By Mike Kroll
One year ago this month was Don Crist's last Carl Sandburg College board meeting as president. The man who took his place initially began as interim president this past January but shed the "interim" prefix July 1st. One could note that Tom Schmidt is about to celebrate completion of his first year as CSC president just as that institution embarks on a new era of financial instability. But Schmidt wouldn't put it that way: "I've always been a 'the glass is half full' sort of person and you must recall that it was an earlier period of financial uncertainty that brought me here in the first place."
Of course Schmidt is correct. When he arrived at CSC nearly 12 years ago the college was then facing financial challenges of more immediate seriousness than he faces today. But after 27 years in the "community college racket" Schmidt is sure of one thing, while the mission and appearance of community colleges may change greatly over time their continued existence is virtually assured. That is perspective that the workers at Maytag or Gates have not found to hold true.
When Schmidt arrived in January 1991 he was hired by then CSC president Jack Fuller to be vice president of business services. Prior to arriving at CSC he had already held positions at three other community colleges serving in both teaching and administrative roles. He never expected to one day be president of CSC. "I did not come to Carl Sandburg College with the thought or perspective of becoming president, but I did come here knowing in my heart that this is where I wanted to finish my professional career."
A suburban Chicago kid who commenced his college education at a junior college (College of Dupage) with an associates degree in business, Schmidt earned both his bachelors and MBA at Illinois Benedictine College. He began his professional career at College of Dupage while still a student at Benedictine. By the time Schmidt moved on to Blackhawk East in Kewanee he was splitting his time between administrative and teaching responsibilities. In 1987 Schmidt followed his Blackhawk East mentor to Herkimer County Community College in New York where he was dean of administration.
"When the time came to decide on accepting the position here at Sandburg I had to balance a variety of factors but the move was clearly good for both my career and my family situation. In the time since I have been here I have had the opportunity to participate in much of the development of Carl Sandburg College. Despite, or perhaps because of, some tough economic times we have been able to grow the college-- for failure to pursue growth would have meant a death spiral. Today the college has just about realized the vision our board had for programs and facilities a decade ago."
"Today's circumstances are changing. In a couple of years we will have just about all the relative resources we could reasonably as for. Modern, energy efficient and flexible campuses coupled with a broad range of programs and is diverse student body will mean that the time has come to refocus our energies. The next administrative emphasis at Carl Sandburg College must be on enhancing the quality and relative efficiencies of what we do rather than on building new facilities or commencing new programs."
Schmidt looks at events such as the imminent closing of Maytag as critical opportunities for CSC to fulfill its mission to the communities it serves. But he also acknowledges that it will pose real risks for the college. "In the short term our credit hours and number of students are going up but history tells me that this is but a two-three year aberration before both of those numbers drop off again. Of just as much concern to me is that we not disappoint our communities too much as we recognize the limitations to what the college can do to soften the economic blow of Maytag's closing."
This fear becomes clear when you correlate area employment opportunities with the retraining opportunities available through CSC. Many of the vocational programs offered at CSC essentially require the graduates to move out of the area to seek employment. Furthermore, the CSC programs offering the best financial opportunities are also multi-year programs requiring significant educational commitments by students. Neither is really practical for a soon to be laid off 15-year Maytag worker who needs a good paying job almost immediately.
At the same time Schmidt also has a unique perspective on what the role of a community college should be. "Community colleges should not be looked upon as a mini-university or even as the pre-university. In my view community colleges ought to be theM.A.S.H units of education. Flexible, agile entities with a set of core resources that can swoop down upon an educational need with practical offerings. We hae to be able to put up our tents quickly when called upon and agile enough to reconfigure the camp as circumstances dictate."
Schmidt also fondly recalls the origins of community colleges as junior colleges that were less focused upon specific degree programs. Originally, adults went to their local junior college to take a course or two to correct for a skills deficit or to pursue a new hobby or vocation. "As I recall the 'Back to the Future' movies I think about an approach I call 'forward to the past.' This is where today's community colleges utilizes the technologies of today to revisit those original missions. While some might resist such a notion I believe we have to be willing to throw off the shackles of comfort as we reexamine the mission at Carl Sandburg College. I see the next decade as one of looking inward and reevaluating what we do best and what best serves our students and communities. It is clear that financial resources aren't going to be expanding to any great degree in the upcoming years and we need to get the most bang for our buck at Sandburg."
Recognizing that he himself took a non-traditional path to his current position Schmidt realizes that formal college degrees are not the end result for many students. In an era where many college boards of trustees wouldn't even seriously consider a candidate for president without a doctorate Schmidt is a great counter example. This past spring, after assuming the interim presidency of CSC Schmidt enrolled in the doctoral program for community colleges executives at University of Illinois.
"When I was first offered the opportunity to serve as interim president I told board members that my actions at the helm would not be custodial. I was going into the interim job as if I was the incoming president prepared to make decisions no differently that I do today. What did I have to loose with this approach? Given my close relationship with Don Crist the six month period of overlap felt like a natural transition. In the coming years I will have the pleasure of making my mark on Carl Sandburg College."