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'It's heartbreaking': Lincoln College president talks about decision to close the college on May 13

Ryan Denham

These days, Lincoln College President David Gerlach has been fielding a lot of calls and a lot of meetings — ever since he made the announcement on March 30 that the 157-year-old institution will be closing its doors for good on May 13.

In an email to staff, Gerlach described a perfect storm of COVID-19 enrollment impacts and a cyberattack on the college as the reasons for the closure. In his first interview with WGLT since that announcement, Gerlach said he's "heartbroken" by the situation and cautiously optimistic about the chances of a "miracle donor."

Here's what he had to say about the upcoming closure, in a transcript that has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

WGLT: You've been at the helm of Lincoln College since 2015. What was it like when you got there?

Gerlach: When I arrived in 2015, the college had a campus here in Lincoln and a campus in Normal. I said to the trustees, "This is a really odd campus: you have one-year certificates, two-year associate's (degrees), a small amount of four-year, traditional (degrees) and adult accelerated at your Normal campus, but you're touting yourself as the only private, liberal arts, two-year college with residence halls."

So I said to them, "Why don't you bring those four-year degrees down that you have up there and add some more and go back to your roots?" So that's what we started in 2015.

I inherited a campus that was struggling financially at the two-year level, and the board of trustees and I launched this very bold plan to go back to our roots — and it was working.

By 2019, we had increased our enrollment by 30% and our housing was full. We had moved our athletics from junior college athletics to four-year athletics. We launched a graduate program in 2019 — two master's degrees, one in business and one in organizational leadership.

Then came COVID?

In the spring (2020), we sent everybody home and we delayed our start by a week. I had hoped by the end of the spring semester that things would turn and COVID would have given us relief and we would have started seeing students come back. It didn't happen.

In the fall of 2020, we had, roughly, 630 full-time students here. Then in the fall of 2021, we had about the same. At every turn, I kept thinking, 'Well, this next semester, things are going to turn around.'

Then in December 2021, we had a major cyberattack just before the college was closing for holiday break — and our information systems were shut down for almost a month and a half.

Did you find out where that cyberattack came from?

We know exactly who it was — but let's just say it was Iranian hackers. The only side of the story that the cyberattack relates to is it delayed our understanding of the ... projections for fall 2022 enrollment. On March 14, our strategic enrollment management committee was finally able to meet and able to pull together the projections for the fall. Those projections were woefully short of what was needed; it was another projection of about 630 students.

How many students were needed?

Ultimately, our turnaround plan was built around the numbers for fall 2019 — we were at 756. We anticipated the fall of 2020 to be around 830, just by the four-year students staying four years versus transferring out after the fall. In the fall of 2021, (we projected) about 860 students — we would have been really close to being healthy. This coming fall of 2022, we anticipated around 920 students. That was just built around students staying four years.

What hurt us was the cumulative difference between 630, 630 and another 630.

So, at what moment did you know, 'Okay. This (school) is not going to be a thing anymore'?

Know or suspect?

In the March 14 meeting with my strategic enrollment management folks, I was concerned; I needed to verify a number of things between March 14 and when the board of trustees met. The announcement was made on March 30; the board of trustees met on March 25.

Ultimately, I had suspicions on the 14th that this was going to be problematic news.

The good news, from my perspective, is that this spring, we were up 50 students — 50 students is massive for us. I was tentatively excited about what that could have meant for fall 2022 numbers.

But our projections... (are) estimates built from very high-level math equations based on retention projections, based on where students were as a sophomore, junior or senior, how many will graduate and on the incoming class. Our deposits for fall were markedly different — much lower — than they were for last fall or the fall before.

All of these pieces came together to cast this projection and it would have been, I think, irresponsible to continue to operate next year. It wasn't my decision. It was the board of trustees' decision.

Why would it have been irresponsible to keep operating? Would you have had to do a reduction in services?

I don't know that you could cut enough. Deficit projections for that low enrollment number were significant and that would make it challenging to have enough operational money to be able to even close the college.

