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‘My heart dropped’: Students, community still reeling from Lincoln College closure news | Local Education

LINCOLN — Lincoln College senior Zak Luken described campus as a “ghost town” Thursday morning as students and employees processed the hours-old announcement of plans to close the 157-year-old institution in May. 

The shock was especially acute because of the major changes happening at Lincoln Christian University just across town, sophomore Spencer Davis said. LCU will be ending most of its bachelor degree programs and focusing on its seminary and graduate programs. The changes may involved the future sale of part or all of its campus.

“It’s a bit of a shock to just see your school (go in the) same fashion,” Davis said.

The changes at LCU led some people on campus to think that the college across town would be making similar changes or closing, Lincoln College freshman basketball player Jurnee Flournoy said. At the same time, the LCU changes made it seem more important that Lincoln College stay open, so she was surprised when the college did announce it was closing. 

Lincoln College announced on Wednesday it would close permanently on May 13, 2022, at the end of its spring semester. The announcement cited the increased expenses from the pandemic, along with the accompanying decline in enrollment, and revenue, as part of the reason for the closure.

The college reported having 702 traditional students on its Lincoln campus last fall, down from 756 in fall 2019. Currently, there are 565 full-time traditional students and 143 Accelerate Bridge to Education students, officials said.

Low-income students have been enrolling in lower numbers across the pandemic during the pandemic. Inflation, a hot labor market, the high number of college students leaving the state and the declining number of high school graduates nationwide also play a role, said President David Gerlach. 

A cyberattack that prevented full admissions activities and affected access to information on recruitment, retention and fundraising made matters worse in December of last year, the college said. Once it was solved, projections showed further expected enrollment shortfalls.

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Lincoln College President David Gerlach is pictured in his office on Thursday morning. The 157-year-old college will close its doors at the end of the spring semester.

No personal information was compromised in the attack, the college said.

Gerlach said Thursday that the school worked with its cyber insurance to bring in a team to address the problem. He was also in contact with the FBI.

Lincoln College also has a campus in Normal, which it opened in 1979. Plans for the campus land and facilities are not yet clear.

The college is also home to the Lincoln Heritage Museum. The college also owns the Campbell Creekside Outdoor Center for Environmental Education north of Lincoln. Future plans for either were not immediately available.

Students will have to move off campus at the close of the school year as well, the college said. Current students will still need to pay tuition, fees, room and board for the spring semester. Students who were planning to start this fall will be reimbursed for their deposit.

‘Sadly ironic’

Lincoln College was founded in 1865 by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Gerlach said. The college is the only higher education institution named for President Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime.

It is also the only Predominantly Black Institution in Illinois outside of the Chicago Metro area. It is also one of just seven PBIs located in rural areas across the country, Gerlach said.

The school’s demographics add another tragic layer to the closure of a school so tied to President Lincoln, Gerlach said. Most of the students come from underrepresented backgrounds, and many are low-income and first-generation students.

“I think losing a place like this, where in an athletic event here, my students are screaming ‘Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln,’ to see the tie back to Lincoln’s short tenure, makes it sadly ironic,” Gerlach said.

He, like Luken and Davis, has been dealing with the closure in part with humor.

“COVID equals John Wilkes Booth for Lincoln College,” he said.

High hopes

When Gerlach started in 2015, he wanted to bring the college back to being a four-year institution. The college had moved to a two-year model granting associates degrees in 1929.

The college introduced 12 bachelor’s degree programs and two master’s degree programs, and joined the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

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By fall 2019, school was finding athletic success, and that fall had enrolled its largest incoming class ever. Then the next spring the pandemic hit.

“The pandemic really kicked our butt,” Gerlach said.

Athletes were still seeming to commit to college, but other enrollment was dropping, Gerlach said. The college’s student body went from around 40% student athletes to 60%.

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Softball teammates Chloe Kirkhove, left, and Kynleigh Blake talk about the news that Lincoln College will close at the end of the spring semester.

Many of those were also international students. International students make up around 10% of the student body. The college plans to work with them to transfer their student visas if they want. 

The college’s announcement Wednesday said a “transformational donation or partnership” would be needed to sustain it beyond this semester. There are still hopes of a last-minute donation.

“I was hoping I would get a surprise $100 million gift from (philanthropist) MacKenzie Scott before our 3 p.m. meeting,” Gerlach said.

Students and employees were told about the closure in separate meetings Wednesday afternoon. 

