Dr. John Erwin joined Illinois Central College January 1, 2001 as the college’s fourth president in its 33-year history.
Under his leadership, Illinois Central College has undergone a new comprehensive planning mechanism and is implementing the principles of process management. He works closely with the ICC Board of Trustees and administrators on five key focus areas: enrollment partnerships, diversity, college climate, and building projects.
Erwin serves on several boards, including the American Heart Association, Workforce Development, Peoria Historical Society, Children’s Home, and the Urban League. He also serves as vice-chairman of the United Way Service Industries committee, and is a member of the International Advisory committee for the Illinois Community College System and the Dean’s Community Associates Council for the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria.
He has published numerous articles on higher education administration as well as his own academic discipline of history.
His wife, Becky, is a teacher. They have three children, Lauren, Kristen and Andrew.
Tell us about your background, schools attended, family, etc.
I completed a bachelor of arts degree with a double major in religion and English at the University of Indianapolis, then attended Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio, where I received a master of divinity degree. Next, I attended Indiana University where I received a master of arts degree in history and my Ph.D. in American studies and history. I’ve completed post-doctoral work at Iowa State, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Harvard University. I was a full-time student for 14 consecutive years after high school. I think about that now when I listen to students concerns about burn out. I’m not sure how I did that.
I pastored part-time during those years, as a chaplain at the Ohio State Psychiatric Hospital and an inner-city pastoral assignment at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Columbus. My first professorial appointment was at Illinois Eastern Community College District at Olney Central College. While there, I pastored a 48-mile circuit with three different parishes and three Sunday worship services for six years. I also coached men’s basketball at Olney for two years.
My wife, Becky, and I have been in education all of our professional lives. Becky is an elementary education teacher and currently teaches in Dunlap. We’ve raised three children—Lauren, who resides in Columbus, Ohio; Kristen, a graduate of Dunlap High School who is now a freshman at Illinois Central College; and Andrew, a freshman at Dunlap High School.
Who or what influenced you to choose education as your career?
The biggest influence on me was my grandfather. He taught high school mathematics and lived what I would call the "life of the mind." He had the largest personal library I’ve ever seen. All four walls of his library were covered with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and he had two islands of bookcases in the middle. The greatest compliment my grandfather could pay you was to allow you to borrow his books. If you borrowed a book, he expected you to read it and discuss it with him. I can still remember many of the books and conversations we had.
My grandfather was well read in Eastern religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. My interest in religion really stemmed from his early questions and the books he supplied me. He never ceased learning and teaching. I can recall coming into his home and he would be working calculus problems he had invented or had just written down. He was simply enjoying himself working out these problems. I still have a notebook of his calculus work.
He didn’t think there was a higher calling in life than to be a teacher. Even after he retired, well into his 80s and early 90s, he still tutored high school students in trigonometry, algebra, and calculus. The fact high school teachers kept referring students to him after all those years speaks well of his abilities and his lifestyle. He was probably the first and foremost influence on me.
You are also an ordained Methodist minister. Have you pastored a church? What led to your desire to become an ordained minister? How do the two careers complement one another?
It happened in a dream. I was staying with a pastor and his family in a small Indiana farming town one Summer. There was a drought that year. One Sunday morning at services the pastor asked us to pray for rain. At the time, I was an earth science major and meteorology was part of my studies. I thought his request was absurd. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and hadn’t been for two weeks. But like everyone else, I just bowed my head and listened.
That night I was awakened by lightning, thunder, and the pounding of rain. The storm overwhelmed me, and I woke up with cold chills. I felt so insignificant. My rationality told me there was no way it could rain. But by that one pastor’s faith and the faith of the congregation, it rained. That rain was the salvation of that community for the Summer. I couldn’t believe I had been so doubtful.
I fell back into a fitful sleep and had a dream. It wasn’t a normal dream; it was more of a vision. I was with the pastor and his family in the dining room of the parsonage, standing around the table. The pastor took an envelope from the table’s centerpiece. He opened it, looked at a Polaroid picture, became angry, and threw his glass against the wall. Likewise, the oldest daughter looked at the picture, became angry, and threw her glass against the wall. I looked at the rest of the family, but they just shrugged their shoulders. Finally, I looked at the picture. It was a picture of the family dog, Shen.
At that point I had what is called a "hiatus" in the dream. I was a little disturbed by it all.
The next day I drove to work with the oldest daughter. I told her about my dream. She just laughed. I knew it was something profoundly serious, but I couldn’t figure it out. Sometime before noon I realized, although I don’t know how, what the dream meant. On the way home, I explained to the daughter that her dog was going to die very soon. She thought it was the strangest thing. When we drove up to the house, the entire family was on the porch. That, in itself, was unusual. The pastor was very serious. When we got out he told us that Shen had been killed. You could have knocked us over with a feather.
