Dr. Thomas K. Thomas, president of Illinois Central College, is a graduate of Indiana State University. He began his career in education at Wheaton Central High School in Wheaton, Illinois, and in 1969 moved to the College of DuPage, a small community college at that time but now one of the largest in the nation. His move into administration took place at the College of DuPage when the college split into an open college and a traditional main campus, and he assumed leadership of the open college, a non- traditional campus with classes in various off- campus locations and doing much work with training in business and industry. After earning a doctorate at Northern Illinois University, he assumed the presidency at Red Rocks Community College in Denver, Colorado. He became president of Illinois Central College in 1988. Illinois Central College is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
How would central Illinois be different if Illinois Central College was not located here? What does the college contribute to the community at large?
This would not be the same community without Illinois Central College. This community has really employed the services of the college well. I don’t think you would find such a well- trained workforce without ICC, especially in industries like health care. A majority of nurses in Peoria’s hospitals has been trained here; almost every dental hygienist; and almost every physical therapist. Caterpillar has benefited directly. Without Illinois Central College, the in- plant training programs would not be so extensive. There are a hundred classes we offer to Caterpillar in their plants. I look at what ICC means to downtown Peoria. Out downtown campus is just a remarkable facility. We have helped revitalize downtown. For many years, we were thought of as the college on the other side of the river, but that has changed. The whole area benefits from the fact that we are here. Consider that our budget is $28 million per year. Most of that money is going back into the local community. Just from an economic standpoint, the college has been a very important part of the community. Students can attend ICC for less than $1,000 per year. Even at ISU today you are talking about $4,000-$5,000. So we are keeping a lot of local resources in this area, spending money, for two more years.
I think we have helped raise the prestige level of this area. We are one of the selling points. Obviously, when you are trying to move business and industry here, you talk about the fact the college is here, what it can do for your workers and what it means to your children. ICC contributes to the quality of life here with cultural events. One of our remarkable features is the Performing Arts building and the diversified events we present for our students and the community.
There are numerous testing programs that we can run in our technology center. We have great facilities. We were the only place in the county which could test all of the buses a few months ago when the gasohol project was being done.
How successful has Illinois Central College been in developing working relationships with area businesses?
We have a whole unit which works in that area, our continuing education arm, which is housed downtown. We also work directly with the Economic Development Council with three of our staff housed in the EDC offices. Susan Gorman handles procurement, Charles Randle works in the training component to attract new businesses, and Mike Kuhns heads the most successful Self Employment Training Program.
We have a state- of- the- art seminar facility in the new campus downtown, which Bill Mudra manages through the Professional Development Institute. Our objective is to create opportunities for business and industry to receive training they could not get any other way. We have a direct satellite link to Bradley which sends a signal to our downtown campus to link us with national teleconferences. Two years ago we were the number one community college in the U.S. in providing satellite conferences for business and industry. We have state- of- the- art computer facilities through our downtown campus.
Can you give an example of how Illinois Central College has met specific needs of local businesses?
We have numerous in- plant programs. About a year and a half ago, Komatsu Dresser came to us with a problem they were facing. They were getting new equipment and the new equipment was all in metric. Their workforce had no idea how to work in metric. So we tested their workforce to determine the skill levels. We worked on basic skills first, holding training seminars. When the workers’ skill levels reached the required point, we taught metric right in their plant. That’s something the company could not have accomplished without ICC, at least not without paying a lot more. We were able to help them receive funding to allow us to be able to do this program.
We should be the central focus when you talk about training and retraining. Caterpillar used to do all of their own training. Beginning in 1982 when they had to lay off so many people, they began to see that was not the most effective method, so they came to us for more and more help. We have staff who spend half of their teaching time at Caterpillar. That is the type of programming that this college has to do to remain vital and for this area to remain vital.
Small business is another great example. We train minority business owners. Some of them, before entering our program were on welfare. We have given them skills and helped them to develop a business plan. I believe strongly this college has to be involved in business. That’s our future. This area should use the college more and more.
How do you view the future development of the workforce in the central Illinois area?
We have to have a trained workforce here. That’s still one of the problems this area faces. Right now, we can’t get enough people in welding. We can place every student who comes out of our welding shop. There is a crying need for welders right now in this area. We can’t get enough students to go into these types of programs. And they make good money. In many ways we have projected the wrong images as parents, and have led our kids to believe that these occupations are not as glamorous. If you really look at it, these workers can make a good living. Not everyone needs to earn a bachelor’s degree. In our diesel mechanics program, students can come out of the program and start working at a farm implement dealer for $30,000 a year.
