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A month after Lincoln College closed its doors, one employee says she wants to counter the COVID-19 and ransomware narrative

The closure of Lincoln College is a shocking turnaround for a small Illinois college that welcomes first-generation students and qualifies as a predominantly Black institution.
© Google Earth 2022
The closure of Lincoln College is a shocking turnaround for a small Illinois college that welcomes first-generation students and qualifies as a predominantly Black institution.

A former employee of Lincoln College said she wanted to tell her story because she felt the narrative surrounding the closure of the 157-year-old school had been reduced to two things: COVID-19 and a mysterious ransomware attack in late 2021.

Becky White said she was an adjunct faculty member at Lincoln and spent nine years teaching everything from the humanities to beginning and intermediate algebra. She said she chose to wait to speak to a reporter until she'd received her final paycheck, citing an email from Lincoln College president David Gerlach that instructed employees to avoid speaking to media outlets, including if it was only in an off-the-record capacity.

A resident of Lincoln, White said she came back to the area after college because she'd always liked it and she'd hoped to secure a position teaching at Lincoln Christian University one day. With LCU's reduction in class offerings, that's now unlikely and with Lincoln College's closure, White has no teaching option there, either. She said most of the teaching faculty at the only federally designated predominantly Black institution south of Chicago was adjunct status, meaning they weren't eligible for severance pay.

White said she hoped to tell her story to counter the school-set narrative that COVID-19 and ransomware were the primary factors for the school's sudden shut down on May 13.

"I see on Twitter and on social media that people are already writing commentaries on 'what lessons we should learn' and I'm like, 'You guys don't even have the whole story,'" White said in a phone interview with WGLT. "I believe we served well. The people in the trenches served, as best they could, a very underprepared and unprepared student population. The school filled a need that I think goes less filled now than it was before.

"And for all the negative things I have to say about how things went down in the school, there were a lot of really good people who worked really hard to do the best we could for as many students as we could."

Here's a condensed version of that conversation.

White: Every school is dysfunctional in its own way, and Lincoln was no exception. There were a lot of frustrations, issues and things like that. I had been telling people for ... years that I expected one or both (Lincoln Christian University) schools in town to close within five years. I was saying that before COVID.

WGLT: What gave you that impression?

White: It felt like we were always in jeopardy. The messages we were getting were that our numbers were always too low, that we were always struggling, that budgets were always being cut. I saw administrative decisions that were being made that made no sense.

WGLT: Like what?

White: (Former president David Gerlach) said from the beginning, when he came on in 2015, that he was convinced — and I imagine the board was as well — that our two-year school was not sustainable. Not everybody at the school agreed with that. But even if you grant that the two-year mission was not sustainable, the way we went about expanding to four years was a little too fast and some things were probably not done very well.

Ryan Denham
WGLT file
Former Lincoln College President David Gerlach.

There was this directive to get four-year programs started and while the faculty committees did the best they could with the time they had, the four-year programs they produced were probably not the best for our school. Some of the four-year programs that were added were in the STEM field ... conservation biology and exercise science. But we are a school where the majority of students who come in place below college-level math. On the Lincoln campus, we hadn't offered math above the level of pre-calculus for the last six years, I think.

So, how was it responsible to start STEM majors when we don't even attract students who are capable of that kind of level of math? Our science labs were so far out of date and we had to invest so much in hiring new faculty and doing other things that it felt like other important things were being neglected.

WGLT: What things were being neglected?

White: That's hard to pinpoint. The big, tall building that you see in all the pictures is University Hall. And if you have looked closely at those pictures, or the more recent ones, you would see that on the first two levels, the windows look all nice and freshly painted, but the ones above that look like they could use some work. At some point they had a plan ... to renovate it and to make it more usable, because it was built a long time ago and the top two floors were really not accessible, especially to students with disabilities. They had started it ... and somehow, at some point, that work stopped. I don't know if it's because they ran out of money, or whatever. They were very unclear about that.

WGLT: So you watched these decisions play out and you were just wondering why?

White: Oh yeah. I had suspicions that we were in trouble and those really started to become crystallized at the end of 2020-21 school year.

