As I got on the plane to Cleveland on November 21 to watch North Central’s men’s cross country team compete for its 13th national championship in the past 34 years, I had my assignment in front of me. Write your column for North Central’s Annual Report, it said. The theme is “sustaining excellence.”
The idea was simple. After a fall that saw the College open its first “green” building—the magnificent 201,500-square-foot, soon-to-be LEED Silver certified Residence Hall/Recreation Center—hire its first sustainability coordinator, and (miraculously) bring its endowment above the $79 million figure it had reached before the onset of the Great Recession of 2008-2009, it seemed a great time to celebrate how North Central has sustained itself while successfully navigating the tumultuous events of the past 12 months.
More important, after a two-year process resulting in a nearly 200-page Self-Study Report analyzing the College’s record of the past decade—to be submitted to our accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, prior to the on-campus review by their accrediting team in January 2010—it was clear that this success was not an aberration. As the report concluded:
“The first 10 years of the 21st century were a time of extraordinary progress at the College, driven by mission-related priorities. North Central strengthened its core, liberal arts curriculum; made strategic investments in academic programs such as education and fine arts that brought substantial gains in undergraduate admissions; introduced major changes in the first-year experience of undergraduates and the honors program; revamped student services and athletic programs to tie them more closely to mission and engage students in a wide variety of activities off campus and around the world; and maintained its fiscal health, while dramatically upgrading facilities and learning spaces across the campus.”
Add in the two Fulbright research fellowships won by our graduates last spring and the Goldwater Scholarship awarded a member of the Class of 2010; another record class of first-year students; our fourth consecutive conference football championship this fall, along with men’s and women’s College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin cross country championships and a national playoff berth for our volleyball team … and you would have thought the column would write itself. But sustaining excellence is not just about maintaining the physical and fiscal environment, or an enviable record of achievements and accomplishments. It’s about a culture of achieving and sustaining excellence—and having fun while working hard to achieve and maintain it.
The father of a prospective student recently told me: “I’ve never seen a campus that looked better cared for.” I responded: “Our physical plant staff treats the campus like it was their own back yard.” When the demands of an extraordinary year meant that our comptroller and her staff had to work nights and weekends to ensure another “clean audit” and maintain cash flow, their message to me was, “That’s what we do.”
When it looked like the Res/Rec Center wouldn’t open in time for the arrival of students this fall, the cry went out for volunteers, and there they were, eventually in the hundreds—students, alumni, faculty, staff—sweeping, moving furniture, doing “whatever it takes,” led by alumni and staff whose commitment knew no limits. When every prognosticator was projecting a drop in enrollments this fall for private colleges like North Central, there were faculty showing up on their own time for visit days, and admission counselors extending their hours until another record class was recruited—because “that’s who we are.”
Nineteen years ago, I took a run with coach Al Carius on the Gregory Arena track when I was interviewing for the presidency of North Central College. How, I asked him, could he sustain his record of excellence—more national championships in track and cross country than the rest of the conference put together in all sports—with the oldest field house in the CCIW, a rickety stadium, and no home cross country course? He didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. It was all about hard work, and an attitude that would accept no barrier, no excuse to being the best, while having fun getting there. I thought to myself, what if we had a hundred Al Cariuses?
Reading the Self-Study Report, reflecting upon the record of our faculty, staff and students over the past year (and the past decade) with a lot of help from alumni, trustees and friends, it is clear to me that the “Carius culture” has been embraced across the campus … a culture of sustained excellence, where everyone “runs for fun and personal—and institutional—bests.” And, yes, our men in Cleveland won the 2009 NCAA Division III National Cross Country Championship, with all seven runners All-Americans, a feat never before accomplished!
Harold R. Wilde
Annual Report 2009