CEDAR RAPIDS — Few community colleges in the nation have the kind of reputation that would persuade Lori Sundberg to leave her alma mater of Carl Sandburg College and their shared hometown of Galesburg, Ill.
Besides being a Sandburg alumnus, she has been president there since 2010, and figured she’d eventually end her career there.
But when a consultant heading the search to replace outgoing Kirkwood President Mick Starcevich reached out over the summer, she had to re-evaluate her plans.
“It’s just such an innovative college,” Sundberg said in an interview Thursday with The Gazette. “They’re right on the cutting edge, and they’re doing so many wonderful things here. The community is so supportive, which you don’t see everywhere, either. And they make a huge contribution to the community.”
So Sundberg, 59, applied for the job, joining more than 60 other applicants. And on Thursday, Kirkwood Board of Trustees Chairman James Mollenhauer introduced her as the school’s fifth president and its first female leader. She is scheduled to begin Aug. 1, 2018.
“We came up with a 100 percent unanimous decision for the hiring of this new college president for Kirkwood,” Mollenhauer said of the nine-member board.
Moments before Sundberg’s introduction, the board approved a three-year contract that will pay her an annual salary of $300,000. That’s on par with Starcevich’s salary, which is scheduled to increase to $311,750 for the upcoming calendar year.
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With 14 years on the job, Starcevich will be eligible for separation pay that’s been accumulating since his five-year mark.
Sundberg’s contract with Kirkwood also begins accumulating separation pay at year five. The institution additionally will cover business and vehicle expenses and pay $12,000 a year for depreciation of her vehicle, her contract shows.
At Sandburg, she’s making an annual salary of nearly $200,000. She was included in a Chicago Tribune report on “lavish perks” for Illinois college chief executives for her $20,200 car allowance there. A spokesman for the school at the time told the Tribune that Sundberg got the stipend because her college’s district encompasses more than 3,000 square miles and has three campuses.
Sundberg told The Gazette that Sandburg’s sprawling reach makes it similar in some ways to Kirkwood — which serves nearly 20,000 annual college-credit students and encompasses 14 locations in seven counties.
But Sandburg is much smaller, reporting an enrollment just over 2,000.
“It’s a jump for sure,” she said. “It will take me some time to wrap my arms around that. But really, really looking forward to it.”
Before reaching the presidential post in Galesburg, Sundberg began working at Sandburg as an adjunct economic instructor in 1995. She also served as the school’s coordinator of institutional research; director of institutional research; dean of human resources and organizational development; vice president of administrative services; and vice president of academic services.
When she announced her hire Wednesday evening on social media, Sundberg expressed “a mix of emotions” in leaving Sandburg — where she also was the school’s first female president.
“I want all of you to know that this has been a tremendously difficult and emotional decision for me,” she wrote on Facebook. “Galesburg has always been my hometown, and for more than two decades, I have had the incredible privilege of calling Carl Sandburg College my professional home. However, the chance to lead Kirkwood Community College is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
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She said in the interview that Kirkwood is one of “only a couple colleges in the whole country I would consider coming for.”
“My husband, Rick, and I are excited to get to know Cedar Rapids and to become part of this community,” she said to a crowd during her introduction Thursday, turning toward her husband. “Thank you Rick for supporting me on this journey that we certainly did not see coming. And mostly importantly thank you for your willingness to accept a detour in our life plans.”
Starcevich, who turns 70 this year, announced in January his plans to retire in June. Sundberg said she has a vacation planned in July that she can’t move, and Mollenhauer said the board might ask Starcevich to stay through July to ensure a smooth transition.
Starcevich recently has helped Kirkwood develop a new master facilities plan aimed at rejuvenating parts of the 885-acre Cedar Rapids campus, which includes 27 buildings totaling 1.65 million square feet of learning space.
In September, Kirkwood convinced voters to back a bond issue extension supporting the facilities plan. That measure generates 20 cents per $1,000 of taxable property valuation and comes at a time of strapped budgets at the state level.
Sundberg said she’s aware of state funding reductions for higher education in Iowa, and is used to it — having worked amid Illinois’ budget woes for years. She said she’s prepared for it, though she hasn’t thought about Kirkwood’s financial future in depth.
“I’m pretty comfortable with that kind of atmosphere,” she said. “I think that we have to look for ways to make higher ed more affordable, and we have to look for ways to be more efficient.”
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