Transforming Rockford University By Alex Gary Sometimes transformation isn’t bringing in or creating something new; it’s improving or saving what you already have. Dr. Robert Head will retire as president of Rockford University at the end of the 2015-2016 school year. When he took over the institution in June of 2008, the nearly 170-year-old, not-forprofit liberal arts college was nearing the end of its second straight decade of financial struggles.
Times analysis paints dark economic picture By Alex Gary
Dr. Robert Head, Rockford University just 1.7 percent, which is not common
To keep operating, in past years it deferred critical maintenance, sold land and even unloaded artwork. “For about 15 years, whenever Rockford College (the college changed its name in 2013) appeared in the newspaper it was always ‘financially troubled Rockford College,’” said Jeff Fahrenwald, who heads the university’s MBA program. “It got to the point where I wondered if we’d officially changed our name.” Heading into his final year, Head has righted Rockford University’s financial ship. The university has turned a profit each of Head’s six years, including the 2012-2013 fiscal year when it had a net income of $4.27 million on record revenues of $35.3 million. The amount of money it had in the bank, always an issue in the 1990s and early 2000s, grew from $6.2 million at the end of Head’s first year to $22.6 million at the end of its latest fiscal year. So when Head turns over the reins to a new president in 2016, he’s handing over a college on solid ground ready to grow. “One of things you recognize in any organizational culture is that there are forces for change and that there are also forces against change and as long as they are in equilibrium nothing changes,” Head said. “Maybe those 20 years (of financial struggles) turned out to be a good thing for me because there was a much stronger feeling that we needed to change because of our lack of success.” Head is quick to say he did not right the ship on his own though. “For me, the key was the phrase intentional congruence,” Head said. “That means we’re all focused on the same critical things. When I mean all, I mean our board, our administration, our faculty and our staff.” The critical things, in Head’s view, were “not nuclear science;” listing strong financial discipline, growing enrollment and “investing in ourselves.”
Rockford is critical because most
Improvements Help Draw Students
at the same time, don’t get whipsawed
He received the critical buy-in from the staff, faculty and administration. In 2008-2009, Rockford University paid out $11.25 million in salaries in benefits. In 2013-2014, that had increased to just $12.45 million, an annual growth rate of
in higher education. That helped Rockford University keep expenses down — expenses have grown by just 1.4 percent a year during Head’s tenure — while allowing the university to spend more than $13 million on internal improvements. The improving financial picture and modernization of existing buildings helped draw more students. In the fall of 2008, Rockford University had 686 fulltime undergraduate students. In the fall of 2014, it hit a 20-year high of 878. Head has done more than just focus on Rockford University. He serves on the boards of SwedishAmerican, Golden Apple Foundation, Alignment Rockford,
Commerce and is a member of the steering
Rockford. Head’s involvement with Transform thriving mid-sized metro markets have strong colleges. Rockford will never have the advantage enjoyed by places on best places to live lists such as Fort Collins, Colo., home to Colorado State, or Lincoln, Neb., home of the Cornhuskers, but a stronger Rockford University will draw more students to the area or keep gifted students in the area. “It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing,” Head said of the relationship between the college and the city. “The same lists you read and write about are being read by families trying to decide where to send their child. The more that can be done to improve the crime and quality of life in Rockford, the easier it is for me to recruit students and faculty.” Head said his advice to the next president is simple. “Be entrepreneurial. Education is changing quickly and there will be opportunities to grow,” he said. “But into doing something that the college is not good at doing. Focus on what you’re good at and build on those strengths.” Alex Gary is a Transform Rockford volunteer and president of Alex Gary Communications Inc.
A study of income mobility by two Harvard economists suggests that just growing up in Winnebago County eventually makes you poorer, and the effect is worse the longer you stay. The analysis was published May 4 by the New York Times — “The Best and Worst Places to Grow Up” — and it looked at counties across the nation. According to Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, a child from a poor family in Winnebago County will make $2,310 a year less than a poor child born in an average county by the age of 26. Winnebago County ranked 2,227th out of 2,478 counties, near the bottom 10 percent. Winnebago County was the only one of its neighboring counties where growing up there actually made you poorer than the average U.S. county. The picture is better for upper income children, but not by much. According to the study, rich kids in Winnebago County make $840 less than other upper income kids in an average county by the age of 26. Winnebago County was in the bottom 15 percent in that category.
Chatty and Hendren’s analysis found five factors “associated with strong upward mobility.” ■ Less segregation by income and race ■ Lower levels of income inequality ■ Better schools ■ Lower rates of violent crime ■ Larger share of two-parent households Winnebago County in general and Rockford in particular has high levels of segregation by income and race. The county’s percentage of college graduates is well below national averages and Rockford annually ranks among the most crime-ridden cities in the country. Income inequality isn’t as big an issue here as perhaps elsewhere, only because the overall wealth of the area is so low compared with national averages. And Winnebago County’s percentage of married couple families was only slightly below the United States as a whole — 47 percent to 48.7 percent. The Chatty and Hendren study shines a light again on why the community must come together to transform Rockford. Each year it waits hurts the future prospects of its next generation.