I had known what the dream meant, but I didn’t really know it would happen. I wondered why I had this premonition. I had a long talk with the pastor. He said it was not unusual for people to occasionally have a premonitory dream. So I accepted that. But the dream unsettled my life. If something like that could happen it meant all I based life on before— reason and rationality—wasn’t the entire answer. There were some things that could happen in life that might be mysterious.
In that unsettledness, I explored my own faith. I was asked then to teach the book of Daniel to a high school Sunday school class. The book of Daniel is filled with all kinds of visionary experiences. It consoled me to know that in the past God had worked with people in the same manner. Finding some comfort and consolation I occasionally had more premonitory dreams. I paid attention to them, and I talked to people about them. But I never had another dream dealing with death.
I can’t explain why some things in my life are premonitory and some are not. I’ve had very important events in my life that I had no idea were going to happen, and I have some very insignificant events where I knew what was going to occur before it did. Those experiences were life-changing for me, and when I went back to college I changed my major to religion.
Much of what a minister does in the pulpit, in classes, or in counseling, is teaching. I never saw the two professions as separate. Even the management side of a church is not unlike college management. You’re dealing with people, their interests and concerns. You’re goal setting and budgeting. The college requires much more of me, but in terms of actual practice, pastoral ministry was great preparation for being a college president.
Pastoral ministry prepared me to work with boards. I dealt with different boards over 23 years and six parishes. College boards are elected, church trustees are selected. It’s a little different kind of dynamic. I think the college board has a level of professionalism a church board doesn’t always have.
Church boards are lay people; they haven’t trained theologically, so they’re more interested as trustees as stewards of what’s happening. College trustees, I think, take more interest in the strategic activities of the college. Because college trustees are elected, there’s a sense of representation. You don’t get the same sense in a church. Usually trustee choices about the church are very personal and individual, but you’re still dealing with people and personalities, different lifestyles and expectations. That doesn’t change.
There have only been three other presidents of Illinois Central College in its history. What is your leadership style and what strengths do you bring to the position?
Each one of the past presidents brought a particular characteristic that has made ICC what it is today. Dr. Edwards brought a sense of organization and finance that was so important in the early years. His vision was that the college could become something other than just quonset huts and actually become an established campus.
Dr. Perley also had an astute understanding of finance. It’s to his credit we have a levy and a tax base. He very much was a hold-the-course type of president, but he also—and I’ve heard this from numerous people—was very good at supporting his staff. The reason I think ICC has had so many people who have had their entire career at the college is due to Dr. Perley, who was able to instill in that early generation a sense of purpose and meaning in their work.
Dr. Thomas arrived in 1988. The college was postured well to look externally at its role in the community. Dr. Thomas has an abiding sense of image and its importance to the organization. His external activities and his civic leadership loomed large for him. I think it’s a tribute to him that the college enjoys a very positive and widespread recognition.
Building on those strengths, ICC is ready for a new level of excellence. What that means in terms of management is to look at its processes and its systems. Now we’re involved in an internal transformation in applying process management principles.
My strengths are drawn from counseling and pastoral ministry. One strength is having worked with a variety of people. Through this experience, hopefully I will be able to motivate people and bring a point of meaningfulness to them in their work.
A second strength is being organized. I couldn’t have worn all the hats I’ve worn and not have come to those tasks without some sense of organization. When I look back at being a father and a husband, a coach, a professor, and a pastor, I can’t imagine I could have done that without being organized.
The other quality I bring to the presidency at ICC is experience at other community colleges. I’ve been in Ohio, Iowa and in Illinois, so I come with some basis of comparison and contrast. I think can assist ICC in looking at benchmarks and considering what initiatives may be productive for us here.
You identified five key focus areas—enrollment, partnerships, diversity, college climate, and building projects. What steps are being taken in those areas to improve the education students receive?
We’re involved right now with diversity education across the college. We’re looking at ways to integrate diversity education into new employee orientation so we’ll keep that sensitivity to diversity ever before us. Diversity also includes learning styles. I hope diversity education will interest our faculty in exploring and utilizing instructional approaches that appeal to different student learning styles.
The first impulse is to think of partnerships as what we do with business and corporations. We’ve benefited immensely from our corporate business partnerships. Caterpillar is one good example, but there are many others. Dual credit with high schools, strong articulation agreements with colleges and universities, strengthening Tech Prep and school-to-work programs, working with Education for Employment (EFE) groups, cooperating with the trade unions—all are important aspects of forming partnerships for us.
