DECATUR – Gayle Saunders is hoping to leave Richland Community College in a place where it can be successful even after she moves on from her position in the spring.
Saunders announced Wednesday plans to retire after 15 years as Richland's president. She started the job as the college's sixth president in August 2001 and has worked 40 years as an administrator in higher education, including 33 years in Illinois community college administration.
“I'm confident and hopeful the college is the best it's ever been,” said Saunders, who is a native of Harvard, Ill. “I determined it is a good time to step away. We've had an electrifying way the semester has started, and the college is going to be good heading into the future.”
The decision is one Saunders and her husband, Rich, have been contemplating and one they feel is best to allow them to spend more time with family. Saunders is looking forward to welcoming three new grandchildren within the next year in addition to the two grandchildren they already have.
Saunders plans to spend more time in Florida, but she will remain tied into what is happening in Decatur. It has been a community that Saunders has grown to care deeply for, as it has shown its perseverance during her time as Richland's president.
“This community will always bounce back,” Saunders said. “It thrives in spite of itself. It is an amazing, resilient community.”
Richland has helped by responding to the needs of businesses within the community under Saunders' leadership, Decatur Mayor Julie Moore-Wolfe said.
“It is well positioned to respond in any way needed to move the community forward,” Moore-Wolfe said. “Richland has had an explosion of growth. She has set the bar high.”
Moore-Wolfe is grateful Saunders never decided to take another job over the past 15 years.
Saunders said the support of the community and college board of trustees has helped her decide to stay when she considered other possibilities.
The board appreciates what Saunders has done for the college, Chairman Bruce Campbell said.
“She has been a dynamic individual within the community,” Campbell said. “The entire board has been extremely supportive of her efforts. In many ways it will be a loss to the community as a whole.”
Saunders' leadership has put the college in a position to succeed, Campbell said. Numerous building projects have been completed during her tenure, including the addition of a Culinary Arts Institute with restaurant, Workforce Development Institute and National Sequestration Education Center.
Other additions include the Scherer Industrial Technology Center, Schrodt Health Education Center, Duane O. Andreas Agribusiness Education Center, Adele P. Glenn Early Childhood Education Center, Center for Sustainability and Innovation and Mathematics Enrichment Center.
Additionally, Heartland Technical Academy relocated to the Richland campus in 2014.
Richland became one of the permanent hosts for the Farm Progress Show in 2005. The show continues to grow after being in Decatur six times with a $1 million expansion of Progress City USA recently completed, Saunders said.
“It has exceeded expectations,” Saunders said. “It is everything we dreamed it would become as a recognition for Decatur to solidify its place as the global agribusiness capital.”
Farm Progress Show Manager Matt Jungmann has seen incredible growth at Richland while he's been involved with the Decatur community.
“It's not just the Farm Progress Show,” Jungmann said. “It's all the other initiatives. None of these things happen without tremendous leadership and setting the tone for growth.”
Jungmann notices changes coming back to Richland every other year.
“I've got to be reintroduced to campus,” Jungmann said.
The one regret Saunders has is it now appears likely she won't be around for the opening of the Student Success Center, which is intended to bring a variety of student services under one roof. Completion of the project is dependent on funding from the state, Saunders said.
“It will be there,” Saunders said. “It's a matter of when the budget gets passed and when the funding will be released.”
Work on the Student Success Center was originally scheduled to be completed in the spring, but further construction is now on hold.
If the project appeared closer to completion, Saunders said it could have influenced the timing of when she steps awaym, but it's too uncertain for her to continue waiting any longer. The project will allow the next president to have a new office, she said.
Campbell said the board plans to meet Monday to discuss the search process. He said Saunders is working with them to allow time for the process to at least get started before she leaves.
Saunders has set a strong foundation for the next president despite uncertainty from the state budget situation, Campbell said. He said choosing a president is one of the most important decisions a community college board can make.
“Richland will be an attractive option for anyone seeking the position,” Campbell said. “We will figure out a way to weather the storm.”
Campbell planned to begin the first steps in the search process Wednesday by contacting possible consultants who could help.
Saunders wants to be involved in the transition to the next president but not so much that it would impede on their ability to make their own footprint.
Student Trustee Donnie Lewis said Saunders put her heart and soul into Richland with the students in mind.
“I don't think she can ever really be replaced,” Lewis said. “She has had such a vision like no one else I've ever met in my life. She has always had time for everybody.”
Lewis wants the next president to be able to keep Richland on the course it's on and be mindful of students' concerns.
The partnerships Saunders has helped develop throughout the college have allowed students of all ages to benefit, said Renee Stivers, Partners in Education director. The program reaches students at the K-12 level and introduces them to career possibilities and what training is needed to start those careers, Stivers said.
“We can stay current because of the relationship,” Stivers said. “We can touch the lives of students at a younger age. She has set a vision for us.”
Richland wouldn't be what it is without what Saunders has done, Moore-Wolfe said.
“She has made the college an integral part of the community by responding to the needs of businesses,” Moore-Wolfe said. “The campus has evolved, and Richland has become a school of choice for an affordable education. She has made the image desirable.”
Saunders has also been active in the Decatur community, serving in a number of capacities during the past 15 years.
Saunders and other Richland staff members have served on the Workforce Investment Solutions board as the two entities partner on job training programs, said Robyn McCoy, Workforce Investment Solutions executive director.
“That's not always the case across the state,” McCoy said. “I attribute that to her leadership. Working together is what it's all about. She will be missed but I'm excited for her.”
Most recently, Richland has been a part of recruiting Convey Health Solutions to Decatur as it opens a new office and hires more than 300 employees locally, McCoy said.
The college is the middle of a capital campaign to raise funding for its business school, Saunders said. She said it's reached about 60 percent of its goal.
The addition from a successful capital campaign is one of the reasons Saunders feels confident the college will continue to succeed after she retires.
“Everything is in place,” Saunders said. “The board has done a wonderful job leading us as we try to be a part of leading the community in a strong, positive direction.”