In February, Eureka College will celebrate its 140th anniversary. The college’s most notable alumnus is, of course, President Ronald Reagan, who put the small, private college on the map.
Dr. George Hearne, president of the college for the past 10 years, has served in a variety of administrative positions at Eureka College since 1960. A Florida native, Dr. Hearne attended Bethany College in West Virginia, and earned a master of divinity degree from Yale. Serving briefly as a pastor in The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he soon moved into administration at Eureka College – affiliated with the Disciples of Christ denomination.
In this interview, Dr. Hearne discusses how Eureka prepares its students for the real business world through a challenging liberal arts program, and the general state of education in America.
What would you most like to communicate about Eureka College to Central Illinois residents? Why do students choose Eureka?
The uniqueness of Eureka is that is stresses the undergraduate experience. We’re as concerned about the quality of education our freshmen receive as we are the seniors. We do not offer masters degree or graduate degree programs. We focus on the four-year undergraduate programs, which is totally different from most other schools. A large university may have a lot of things to offer its students, but by and large there isn’t a central focus for freshman and sophomores. Large classes don’t offer the same opportunities as smaller classes. Eureka may not offer as many courses as large universities, but there is more focus and concentration demanded in our courses.
We focus on a very demanding and strong liberal arts program, operating on the assumption that this is the best preparation a student can have – probably at any time, but certainly at a time when people are going to be changing jobs and careers as much as they are in our society and future years.
All of our students go through a western civilization sequence that continues throughout the entire first year. It is interdisciplinary and team-taught, and covers all of the areas that contribute to our culture. The students also participate in a senior seminar which allows them to tie together the things they’ve learned.
Eureka has a very strict writing-intensive program. In fact, we just received a $10,000 grant from Ameritech as a recognition of the significance of our writing-intensive program. Every student must take 12 designated writing-intensive courses – six in their major and six outside their major. The faculty members involved contract to operate the courses with no objective examinations or quizzes, but with more papers demanded by the students. Everything must be in writing, and papers are evaluated on writing skills as well as content. This goes on for the entire four years.
We focus on writing skills because we know the quality of writing many students have when they enter college is lacking, and they are going to need that communication skill.
National Review recently listed Eureka College as one of America’s top 50 liberal arts colleges, because of the important values we emphasize in preparing our students for life beyond college.
We are concerned about the quality of our graduate and how they can serve their communities and be involved in helping others. We try to do that at the campus level, stressing involvement in life on campus.
For example, most musical and theatrical productions performed at Eureka College are performed by non-majors. Only 5 to 10 percent of the students working in our theater programs are theater majors. At a large university it would be very hard to have that occur. The students here are involved on a very intense level.
Our athletic program is a totally non-scholarship program, but is has had success because of the kind of involvement we stress.
How many students are currently enrolled at Eureka College?
We’ve plateaued at about 500. We just finished a major campaign which provided some facilities that have positioned us to grow. In the next 5 to 10 years we would like to have up to 750-800 students. That would be ideal.
With the emphasis on a liberal arts education versus the emphasis on technical skills stressed in today’s job market, how do Eureka graduates place in job markets? What are corporations’ attitudes regarding hiring someone from a college like Eureka?
It’s interesting because in a corporate setting, attitudes differ among people doing the hiring and the senior officers. The senior officers say they are looking for well-rounded individuals who can be flexible and, in fact, if you look at the individuals that get promoted in the corporate structure, they tend to have those qualities. But the people doing the hiring for that first-time position are looking for technical skills.
Eureka helps place students (25-30 percent of whom come from a 50-mile radius of the college) through alumni contacts. We have a very active and successful alumni networking group. We have set up a shadowing program where eventually, hopefully, ever one of our students will have an alumni mentor. About 25 percent of Eureka alumni have stayed in the Tri-County area, so it’s feasible to see that become a reality.
Are you able to attract the quality of professors that you need to maintain your programs?
We are looking for people who have excellent academic credentials and experiences, and who are willing to work with students by being available and accessible to them. There are faculty members out there who are looking for the same thing – a place where they can interact with students and spend more time helping individual students through projects. Over the last 10 years we’ve made it a priority to bring out compensation up to a level competitive with other institutions.
What does the Ronald Reagan legacy mean to Eureka College?
There are obviously no other alumni who have the kind of name or stature of Ronald Reagan, although we have had a number of executive leaders in notable organizations.
What the Reagan legacy means to us cannot be overstated. Part of that is because he believed in this college. He credited Eureka College for doing great things for him at that time in his life – both in the education and the financial support he received. He has come back regularly, and that has made a tremendous difference for us.
Many people who otherwise would not have known about the college have become aware of it because of President Reagan. Because of that awareness and interest from outside sources, people began supporting the Ronald Reagan Scholarship at Eureka as a tribute to him.
The Ronald Reagan Scholarship program attracts five students each year, chosen on the basis of outstanding scholarship, leadership and service. These students receive tuition and support from mentors and outstanding leaders in their fields, nationally and even internationally during summer programs. It has done a lot for this campus and many outstanding young people participate in it. We usually have 70-80 finalists; usually some 15-20 each year decide they want to go to college at Eureka even if they don’t receive the award.
The funding for the Reagan Scholarship comes from an endowment program for which we have commitment of about $4.5 million – almost entirely from people not otherwise tied to the college.
I’ll miss having President Reagan come back in February for our 140th anniversary. He’s been back for his 25th and 50th class reunions, as well as his 60th in 1992. Each time he would say, “It’s not true I was around when this place was founded.”