Enrollment is the third initiative. I see enrollment as an extension of our mission. If we’re going to fulfill our mission optimally, we need to increase our enrollments. We need to look for ways to sustain strong programs, improve others, and add new curriculum to help our students succeed. We’re also looking at ways to eliminate barriers to enrollment and retention. For example, we’re improving our payment process so students have better opportunities to pay for their classes and remain on our rosters.
We’ve conducted an organizational climate survey.
The survey indicates we have tended not to cooperate internally as well as we might. By applying process management principles to create teams to improve processes and systems, we’re looking for ways to increase that internal collaboration.
Lastly, the capital projects are an exciting aspect of ICC. We have three building phases planned.
The first is to expand our agriculture and industrial technologies building with the addition of the Morgan School of Industrial Technology. That’s already underway. The second is expanding the career center to allow for more assessment of students and better placement of students. Third is the information technology building, which will give us a state-of-the-art building to teach computer networking and computer maintenance and repair.
You have been in the area one year. What has surprised you most about the Peoria community?
One of the things that comes to mind is the civic pride. There is a sense of altruism and benevolence that I think is very, very good about the Peoria area.
I’ve seen volunteerism at work at the Economic Development Council, the Heartland Partnership, the Children’s Home, the Children’s Hospital, and so many other agencies and institutions. A lot of people give much of their time to benefit this community. I think it’s a high compliment to the people of the community that there’s that kind of caring and a really true sense of "we’re in this together."
What makes ICC unique—in terms of governance, partnerships, funding, etc.—compared to private and public universities?
ICC is a public community college. It was founded by a referendum in 1967, during a time when the nation was undergoing a lot of upheaval. The community college was a way of democratizing higher education and making it available to the rank and file of America. As we look back we see that’s happened, many people in District 514 have availed themselves of a college education who wouldn’t normally have done so. I think our workforce and our community is better because of it.
Illinois has a great history of involvement with community colleges. The first community college in the nation, Joliet Junior College, was founded 100 years ago. Today, we are the third largest system in the United States behind California and Texas. We enroll more than 1 million students in our Illinois community colleges, and we only have about 12 million citizens.
As an open-access, state-supported public community college, we face some huge challenges with the preparation of students. We must have strong developmental education programs. ICC offers math, reading, and writing laboratories that assist students with those skills. We really do tackle some of the toughest educational issues in our culture. I know of no other institution that meets these challenges in higher education like the community college.
The other niche we fill is continuing education and training through the Professional Development Institute. With these programs, we’re saying something very clear to the community—your learning doesn’t cease with a degree. Learning truly is life long. We provide programs to help with career development or retooling for another career. The community college is an excellent base for career education.
Explain the Illinois Community College System. There was a recent tax increase to support ICC. What are the government regulations and opportunities for ICC in regard to governance and funding?
ICC is funded through three avenues. One avenue is tuition, which we’ve maintained at a very modest level. We’re $50 a semester credit hour. That puts us in the middle of the state average for community colleges and certainly is well below any four-year college or university.
The second is state appropriations. Based on the number and type of credits we offer, we’re awarded a certain dollar amount through a credit grant allocation. The dollar amounts differ depending on the type of credit offered. This allocation gives us about a third of our income.
The other one-third comes from the property tax. The logic of the levy is that all citizens of the district benefit from the existence of the community college. It’s a kind of equalizer for the institution and allows us to keep our tuition reasonable.
We haven’t raised our basic levy in 35 years. The recent levy increase was a working cash bond for building projects. When we’re going through capital improvements, we want to make sure our operational budget is not affected by the increased costs of new buildings. The raise in this levy is temporary and will moderate when the building project is complete. We have a variety of levies like tort liability, working cash bonds, the basic levy, that we can use. I think it’s important, as a citizen, to know that the levy system is complex. Our trustees and administration weigh very carefully a raise in any levy.
How has student life changed for ICC in its history? What changes do you see in the future for community colleges?
The community college is a great outlet for the young person who wants to go to college, but may not be ready for the university. Often they’re not ready to deal with the social and cultural aspects of higher education.
The community college allows these students to experience some new things at a price that’s affordable. Regardless of whether I have children or not, I think I would still care that the young people in the district have this opportunity.
Secondly, we’re geared toward the freshman and sophomore levels of education. We take the general education of students seriously. Students can look at vocational, occupational, and technical programs, but if they’re going to transfer to the university, this is an excellent place for them to begin their general education. Our classes are modest in size. Our teacher-student ratio is one to 19. No student is going to feel lost in our classes. We’re not trying to create large lecture auditoriums with 200 to 300 students to a professor. Our professors really do get acquainted with our students.