The email asking students to attend a whole campus meeting on Wednesday afternoon went out around 10 a.m. that day, Luken said. The students then had six hours of wondering what was happening.

“That’s six hours of speculation, and that’s six hours of investigating,” he said.

Softball player Chloe Kirkhove, a sophomore, said people seemed to either just accept it or had a harder time processing the information.

Next steps

The college has not yet announced which institution will be its “custodian institution,” handling matters like transcript and record requests.

Severance pay will be provided for for employees who stay through May 13 and meet the college requirements. Employees will get a further letter with information on their severance pay, the college said.

Information the college publicized Wednesday afternoon did not mention any transfer agreements for Lincoln students. However, the college is bringing representatives from other institutions to campus to meet with students on April 14. The college is also planning to offer a virtual college fair for Advanced Bridge to Education students and graduate students, but those details are still being worked out.

Davis started looking at the transfer process Wednesday night. It will be hard to go into a new environment as a junior, he said. He is from Emden, which is just 15 minutes from Lincoln, so a new college also means leaving the area and his family.

Other students needed to avoid the topic for a bit. “I didn’t want to think about it last night,” Kirkhove said.

Her application process will be further complicated by the athletic side of her college experience. The college said it plans to invite coaches from other institutions to recruit Lincoln College student athletes.

Junior softball player Kynleigh Blake, who is from Mount Zion near Decatur, said she was thinking about possibly transferring to Millikin University, but she does not plan to play softball there. The softball program brought both women to Lincoln, they said. It is hard to leave just as college athletics were starting to return to normal.

Blake and Kirkhove are still in the middle of their softball season and said that their team had been talking about the announcement and supporting each other. Flournoy has been talking with her teammates too, but said that it felt more separate since the basketball season is already over.

“I was extremely sad because I have no idea what I am going to do but I know something is going to happen,” she said. “It is hard to believe it is happening. I am trying to see where I could possibly play. I have to get my stuff out there a little bit more.”

Students are also concerned for the faculty and staff at the school who are losing their jobs.

The college will provide updates to alumni and donors on the campus and on its endowment. It is required to work with the Illinois Attorney General as it figures out what to do with remaining funds.

Higher education landscape

Lincoln College is also not the only Illinois college to close in the last two years. MacMurray College in Jacksonville closed in 2020, also citing declining enrollment and finances along with the pandemic.

Illinois Baptist College closed at the end of its spring 2020 semester. Its remaining website does not include information about why the college closed. The school, which was in Washington, was not accredited and opened in 1964 as the Illinois Missionary Baptist Institute.

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Softball teammates Chloe Kirkhove, left, and Kynleigh Blake talk about the news that Lincoln College will close at the end of the spring semester.

Lincoln Christian University is not closing but will be focusing on its graduate and seminary programs.

Lincoln College and Lincoln Christian have always had a close relationship, said LCU President Silas McCormick. The university’s first classes were held on the Lincoln College campus in 1944.

“For our entire existence we’ve shared faculty, students, the Lincoln community, and countless errant visitors who thought they were us or vice versa. It’s hard to imagine that they won’t be with us come fall,” he said. “We love the Lincoln College family, we’re praying for them, and if there’s anything we can do to help, we want to do that.”

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Other area college presidents, including Illinois Wesleyan’s Georgia Nugent, Illinois State’s Terri Goss Kinzy, Eureka College’s Jamel Wright and Heartland Community College’s Keith Cornille, all expressed similar sentiments of condolence and support for the Lincoln College community.

Heartland Community College also operates a campus in Lincoln, which may become the only higher education campus in the city if LCU decides to sell its campus. Cornille said Heartland will work with Lincoln College to facilitate transfers.

“We are assembling a small Heartland Community College team to work with the staff at Lincoln College to assist students to continue or complete their course of study,” he said in a statement to the Pantagraph.

Blake and Kirkhove said leaving the friends they had made on campus would be especially hard. That is what hit Kirkhove first when Gerlach announced the news at the student meeting.

“My heard instantly dropped because I knew I was going to lose a lot of friends,” she said.

Lee Enterprise’s Justin Conn contributed reporting to this story. 

Correction: This article originally had an incorrect year for Lincoln Christian University’s founding. This version has been updated. The story has also been updated with information from Jurnee Flournoy. 

Contact Connor Wood at (309)820-3240. Follow Connor on Twitter: @connorkwood