What kinds of degrees do most graduates from Eureka earn?
Science and business are the number one fields of study here. The third largest field for us is education – both at the elementary and secondary levels. History and political sciences are strong, but not as strong as those three.
As an area business, what is the local economic impact of Eureka College?
We employ 122 people. The Eureka school district may employ more people but, aside from that, we are the largest employer in Eureka. We have an annual operating budget, excluding capital projects, of close to $9 million.
We have heard much about the American crisis in education, particularly in our elementary and secondary schools. Is there a crisis? What can we do to improve it?
I don’t think there’s any question our educational system is in crisis, especially in large population centers. When we deal with schools from the city of Chicago, for example, we learn how unprepared students are for college – including many students who are in the top 10 percent of their classes. These students may have been competing well in their group, amidst all the conditions they have had to deal with – many coming from homes where they have no legitimate educational support or encouragement. They may do well academically when compared with their peers, but when they come into an academic program such as ours, they just don’t have the proper communication skills. We work very hard with them, trying to make up for what they don’t have. We definitely need a stronger educational system at the lower levels. American business needs it; American society needs it.
As educators, our expectations need to be higher. For example, students don’t read nearly as much as they used to, and to read one chapter for school seems like a lot to many students. If they are required to do more, they will do better. A student who may not be succeeding in one are, may do better in another. If they have a “coach” in a system that expects a lot out of them, they will develop a good work ethic and will be trained in the things that will help them improve. We’ve not done a good job of transferring that “coach” model to the classroom.
How has our educational system gone wrong in the past few decades?
There are fewer stable families today – which is impacting students by lowering motivation levels and the time parents spend with their children. The overhaul needed in education must come by changing society and the family structure.
Part of the problem comes from the crowded conditions of some of our schools and the poor neighborhoods. Frankly, some of the problem comes from the education movement itself, in that we have not held strong enough expectations of the students, whether it be in what they should be doing academically or how much time they should be spending on their studies.
To an extent, teachers may have given into other pressures and started demanding less. If they are too busy, they give the students objective exams because they are easier to grade. Students aren’t being required to write enough papers in high school, so they come to college and aren’t prepared for the required work. They communication skills are often very weak.
My personal philosophy is, if you sacrifice the objective evaluations and the competitive nature of education, then you lose some of the needed motivation. These objective and competitive standards that have helped build the work ethic are important to the success of individuals who are going to make it in the business world today.
There is talk in Congress of abolishing the Department of Education. What are your thoughts about such an initiative?
I don’t know whether the Department of Education itself is a necessary component; it’s the educational programs that are important.
I am particularly concerned about the regulations that have gone into education – regulations which have grown to the point of setting up state bureaucratic agencies to evaluate curriculum for private and public schools. I’m hoping much of that will be changed.
How much encroachment of excessive government regulation does Eureka College see?
Probably at least 70 percent of our students receive financial aid subsidized by state or federal governments. Whenever you receive or accept that, Congress will fins a way to make such financial aid contingent upon certain regulations. We get a lot of paperwork – some of which is probably good – but it means we are paying someone to do the paperwork instead of to teach.
Is it difficult for a small, private college to keep abreast of the latest technology?
Yes, it’s a challenge to keep up with the technology, knowing that the equipment you buy will need to be replaced in two years because it will become outdates. It’s difficult to keep the financial resources to stay up with equipment. We’re not moving as rapidly as we would like, but we are in the process of moving into full connections. This is a priority for us. We opened an additional computer laboratory in September. We will have a local area network in operation this year. Our students will have access to the Internet them, which is good for a small college.
You have lived and worked in Central Illinois for over three decades. What is your general assessment of the economic climate in Central Illinois today?
Overall, I think we are stronger than in the past. I believe it’s because there has been development of other businesses, not just a domination by Caterpillar. But Caterpillar is maintaining its strength. My impression overall is that Peoria has a more stable economy.
Although we went through an economic slump, as I look around at other places throughout the country, we’re in better shape than some. I think we’re definitely stabilizing.
A couple of years ago we sensed, within our student population, a real nervousness about the labor unrest at Caterpillar. However, this year that hasn’t been prevalent. Our students seem to have more confidence in the future, locally, despite the difficulties between Caterpillar and labor. We also had a good farm economy this year, which helps.
Tell us about your recently completed financial campaign and how it will impact the future of Eureka College.
We successfully completed a $24 million campaign one year ago. The campaign was designed to put $10 million into endowments, $10 million into capital improvements, and to support the annual operating budget. For us, $24 million was an extremely aggressive goal. The best way to put it into perspective it to divide the campaign goal by the number of students, which amounts to $48,000 per student.
I’m delighted with the success we’ve had. For the endowment, it has been the ability to put more money into a scholarship fund. Our average cost right now for a resident student is about $15,500. We put $1.5 million into scholarships and grants. Overall, when combined with financial aid from federal and state agencies, our students receive, on average, over $10,000 in aid. So Eureka College is accessible for middle-income and lower-income families.
We have also brought all of the old facilities up to date and added a few new ones – for example, the Donald B. Cerf College Center. The center has an auditorium, a large student union, a large multi-purpose area, and the permanent Ronald Reagan Exhibit, which is open to the public every day. It brings all the student services together as well – all the things we needed combined into one building. New space is opening to build new classrooms and increase our student population. IBI