There are commitments that you make in operating and there are commitments that you have if you were to close. You have to have enough money not only to continue to pay expenses, but also enough money in assets to be able to close the place — you can't just walk away. It would be irresponsible to the employees and students. We have contracts we have to continue to pay for vendor services; I could name a number of commitments.

I know that Lincoln is private, but it's also nonprofit. A lot of COVID money went to public institutions, but there were nonprofits that did get some.

Yes, we got significant support from COVID relief. I'll give you an example to help understand: In the spring of 2020, we got, I want to say it was CARES Act support, and all of that support went to refund students' housing and meals when we sent them home at the beginning of COVID.

That was great — that saved us from having to expense that, but we had to kick in more money than what was given to us. That was a large hit in overall revenue.

But that's just one example. Half of it went to students directly: We had money come to us and we paid it out to students. So, this year, we have what's called the (Higher Education Relief Funds), but of that money we received, we paid out like $1.2 million directly to students.

The way the government structured that support, we couldn't require students to take that money and pay off any remaining balance they had with the college, if they had one. So, for an 18-year-old to get a $2,500 check, I think a whole lot of Xboxes were purchased and sneakers and other things we won't talk about. For some students, I'm sure they did very responsible things.

What was this COVID relief earmarked for — just housing refunding?

It was just straight government support students received. They're going to receive the second portion of that in three weeks or so. I think we'll be distributing north of a million dollars to our students.

So, if I'm understanding this right, the sudden board of trustees decision is why people were still being hired up until recently?

I don't have the authority to say the college is going to close, so until the board made that decision, walking into that meeting I didn't know what the board was going to decide. I had suspected what I thought they might do, but I didn't know.

So yes, we brought on people. There were some unfortunate cases. I just couldn't stop that process until the board of trustees made the announcement to me on their decision.

Will the board of trustees say anything, at any point, about their decision?

I think the board chair, I've committed to have him get in front of some students and talk to them. But they're volunteers, so many of them have full-time jobs or are in retirement, so that makes it a slightly different picture.

Given the college's history of helping adult students, lower-income students and Black and students of color — students who saw an opportunity (at Lincoln) that they didn't see elsewhere, how much will those factors play into a desire to fight for the college on your part?

I have poured my soul into this place; my staff has done the same. In my seven-year tenure, I've had a heart attack. I believe deeply in what we do. I've had, I'm going to guess, 100 or so... groups of students over to the president's house for dinner. My wife and I attend their events, we support them and cheer them on. What this college did long before I arrived was draw into students, love up on them, give them hope, push them to success. I'll take anybody's call — somebody introduce me to a billionaire who might be able to give us multiple millions of dollars that keep this place going.

How much money is needed?

It's greater than $20 million. This college has a $53 million annual economic impact in central Illinois. So, the students coming here, the employees working here, living in this community, the contracts, the food — all of that totals $53 million a year of what this community will lose as a result of losing Lincoln College. So, in thinking ahead... if we were to receive a $53 million commitment, I think the school could, would prosper in an incredible way.

How much faith do you have in that gift potentially coming in?

I have had some very interesting phone calls since the announcement occurred. I've had calls with individuals who have access to money that, in my 19 years of executive leadership, I've never had. But what will happen to them? I don't know. It's a lot of money.

Do you feel like there is enough time between the announcement and May 13 for everyone to get on a somewhat-better path?

Absolutely. In fact, I just got out of two meetings this morning where we have made arrangements with it's almost 20 colleges to have formal articulated, teach-out plans that that will allow students (to complete) their degree elsewhere. We have over 52 colleges coming here to talk to our students on April 14. And we will individually work with our students — we're required to do this by the Illinois Board of Higher Education and our accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission — to have individual, teach-out plans and to have students on paths that they can complete their degree.

We're we're working as fast as we can and we're working really hard to try to make sure that by the time the college closes in May that we will have places for all of our students.
Copyright 2022 WGLT. To see more, visit WGLT.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.