We attract so many students that come from difficult backgrounds that we actually rent textbooks to the students. Our policy was that we would get new textbooks after every sixth time class was taught. So, if you taught a class that happened every semester, you could get new textbooks after three years. I was teaching, primarily, beginning and intermediate algebra; we use the same book for both of those classes. After the end of the 2021 school year, that would have been five years with that textbook. We put in a request for new textbooks and the request was denied.

WGLT: Did they tell you why?

White: I'm sure it was budget issues because new textbooks are expensive.

So that happened, and then at the beginning of this past school year, our director of IT resigned, our vice president of finance resigned, our school nurse resigned. At the beginning of 2022, we had our director of human resources resign.

WGLT: The school nurse resigned?

White: Yes, we went through a few school nurses at the end, too. But when you see all of these people resigning, especially your VP of finance, you're like, 'Oh, this doesn't look good.' There was always a sense that we were on the brink, on the edge.

WGLT: It sounds like you felt for a long time that things were askance.

White: You could just tell. They've talked a lot about the incredible enrollment we had in Fall of 2019, but the very next semester, in spring of 2020, just before COVID hit, I didn't think enrollment looked very good that spring. I was only assigned one class and that one class got cancelled. So, Fall 2019 may have been great, but ... I think there are signs that maybe (it) was kind of a fluke.

WGLT: Did employees get to know much about the ransomware attack that hit late last year?

White: I remember there was an email that went out on December 19 or 20th, explaining that that our network had gone out. It just said, 'We're working on it. And we'll we'll get back to you as soon as we can.' They didn't mention ransomware at all. I think it was something that really wasn't made public until that first week or that second week in January. But the messages that employees had been getting starting from the attack and then for the next couple of weeks just said, 'There's a network issue. We're working on it. We'll tell you when it's resolved.' And that's it. It felt like they were trying to control the narrative and let as little information out as possible.

WGLT: Was the culture at the college always like that, or was that a recent development?

White: Not too long after Gerlach came, I was having a conversation with somebody on campus and I was expressing some doubts and reservations about some of the decisions and the direction of the school. Somebody warned me that I needed to be careful who I was having those conversations with, because ... it was kind of a culture where dissent doubts were not really entertained. This controlling-the-narrative and not-letting-things-out really got stronger within the last couple of years — in fact, all the way until the end.

My division chair, after things had wrapped up, said that the leader of the faculty assembly, on behalf of the faculty, had asked the board (of trustees) for the documents that led them to the decision to close and the board denied the request.

WGLT: Did they say why?

White: Not to my knowledge, no. I have a feeling that we're never going to know the full story. We're never going to know all of the details.

WGLT: That's disheartening.

White: Yeah, it is. I think we all want a sense of closure. I don't suspect any scandal, but it feels like there have been some some missteps, some miscalculations and some poor choices over the last several years. And then COVID and ransomware were just kind of like the last couple of nails (in the coffin).

WGLT: Were your peers thinking what you were thinking?

White: After things ended and people could speak a little bit more freely, I was finding out that other colleagues had had similar conversations with outsiders. One of them said that she told other people she expected Gerlach to last five years. There are people who, for a long time, knew that we were struggling and and were worried about the future of the school and there are other employees who were just completely shocked and blindsided. I think a lot of it just depended on exactly what you did for the school and how open your eyes were.

WGLT: Aside from the obvious answer of money, what do you think that Lincoln College would have needed in order to stay afloat, be it for a couple more years or 10 more years — whichever?

White: I think we needed clearer communication, more open, honest communication. I think we needed more thoughtful and wise planning. I think we needed better collaboration, especially with the faculty in the trenches.

WGLT: Speaking of people in the trenches: From my perspective, it's been a little bit challenging to find employees who have been willing to share their perspective on this. What is motivating you to do that?

White: What I see is that they've worked very hard to control the narrative — it's COVID and ransomware, COVID and ransomware, COVID and ransomware. That's all you read everywhere. They've done a good job at at stifling any other perspectives.

