CARTERVILLE – Rend Lake College President Mark Kern recently joined colleagues from the three other southernmost community colleges in Illinois and high-ranking state officials to accomplish something their institutions do best: working together to help achieve a common goal.
Elliot Regenstein, Governor’s Office Director of Education Reform, was in Southern Illinois to present campus leaders of Rend Lake College, host John A. Logan College, Shawnee Community College and Southeastern Illinois College with a proclamation recognizing the 40th anniversary of the creation of the “extraordinary” Illinois Community College System.
Then Gov. Otto Kerner signed the Illinois Junior College Act into law July 15, 1965. Today, every Illinois citizen lives in one of 39 community college districts statewide. Included are 48 unique colleges.
“We are the premier system in the country,” said a prejudiced Geoffrey Obrzut, president of the Illinois Community College Board. According to Obrzut, the concept of two-year colleges started in Illinois with Joliet (in 1901), the state boasts the third-largest system in the country behind only California and Florida and educates over one million students annually.
“And we do work very well together. That is part of the reason for our success.”
“We are the college for all ages,” added Kern, speaking in generalizations as well as for the comprehensive, two-year college he has headed for the past 14 years. Kern taught at Wabash Valley College in Mt. Carmel the first year of its existence and returned to his home community as a member of the RLC faculty in Year Two.
“When you think of Rend Lake College, you think of Mark Kern,” commented Dr. Robert L. Mees, Logan president, in his introduction of Kern, easily the dean of Southern Illinois community college presidents.
Kern praised the foresight of those who saw the need for junior colleges to provide the first two years of a college education within driving distances of the communities served. He pointed with great pride to the mandate demonstrated by local voters – the most overwhelming vote in the nation at that time – for the establishment of what would become Rend Lake College the following year, in 1967.
He recalled the 1970s and ’80s as a time of tremendous growth in technical courses, as a period in which community colleges took a leadership role in providing adult education and the advent of community education and self-improvement courses.
Training for business and industry gained an even greater foothold in the ’90s, Kern indicated, along with retraining needs of individuals seeking employment. Course articulation and student transfer problems were resolved during this time, he said, “and it also was a time during which we gained greater respect. The 2000s have brought more of the same as we have become very much more involved with distance learning opportunities.
“But what makes community colleges so special,” Kern concluded, “. . . We do it with quality, we do it with efficiency and we do it with responsiveness.”
“Governor (Rod) Blagojevich is proud of the success of our community college system and appreciates the critical role community colleges play in the life of their communities,” according to Regenstein.
“Without a doubt, it is the best community college system in the country,” said Logan’s Mees. “We have tremendous cooperation statewide serving the students of Illinois.”
Dr. Raymond V. Cummiskey agreed. The fifth president of SIC is the first to be hired from outside the state. “The Illinois system is one of the reasons I came here,” he said, “and I haven’t been disappointed in any way. The support shown to each other and to four-year programs is second to none. There is a cooperative spirit in Southern Illinois you don’t find everywhere.”
Obrzut noted 38 of the 39 community college districts boast elected boards (Chicago is appointed by the Mayor). These institutions are “more flexible and responsive to the needs of the community,” he said.
“Some colleges are strong in technical studies, but we provide university-credit transfer through articulation agreements, career-vocational training, adult education and literacy. We do all of these things and we do them all well. This is what really makes us stand out over every other system in the nation.”
Shawnee Community College President Larry Choate served as Vice President of Instruction previously. He attended Southeastern Illinois College. According to Choate, another advantage of a community college education is the fact “you get to know people in your community who then become lifelong friends.”
Cummiskey singled out Choate and Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion), who was present, along with Rep. Brandon W. Phelps (D-Norris City) as SIC products. “That really speaks well for the quality of programs we provide,” he said. In addition, “We feel our role is to be an economic engine to help our district grow.”
Bradley’s grandfather was an original Trustee at Southeastern Illinois. Both of his parents attended SIC. “I got a degree from Texas, and my law degree from University of Illinois,” Rep. Bradley commented, “and I got as good of an education through the Illinois system of community colleges as I could have anywhere in the nation.”
Sen. Gary Forby (D-Benton) indicated he had four community colleges within his 59th District, “and they are the best. They are doing a great job for our kids. These people give them a chance. I’ll put them up with any of the people in the State of Illinois.” Forby’s son is a student-athlete at RLC.
Current ICCB Chair Guy Alongi is a Herrin native whose father was a charter member of the Logan Board of Trustees. “I wish he were alive today,” Alongi said, “to see the great accomplishments of our community colleges over the last 40 years. It is a great debt we owe the pioneers of the system.”
According to the Governor’s proclamation, the “extraordinary system of community colleges in Illinois” has had more than 18 million students pass through its collective doors in those 40 years. Their lifetime earning power has increased by an average of 34 percent as a result.
Rend Lake College has experienced all-time record-enrollments three of the past four years.
Along the journey, accomplishments have included:
• Rend Lake College was the first community college in the state to complete its entire facilities master plan. Groundbreaking ceremonies for Phase I construction on the Ina campus were held March 27, 1969, the same day the college received word of its first North Central accreditation. Five buildings were ready for occupancy by August 1970, with Phases II and III finished in 1975.
• Rend Lake College was one of the first three colleges in the nation recognized as a Business-Industry Award-winner during the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges (AACJC) 62nd annual convention in St. Louis. The April 6, 1982, presentation was for “exemplary cooperation” with two local coal-mining companies, Old Ben and Inland Steel.
• Rend Lake College representatives won the inaugural “Academic Olympics” state championship (later renamed “College Bowl”) on April 16, 1993.
• Rend Lake College received the ICCB Workforce Preparation “Award for Excellence” in 1998 for its Co-PREP program which prepared applicants for Correctional Center guard position testing.
• Rend Lake College (1998) and Illinois Community College “Alumnus of the Year” (1999) Mark Michalic (Class of ’78) is dubbed an American hero as the federal agent responsible for tracking down Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh. Michalic, a former RLC Student Trustee, was honored by the Attorney General, FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
• When Rend Lake College’s Cross-Country Team captured the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division II National Championship in Fall 2001, it was a first for Southern Illinois representatives in any Juco athletic team competition. The Warrior harriers repeated in 2002 and 2003. Three other RLC teams have finished runner-up in the nation – Men’s Golf in Division II in 1995 and 2005 and Men’s Indoor Track and Field in 2003.
• Rend Lake College last year was awarded a third consecutive Title III “Strengthening Institutions” Federal Grant, which is believed to be a first according to one national consultant. It is for five years and $1.8 million to help establish RLC as a regional trainer in Wireless Communications Technology. Included is a Challenge Grant Matching 1-for-1 Endowment Option totalling $365,000 which could increase RLC Foundation funds by $1 million in 20 years.
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