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State News

Students weigh in on the decision to close Lincoln College, the only primarily Black institution in downstate Illinois

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From left, Lincoln College graduate Davon Thompson, junior Morwin Coney and graduate Arielle Williams.

For all residential colleges, there's a certain ebb-and-flow to the years: Students arrive for move-in in the fall and spring, and, at other times, they vacate the campus en masse for seasonal breaks.

This was how Arielle Williams said she found Lincoln College when she arrived to the private, liberal arts school in rural Illinois. Williams, a Chicago native, knew that for many students, holiday breaks weren't a reprieve.

Instead, they signaled a return to neighborhoods or living situations that had been difficult to leave already, much less periodically return to during holidays.

She decided to question that practice.

"I knew a lot of people who were at Lincoln from Chicago and Chicago is not an easy place to make it out of or go back home to," Williams recalled in a recent interview. "A lot of people wanted to stay at school, and I was one of the people that requested it be OK if that was the case."

Williams said demand to stay on-campus rose accordingly, and "little did you know, we were now staying at school if we wanted to, having our own little dinners in the lobbies and stuff like that."

This turned out to be just one example of both the empowerment and the intimacy afforded to students at Lincoln College that many students have said they did not see anywhere else. The college became a safe haven for many, as well as a provider of second chances and overall opportunity for others.

It served many first generation college students and, over the years, it enrolled many Black students as well, making it eligible for a federal designation as a predominantly Black institution, or PBI.

To get this designation, a school's student body must be 40% Black, with a minimum of 1,000 enrolled students. Of those, 50% must be low-income or first generation students. This designation allows a school to apply for federal funding so it can expand its ability to serve low or middle-income Black students.

In the wake of the college's announced closure on May 13, it is this same group of students who say they feel betrayed by the sudden shuttering of an institution that, as junior DeMarkus Barksdale put it, introduced "us to something new, brand new — we loved it and you took it away from us."

"This is a prime example of why we don't trust a lot of people," he said. "We feel like (president David Gerlach) didn't care — he just gave up on the people and the students that we are and where we came from."

'I would have never made it this far'

Davon Thompson, a 2016 Lincoln College graduate who came to the school from Rantoul, said his heart "breaks" for students who won't have the same opportunity that he did when he applied to the school several years ago.

"You have to exhaust all of your resources before you just stop. You didn't lean on students when it affects the students the most."
Morwin Coney, Lincoln College student

"Lincoln gave them a way to move away for the time being and to be able to get necessary resources," he said. "A lot of those kids come from low-income environments and they needed a place where they can be surrounded by people similar to themselves. Regardless of if you graduated from Lincoln, that impact was still felt."

Thompson said he has a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois Springfield and works at a school in Rantoul. Without "Lincoln, I would have never made it this far," he said.

"I was in special education and I didn't necessarily have the best grades to be able to get into a four-year college," Thompson continued. "I went to the counselor's office, and he said, 'You should take a visit to Lincoln College.' As soon as I stepped on a campus, they provided the necessary resources I needed to be able to help me out."

Thompson said he thinks the short notice of the college's closure in a few weeks isn't "fair to the students, the community, the professors, the custodial workers — anybody."

For East St. Louis native Morwin Coney, a history-making junior who was the first in the College's 157-year history to be awarded fine arts internship, getting accepted to Lincoln was a relief.

"There were definitely some tears because I was actually accepted, because I was receiving rejection letter after rejection letter," Coney recalled. "Lincoln gave me an opportunity to become the student and the man that I always wanted to be."

For Coney, it wasn't just the educational opportunities or the chance to be on the school's bowling team that he found transformational. Lincoln College was home to a group called The Gents of LC, which was aimed at mentoring and empowering young men like him.

"When I first walked in, there was so much power," he said. "They didn't demonstrate it, but the way that they stood, the way that they carried themselves was so unique and cultivated. I feel like ... it's very beneficial to multiple people ... but especially Black males because we do, unfortunately, live in a society where we're not really fully supported. So to have that support on-campus with you ... that's not really common."

Coney said the group, which has been around for about four years, is losing its "foundation" via Lincoln College's closure. Still, he said believes the 100-plus men will still support each other ardently, despite the upset.

"It's going to be a little bit more challenging without the support of Lincoln College behind us, but ultimately, in the end, we will succeed," he said.

School vs. business

While the student body has hovered at or above being 40% Black for several years, its highest-ranking members of leadership have remained largely white.

That fact was not lost on Coney, who joined dozens of other students in a march to president David Gerlach's office after the May 13 closure was announced. A video of the conversation between those students and Gerlach shows the group of students were largely of color, contrasted against a wall featuring photos of the board of trustees, many of whom are white.

"Like I said in that video, and I still stand by it, this school is a business to them, but it is a life for us," Coney said. "He (Gerlach) tried to argue against that and say that they actually do care about this campus, but if that was the case, they would have made themselves a lot more known on this campus."

Williams, who graduated in 2018 as one of the "pioneers" in the college's new media program and was a vice president and president of the Black Student Union, said she doesn't necessarily care what the board looks like — what matters more to her is age.

"If the board of trustees were younger, enough to know what a Twitter is, I think it definitely would be different," she said. "If we had a board of trustees who was a little bit more involved, we might be in a different situation right now."

Gerlach has noted that to be a trustee, members volunteer their time and make donations to the school; some of the members still work full-time jobs and others have retired, he said.

In a previous interview with WGLT, he said he was hoping the board chair would be able to meet with some students before the school closes.

Despite the imminence of the May 13 date, students and staff left scrambling the wake of the announcement have managed to devote time to soliciting donations, tagging celebrities and other influential people on social media, pleading the 157-year-old school's case.

Gerlach has said a donation in excess of $20 million is needed to keep the school open for good.

"I see y'all posting cute pictures, which is cute, but who is willing to drive down there, have a meeting, have a board talk or a roundtable discussion?" Williams said. "I'm not a person who is trying to say goodbye. That whole campus just can't go to waste. It's too necessary.

"I don't think people are understanding what this is going to do to a generation of students."

Coney said he feels students were "hung out (to dry) with five weeks before we ended the semester and we were told we couldn't even return to the place where we're safe."

"We understand that there are decisions that have to be made," he said. "But we also believe that you have to exhaust all of your resources before you just stop. You didn't lean on students when it affects the students the most."

Barksdale said the experience has disillusioned some students to the point of questioning whether they should attempt to finish their degree anywhere else.

As leadership, "you can't really say, 'I'm going to make sure the students are successful and I'm going to do everything I can to make sure everybody gets a great education,' and then, once something serious happens, you run away," he said. "I'm going to keep pushing everyone around me to keep trying to go to school."

Added Williams: "It is kind of a betrayal and a slap in the face, but at the same time, I'm not eager to say goodbye right now. I'm not interested in waving it off without a fight. So, whoever else wants to fight with me, that's what I'm trying to figure out."

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