So I told you that I was considered an adjunct professor. Aside from student workers, adjunct professors were the only group of employees not offered any severance. For those who are getting severance, they split it up into two sets of four weeks. Everybody who's eligible for severance is getting their first four weeks, I think, later this month. But to get your second four weeks of severance, you had to sign a document: Basically, it's a hold harmless agreement, and you have to waive your what right to sue, or take any negative action against the school or its employees in perpetuity.

WGLT: Oh, wow. So if adjuncts make up like the majority of the teaching staff at a given school, and you're an adjunct and you find out that you're not getting any severance due to this closure, I mean, did you feel betrayed by that at all?

White: With the severance thing, yes. But adjuncts, we teach on a on a per class basis. So at Lincoln College, we were paid $700 per credit hour. No paid time off, no insurance, no benefits. When we expanded to having more four-year programs, the shared adjunct offices were mostly done away with, so adjuncts didn't have offices. We met with students in the (Academic Success Center) or the library or wherever else. A lot of us used our own resources and spent a lot of our own money. We taught the classes on the cheap. And in the end, we got nothing. And I still feel very bitter and angry and disrespected by that.

WGLT: If I'm hearing you right, you're saying that adjuncts made Lincoln College possible?

White: Yeah, we did. We did. We we taught the classes on the cheap. So I was maxed out at 12 credit hours a semester. For the last two years, I was making $16,800. So I'm on public assistance, I'm on Section Eight housing assistance. We worked our tails off for very little, and then got nothing.

WGLT: I'd gotten the impression that Lincoln College was a place for students who had nowhere else to go.

White: There was a significant number of our students who were at Lincoln College because no one else would take them. It's those students that I worry about.

WGLT: I've wondered in the long term, what is going to happen to those students now that this is not an option anymore. What was the reaction after the closure announcement was made?

White: A lot of students just stopped coming. I was hearing abysmal attendance. After the announcement, some students just went home and didn't come back and just kind of abandoned their class, but I'm not sure how much more could have been done for them.

WGLT: Are you referring to the fact that there was like a huge transfer fair, and the Illinois Board of Higher Education was involved?

White: If the decision to close was going to happen, I'm not sure for the students it could have been done any other way. Because if you let people know too far out in advance, if you make it public that your school is in trouble, then employees and students don't even come. And I don't think the students who came to the school understood how much they were getting for how little they were paying. When you offer things like free tutoring, when you offer things like textbook rentals, that costs money. And ... for the level of services that these students needed, I'm not sure that they were prepared to pay what what really would needed to have been spent.

Now what I'm more frustrated about is how outside organizations didn't step in to help. Our donors were tapped out — the donors that had given a lot of money in the past, they didn't have any more to give.

If these students' lives mattered, where was everybody else? And given our student population, I'm just disappointed that other groups, other organizations, who advocate for the populations that our students come from, didn't didn't step in to help.

WGLT: So you've got a financially troubled school, a closing date, no one willing to dish out $20-$50 million to keep operations going. It's a pretty urgent and dire situation, not only for those students, but also for the people that Lincoln College was their livelihood. You mentioned that you live in Lincoln. Ddid you feel the local government should have stepped up in any way? I'm not sure what extent they could have, but I'm just wondering what your perspective on that is.

White: What I'm disappointed of right now is both our town council and our county board. You would think with the millions of dollars that our town is set to lose ... they would get on this right away, like establish a committee, maybe try to get buyers for the facilities, maybe tried to do some legwork in trying to attract other businesses — something to mitigate the losses that we're about to experience, and I just don't see a sense of urgency.

WGLT: Do you know how the other adjuncts are feeling?

White: There are some adjuncts who are just fine, because this was kind of funny money for them. People who are retired from their main job several years ago, and were just teaching one or two classes on the side. People who are married and their spouse already has a significant amount of income. Those adjuncts are going to be just fine.

Other adjuncts who were relying on this as a primary source of income were the ones who are struggling. Everyone who had a school-issued laptop was required to turn it in, with no guarantees that they'll be able to get it back. For some people, that was their only computer. It's been interesting: Ever since things closed and we had the employee checkout on Friday, May 13, I really haven't talked to a lot of former employees.

We all just kind of have scattered to the four winds, already.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.