he picked up a second master’s, this time in public administration, from Northern Illinois University, and then a Ph.D.

Commanding the title of Dr. Caputo, he switched jobs in 2017 to become CFO at the College of DuPage (COD) because he wanted to help students move forward in life. In July 2019, he stepped into the president’s role at the community college — just a couple of months before the pandemic hit. Caputo spoke with Fra Noi about his experiences and his Italian heritage.

Fra Noi: You’ve been College of DuPage president for about two years now. No one could have anticipated the pandemic. Looking back on it, what were some of the biggest challenges?

Brian Caputo: I’d say first there was no clear right path forward.

The most difficult piece was keeping the college community safe and delivering educational services. We had opinions ranging from, “There doesn’t appear to be a pandemic to me,” to people who were petrified, so it was tricky.

As far as teaching online, COD has had a 20-year run at online education. When you pivot an entire institution from 20 percent to 90 percent being remote, that was a task. That part was probably the second most difficult — getting everybody online.

Fra Noi: Were there students who lost family incomes due to COVID-19? And what about those who struggle to pay tuition even in regular times?

Caputo: We have about 40 percent of students on Pell grants, a need-based federal grant program. When something like this happens, families absolutely lose income. We had need-based scholarships. Some racial groups were hit harder than others. Our Latinx population was about 27 percent of the student body and dropped to 25 percent. We believe it’s likely that’s because of their culture. They pulled together to work to support the family.

As far as more basic educational needs, you might think every student has their own laptop. We realized many students would [before the pandemic] use our computer labs. So when campus mostly closed, where do they go? We had to give them laptops, but they may not have had Wi-Fi at home. So we had to purchase hotspots to make those available to students so the educational process could keep going.

Fra Noi: What are the next steps for COD?

Caputo: We are the largest community college in Illinois. Our 21,000 students represent a drop from 25,000. It’s been a decline in Illinois for a while. We’ve had a lot of outmigration to neighboring states. Also, there has been a smaller high school population in Illinois, or at least in our area.

All three of my kids went through COD. It offers a great way to get an education for the first two years. Classes are small, taught by real professors with Ph.D.s. The facilities are great. So you can save money.

There’s a massive skills gap in higher education now. Many jobs are hard for employers to fill. They don’t [necessarily] need people with a full bachelor’s, but they need some education, and they need these people now. COD has 170 degree and certificate programs — everything from nursing to chemistry, vocational skills, HVAC. You name it, we’ve got it.

Fra Noi: What is your vision for COD?

Caputo: Student success is the North Star. We are trying to help students get where they want to go as efficiently as possible — to figure out what they want to do and get there without taking a lot of credits that don’t count toward degrees.

We’re trying to push college courses down into high schools. High school superintendents want more dual credit courses [classes for which students receive high school and college credit at the same time]. These courses are free to high school students, and they get acquainted with COD and are more likely to come to us.

Fra Noi: Looking at your bio, you were a “Boy Scouts guy,” a “military guy,” a “financial guy” and now a “higher education guy.” Which of these plays the greatest role in who you are today?

Caputo: I would say that the common thread is leadership and public service. I’ve always been attracted to responsibility and making as much of a difference as I can. I’ve always tried to take on responsibility and do the best I can for the betterment of the organization.

Fra Noi: Tell us about your parents and where you grew up.

Caputo: I grew up in Prospect Heights and Arlington Heights and went to Hersey High School in Arlington Heights. My father spent some time in the Air Force, but he mostly sold insurance. My mom was an office manager in mostly manufacturing firms.

I have a brother who’s two years younger, and he’s a retired Barrington Hills police officer. I also have a sister, and she runs a cell phone store.

Fra Noi: What is your Italian background and identity?

Caputo: I’m Italian on my dad’s side, but that was by far the predominant influence. Both my father’s father and mother came from Southern Italy. My grandpa was from Calabria. They had Sunday get-togethers, and my grandparents played very large roles in my life in how they encouraged me. I don’t think I’d be the same person if not for them. My grandpa came over, was a tailor, and he did well for himself. I don’t think he graduated from even middle school. That was a time when if you were industrious, you could do well for yourself. We had a very wide network of relatives, so a lot of Italians!

Fra Noi: What about your own family?

Caputo: I am married about 30 years now. We met in middle school but didn’t get married until age 30. We had different paths and got together later. My wife, Karen, is a retired high school teacher.

We have three children. The oldest son graduated from COD, went to UIC and is now an Army captain. Our second son is a carpenter — he works locally — and my daughter is entering her senior year at Aurora University, studying social work.

Fra Noi: You mentioned going to Italy would be on your bucket list. Anything else?

Caputo: There’s just so much work to actually get COD into a place where I’d like it to be. I’ve got a pretty darn full plate for several years to come.

The above appears in the September 2021 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Pam DeFiglio

A lifelong writer. Pam DeFiglio works as an editor at the Chicago Tribune Media Group/Pioneer Press. She has won two Chicago Headline Club awards for previous work as an editorial writer and features writer at the Daily Herald. She also won National Federation of Press Women awards for Chicago Tribune news features on immigrants, and has worked in public relations at a university. She loves Italy and all things Italian, thanks to Nanna and a magnificent college year in Rome. She's grateful for all the people working to celebrate Italian culture in Chicago. Contact her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/pamdefiglio/

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