Colleagues, students, and faculty salute her years of service ahead of her Dec. 31 retirement.
Cynthia Cook-Conley

There is always a box of tissues on Cynthia Cook-Conley’s desk at the Harris School of Public Policy, kept close at hand, she says, in case there are any teardrops when a student comes by to tell her how they fear they are failing or how they long for home. 

But lately it’s been Cook-Conley who has needed the tissues. Students, alumni, professors, deans, and colleagues have gotten word that the Harris PhD program academic advisor and executive assistant to the deputy deans will soon retire after 43 years at the University of Chicago. And they are letting her know what she means to them and to Harris.

“I've been sitting at my computer crying, you know, over what they said about how I touched their lives,” said Cook-Conley. “They recall the incidents that I had forgotten about.”

They have not forgotten how she untangled financial-aid problems or helped them understand school dynamics. How she helped them find faculty members to assist with research or serve on their dissertation committee. How she planned country-themed social events where international students, through food, dance, and celebration shared their culture with their peers. How she displayed photos of everyone’s children. Or how she encouraged them to be brave, assured them they would be fine, showed them she cared, and handed out hugs.

Cynthia Cook-Conley celebrates with PhD students.

“Too little attention, in my view, is paid to the profound benefit to be derived from and the importance of those figurative and actual hugs,” said Kerwin K. Charles, the Indra K. Nooyi Dean and Frederic D. Wolfe Professor of Economics, Policy, and Management at the Yale School of Management. Cook-Conley was his assistant when he was Harris deputy dean from 2011 to 2016.

“Life,” he added, “often is not structured for someone to reach out to us and say, ‘It's going to be all right. It's going to be OK.’ And Cynthia did that for generations of Harris students, masters and PhD. I know that for sure. Generations.”

“But I also want to talk about how she did her job, the quality and the excellence of her work,” Charles added, “because it wasn't just that she was this very nice person in the building. Although she was. And it wasn't just that she was this special presence in the place, the person who met our visitors, who helped organize our seminars … although she did that. It was also that she did all those things with extraordinary capacity. I have had a long career now and I've met all different kinds of assistants. Cynthia was the very best.”

Cook-Conley walked into the University on Oct. 30, 1978, and never left. Her sister Dorothy Hammoc, she said, worked at the University of Chicago Hospital and wooed her, pulling Cook-Conley, who attended Chicago State University to study psychology, from the government career she’d started in the Social Security Administration and the Department of Labor. The University was close to her now-grown kids’ schools, making it convenient, Cook-Conley said. Many family members, including her sons Patrick and Crishawn Cook, have worked there over the years. And the lifelong Chicagoan found variety and challenges, holding positions in a variety of university departments, including Economics, before joining Harris on July 26, 1994. 

In her current PhD program role, she is the first point of contact for the PhD students, helping them navigate their arrival, advising, overseeing their progress, and pushing them to complete their studies and graduate. 

The key, she said, is “you have to care about people, you have to care about the students, you have to keep track of what they're doing and make sure that once they’ve entered the department or the program that you're there to help them to finish. But the most important aspect of it is just caring for them and helping them along.”

“I can always tell when a student is having a problem,” she added, and if they are, “I call them into the office and say, ‘What's going on? I see that you're not doing well. Is there anything that I can do to help you?’

“And sure enough, they will let me know.”

“I show them compassion,” she added, “and, you know, that's needed.”

Cynthia Cook-Conley with colleagues at the Keller Center.

People trust Cook-Conley because “she has everyone's best interest at heart,” said David McMillon, who earned his PhD at Harris this year and is now an assistant professor of economics at Emory University.

“If you meet her, she's a very unassuming person,” McMillon added. “There's something else that you can just tell about her. It’s really hard to describe. It's almost like a spiritual thing, But I could tell right away. She reminded me of my mom,” who is also an academic.

As he narrowed his PhD program choices, McMillon said he spoke frequently to Cook-Conley, who “gave me a really good feeling. She's definitely a huge part of the reason that I came to Harris.”

“I think she's a genuinely altruistic person,” he added. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but at her core is a unique grade of altruism that comes from the Black American Church, from the kind of culture that can endure hundreds of years of genocidal injustices and still love radically in return.  That’s who she is. That’s Cynthia.”

Harris colleague Milvia Rodriguez noted that Cook-Conley “has this quiet power that people know and recognize. When she's around, I feel safe.”

The two met when Cook-Conley interviewed Rodriguez, the program administrator for the Public Policy Studies program at The College at The University of Chicago, and they clicked. Prior to her current position, Rodriguez served as the associate director of academic advising and financial aid at Harris. “We became friends right there. She liked me, I got the job and she was a huge supporter of my work and myself from the very first day.… She's my sister now.”

Cook-Conley, whom Harris saluted with a party on Dec. 1, will officially retire on Dec. 31. Why now? “Well, I prayed and asked God. I said, ‘You know, is this time for me to go?’ I'm 67 years old. And having worked at this institution for 43 years, I think it's time now. … My husband and I are both getting older. It's time to live my best life now.”

Some wonder how Harris will carry on without the woman who knows everyone and nearly everything about the school.

“There’s a part of me that wonders, oh gosh, you know, how is Cynthia going to be retired? The whole school will collapse,” said Charles. “And then I thought to myself, Kerwin, Cynthia has earned a golden retirement. You know what she's going to do? She is going to do what pleases her on a Monday. And then she's going to change her mind and do it or something else on Tuesday. And she has well deserved that.”

Cook-Conley said that she and her husband, Coleman Conley, have been talking about moving to a warmer climate, perhaps Texas, where she has family, including a daughter, Cassandra Conley, in Houston and a sister and nieces and nephews. In the meantime, she’ll coach youth cheerleaders, volunteer at her Apostolic Church of God, which is just down the street from the campus. And dash off to “silver sneakers” Zumba classes.

“I’m so overwhelmed with the blessings that God has given me,” she said, adding that “it's been an enjoyable journey I tell you.”

“You know, I wake up sometimes and I think about my retirement day and my oldest son, Patrick, he said, ‘Mom, I know you're going to cry.’

And I said, ‘Yeah, I am. I'm going to cry.’ “