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Four years after taking over the sprawling Kirkwood Community College system in 2018 as its fifth president --- and its first female top leader — Lori Sundberg, 64, announced plans Monday to retire next fall.
The Cedar Rapids-based Kirkwood board of trustees will launch a nationwide search for her successor “in the coming months,” according to an announcement of Sundberg’s departure. The goal, Sundberg told The Gazette, is to name a new president by summer.
Sundberg plans to stay on through Kirkwood’s next Higher Learning Commission accreditation visit in October 2023, giving her time to help onboard a new president and avoid an interim leaders.
Kirkwood most recently received reaffirmation of its accreditation in January 2020 and has comprehensive reviews scheduled both next year and in the 2029-2030 term.
“That’s a milestone for an institution,” she said of her retirement timing. “So that was one factor.”
Kirkwood’s total fall 2021 enrollment of 12,607 was up 300-plus students over fall 2020, when its student count dropped 13 percent amid COVID-19. But the 2021 enrollment remains 32 percent below a peak enrollment of 18,456 in fall 2010, when the recession drove a number of students back to class to learn new skills.
The Kirkwood board in 2017 chose Sundberg from among 60-plus applicants to replace former Kirkwood President Mick Starcevich — who served 14 years and was earning $311,750 when he left, along with separation pay he began accumulating at year five.
Sundberg’s most recent contract was paying her $340,501, also providing separation pay at year five — meaning she’ll receive an additional $170,250 when she leaves.
After signing an initial three-year contract to start as Kirkwood president in August 2018, Sundberg’s contract was renewed and extended by one year in 2019, 2020 and 2021, according to Kirkwood spokesman Justin Hoehn.
Sundberg in June asked that her contract not be extended in 2022 — given that Kirkwood is closing out a five-year strategic plan, just put in place a five-year emergency management program, launched academic achievement initiatives it was pursuing and brought online several upgraded facilities.
“In terms of the institution, it felt like it was a good place,” Sundberg said. “And I felt that, personally, I either needed to recommit to another three to five years to take the institution to the next set of goals. Or it would be a good time to transition. I will be 65 next year, so I felt that it was just a good time.”
Her current contract — set to expire in June 2024 — includes a clause allowing her to leave early “with a one-year notice.”
“She has given that one year notice and will be leaving eight months before the official end of the contract,” Hoehn said.
And although she’s leaving early and just five years after starting, Sundberg and Kirkwood — like every other college and university across the region — has been through a lot during that period.
“Some of my fellow presidents, we joke and say that being a president during the pandemic should kind of be measured in dog years,” she said.
Not only has Kirkwood had to navigate the uncharted waters of a pandemic that forced all learning and work to be online for a time, it has faced the fallout from a derecho that blasted several of its campuses, shifting demographics affecting enrollment across Iowa and inflation driving up construction and employee expenses.
“There have been lots of challenges,” Sundberg said. “And I think that higher ed is going to be in this place for a while. It tends to ebb and flow … but certainly with the pandemic, it has really challenged us even more.”
Still, she said, Kirkwood not only survived but made gains.
“I feel that even despite the pandemic and the derecho, we kept our eyes focused on our goals,” she said. “And the institution came through it well, and we supported our students and our employees, and I feel that we're in a good place.”
Kirkwood’s accomplishments with Sundberg as president include implementing several academic initiatives, like the Cedar Rapids College Career Connection and Guided Pathways, a framework aimed at streamlining a student's enrollment-to-completion path. The college debuted new facilities, including its Automotive Technology building; Agricultural Sciences building; and a new student center “that has dramatically changed the student experience at Kirkwood.”
In announcing her retirement, Kirkwood officials praised Sundberg’s leadership style and strategic focus in helping the institution “navigate through unprecedented times with the global pandemic and the 2020 derecho.”
She’s won awards and accolades for her leadership while at Kirkwood, including a 2022 Ovation Award from the Iowa Women’s Foundation. She was named a 2022 Gazette HER Woman of Achievement honoree and a 2022 Woman of Influence by the Corridor Business Journal.
Sundberg said she’s leaving with “mixed and bittersweet emotions.”
“It was the highlight of my career, to be here,” she said, listing some of Kirkwood’s accomplishments on her watch and the faculty and staff supporting her.
“I'm proud of the employees,” she said. “I'm proud of all the things that we have accomplished, despite the challenges we faced along the way.”
Sundberg also has four grand children in South Carolina, who she and her husband plan to move closer to post-retirement. “I started working when I was a teenager, and I’ve worked my whole life,” she said. “My husband and I both have worked really hard over our time, and I do want to be able to have some time left to enjoy it with family and grand kids.”
Kirkwood trustees Chair Jim Mollenhauer said Sundberg’s retirement is “a big loss.”
“Dr. Sundberg has been an incredible leader for our college through some very difficult times,” Mollenhauer said in a statement. “The way she has handled her duties in the face of impossible odds with the pandemic and derecho has been exemplary. Despite the challenges, she still has accomplished more than many would have in normal times.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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