One problem we face is that our population base is still declining slightly. Our enrollments continue to go up due to the fact we are getting a higher percentage of the pool each year because it makes sense to start students here. But if you look at the business and industry side, we have lost some industry. And we are always worried we will lose more industry in this area. This whole Caterpillar situation has me worried, because a lot of these products are not single source products. These products can also be made in Mexico or China or someplace else. Caterpillar may just decide, ‘We can’t afford to operate here anymore,’ and move some of these operations out of here.
How does Illinois Central College change to meet the continually changing needs of the business community?
We try to be responsive to the needs in the area with our programs. Some programs have to be dropped if there is no longer a need for them. New ones need to take their place. For example, three years ago the college dropped the practical nursing program because the thrust was away from practical nurses to the Registered Nurse program. Not the medical community can’t find enough nurses and we have reinserted this program at the Peoria campus. The great thing about a community college is the flexibility which allows us to make these kinds of movements. It’s hard for a four- year college to do that. Community colleges do not have the same bureaucracy to deal with. If Caterpillar needs a class tomorrow, I can probably give it to them. We have people who work with business and industry, and if a company calls in today with a need for training, we try to meet that need within a very short period of time. That’s what I want my staff to be able to do.
What about the funding crisis in education? How do we maintain the quality education we need to compete in world markets with increasing economic constraints?
We have to look at alternative means of financing. We cannot depend upon property taxes to finance education anymore. It’s too important to be able to say ‘no’ to education funding. It used to be if you could prove your point, you had a better than average chance of passing a referendum. Today it’s very, very difficult. It’s the only thing people can say ‘no’ to, and it’s wrong. So much is dependent upon our schools. The major problem is our society today is that we are no longer as well educated as are some competing nations in the world. We have to develop a national strategy for education. We don’t have a national plan for education. We are losing fifty percent of our minority students in Peoria. They are dropping out of school. You and I eventually must support them in other ways. We have to solve this problem. We can’t survive as a society if we continue to allow this to happen. You can’t lose fifty percent of your resources. Previously if a student dropped out of Peoria Central, he could get a job at Caterpillar. He can’t do that anymore. The reason he can’t is, he must have literacy skills to compete in that environment, because the Japanese and others have those skills. We have to invest in those things that are going to help us compete on an international scale. We have to spend more of our GNP on education. It costs $17,000 a year to keep an inmate in prison. You can spend about $2300 a year to put a young person in school. It doesn’t make much sense. It’s a real problem and I don’t know where it’s going.
There are so many things we need here at ICC, but we are doing a good job with what we have. This is the only community college in the state that has not had a referendum since it opened in 1967. We still have a little money in the back, but it isn’t going to last long. We have managed to keep a cash surplus of from $2-3 million, but that could be consumed quickly. That only represents a tenth of our budget. We ought to continue to have that kind of surplus. Normal salary increases next year alone could cost us a million dollars. If we’re not going to get any more money from the state, we have to get it from somewhere.
The state continues to give us mandates without the money to fund them. They’re discussing an early retirement program now. If they do that, and they may, it would really hurt this college. We have a lot of people who started teaching here 25 years ago, and they are at the age where they could retire. If a substantial number were to retire, it would leave a tremendous gap. We have a very good faculty and you can’t duplicate that immediately. I serve on the National Board for Community Colleges and I believe our faculty ranks favorably with any community college in the nation. If we had 40- 50 people leave this spring, it would be very difficult. But it could happen.
What major trends and changes to you see at Illinois Central College over the next few years?
I think you will see more and more students starting college here because of costs. We are already experiencing this. Morton High School sends us about 60 percent of their students going to college. Washington High School does the same. We get a lot of students from East Peoria. I think you will continue to see the younger student population starting here. What has happened the last three years is we have seen our baccalaureate enrollment rise while our vocational enrollment has declined. Students are starting here before they go on to complete their bachelor’s degree. Our enrollment used to be about 60 percent vocational and 40 percent baccalaureate. Now we are 60-40 the other way. This creates problems for us because we can’t shift our faculty resources as fast as we need to. We have state regulations and tenure laws and other things to be concerned about. We had to simply limit enrollment in some classes this fall because we didn’t have teachers. I see a significant problem for us over the next 5- 10 years in the area of faculty replacement. For many years, we didn’t encourage people to go into education. We told them to consider other fields because jobs in education weren’t very plentiful. Now we are to the point where we need to replace people, and I’m afraid we aren’t going to have the same degree of competence. IBI