The college also creates opportunities for people to participate in cultural events. The Performing Arts Center is an excellent emblem of our commitment to bring the arts to our community with a modest amount of expense.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention intercollegiate athletics. ICC has had wonderful success with its softball, baseball, basketball, volleyball, and golf teams. In every sport, we’ve not had just good athletes, but also good students. We provide strong support for them to maintain their studies. It’s a credit to the institution that we have a good balance between academics and athletics.
More than 70 percent of our students stay in our community. We don’t send people out to the university and then never see them return. Our students become our neighbors, our employee or employer, and taxpayers. It’s pretty exciting to know that ICC has this kind of impact. We can talk about it in economic terms, but I like to think of it in terms of fundamental relationships. We really are part of the social fabric of our community.
The ICC board is exploring the possibility of building on-campus housing. Tell about that process.
One of the biggest changes is the consideration of student housing. For three decades we’ve always had students drive to us. But we have a large district; we encompass more than 2,300 square miles. We have students that drive as much as 40 or 50 miles one way to get to class. It’s unfortunate to put a student through that kind of duress to be able to attend classes.
It’s partly an extension of our own mission of access that we would consider housing on our campus. That’s one thing I think will change the type of college campus we have, the type of college climate we have, and the type of student we will have. We will develop a more traditional university model when we have students here seven days a week, 24 hours a day. The performing arts, athletics, different clubs, student organizations, and student activities can immediately be improved by having a core group of students always present.
In strategic planning, housing would be a breakthrough for the institution. As important as our current building projects are to us, nothing looms larger as a way of creating a better student life. I’ve experienced student housing on other campuses. I know student housing will have very positive consequences for us.
How is the Performing Arts Center and ICC’s recent acquisition of permanent art important to the students? The community?
Part of our mission is to bring cultural resources to our community. This includes both performing and fine arts. I’m very pleased with the "Bridges and Reflections" sculpture recently constructed in front of the Performing Arts Center. The process of seeking donor support and looking at a national competition for the artist is consistent with our core value of excellence. We wouldn’t have received the $100,000 donation if it weren’t for our involvement in the arts. This donation reflects the support of the fine arts in our community. Individual donors gave because they love the arts and they believed the sculpture would give our students the opportunity to appreciate aesthetically what it brings to the campus. Beyond that, we have architecture students, fine arts students, and engineering students who benefited by seeing the sculpture constructed on the campus.
What business partnerships does ICC already have? What future business partnerships would you like to form? Why?
We recently counted the number of partnerships we have and identified more than 750 partners. Without these partnerships, we wouldn’t have the resources at ICC to do what we do instructionally. An obvious example is the Caterpillar Dealer Service Technician Training Program. The program reflects positively on Caterpillar’s commitment to have well-trained technicians and ICC’s willingness to be open to new programs. It’s a mutual interest and a mutual gain for both of us.
Almost every vocational, occupational, technical program could stay the same. Our partnerships include high schools, colleges and universities. Bradley and Eureka are very important to our success and as they go, so do we. We’ve shown over the years we can collaborate and that collaboration works well for students. The fact Bradley reduces their tuition for an ICC graduate is an example of how we’re good neighbors. We have several initiatives with Eureka College that are instructionally based, including a recent exploration of an accelerated teacher certification program. We’ve recently had Robert Morris College on campus to talk with their administrators about ways we can partner. We’re better acquainted with Midstate College. We’re partnering with Midstate and Bradley on a National Science Foundation Grant. In the past, we might have looked at each other competitively. In those cases, all we end up doing is short-changing our citizens. We’re better and we’re stronger when we’re linked with our higher education friends.
What will you want to leave as your legacy to Illinois Central College?
I’m so new to the position it’s hard for me to say. But I do feel strongly about the way I manage and the way I approach my role as CEO. I would like the people of ICC to have an abiding sense of purpose, that the hours they spend here would be meaningful to them. I also would like them to believe I was an advocate and a servant on their behalf.
I hope they find their resources are more plentiful because I’ve been here. I hope we put teaching and learning as our focal point and by doing so, we’re able to put into perspective all the other activities we’re involved in.
I’d like to have the people of the community know not only is ICC a good value in terms of price, but we’re excellent in the quality of instruction. When people of the community look back on the years I’ve served here, I would like them to say we made progress on these two things— meaningfulness in our work and the quality of our instruction. IBI