Arnold steers Eureka College out of rocky waters

Tom Batters
Dr. J. David Arnold became president of Eureka College in July of 2005.

EUREKA — Dr J. David Arnold defies the stereotypical image of a college president.

He is engaging, not dull.

He has a sense of humor, not a sense of self importance.

And, he interacts with the faculty and student body, instead of spending his days hunkered down inside some inaccessible office.

Then again, Eureka College is not your typical college, either.

Arnold, in his fifth year as president of the small college, knows that more than anybody. He knows that his job is different (and more rewarding) than the job of a large university president.

“There is a strong sense of family here, much more so than at other larger colleges,” he said. “Everybody knows your name here. You can’t be anonymous on campus. You can’t make it through the day without saying hello to somebody and starting up a conversation. I like that. I like the fact that everybody here cares about one another.”

Arnold recently sat down for an interview at his modest, rustic office in Dickinson Hall.

He talked about the unique challenges Eureka College faces in the ever-changing landscape of higher education.

When he was named president in July of 2005, the college was in financial trouble, but this year marked the fourth straight year with a balanced budget.

So, how was Arnold able to steer the ship in the right direction?

“The president doesn’t do it all by himself. I’m proud of what we have been able to accomplish, but I had a lot of help from a lot of people on this campus.”

The Eureka Idea

Increasing enrollment and keeping the college affordable were the major challenges Arnold faced when he took office five years ago.

The “Eureka Idea” addressed those issues, and ushered in a new era of financial stability.

The idea is simple: Lower tuition and make the costs of attending Eureka College transparent, so there is no gray area on how much it will cost a prospective student to attend the college.

In 2003, tuition was $18,700, not including room and board. The Eureka Idea reduced tuition to $13,000.

The financial aid plan was restructured so scholarships and criteria were clearly defined, eliminating confusion about how much aid a student could receive.

“Perhaps this is a crass example, but let’s look at it like you would look at a used car,” Arnold said.

“Our list price was not what we were selling our product at. We weren’t getting full tuition from anybody. We were giving financial aid, so our discount, so to speak, was about 50 percent,” he said.

“So, we lowered tuition, which reduced the ‘sticker shock,’ and we clearly labeled the criteria for scholarships and financial aid. What you see is what you get. The sticker on the windshield is what you pay.”

The ultimate goal was to increase enrollment, since so much of the college’s financial stability relies on tuition revenue.

This year marks the fifth straight year of record enrollment.

Growth with integrity

When asked if he was concerned if increased enrollment would lead to too much growth and swallow up the college’s close-knit atmosphere, Arnold said no, since the growth is slow and steady.

“Our goal is to get up to 1,000 students in five years (it is currently just under 800 students), and 1,200 students in 10 years,” he said. “We can handle that.”

Staying small is good, Arnold said, because it maintains Eureka College’s identity. It sets it apart from larger colleges.

“When you come to school here, you will get personal attention from your professors. You will have opportunities to get involved with things that interest you,” he said.

“A chemistry major with a passion for theater can have a part in the school play. You can go on a mission trip, or work on the student newspaper, or explore many other endeavors outside the classroom.”

A liberal arts education, as opposed to the “siloed” structure of larger colleges, is another important part of Eureka’s identity, Arnold said.

“Some larger universities load on a ‘siloed’ approach, so that you are very technically proficient in your field,” he said. “But, what happens when your field changes? A liberal arts education is valuable no matter what field you pursue. You learn to express yourself and confront arguments on a variety of subjects.”

Professors at Eureka College are just that: professors.

They are not graduate students. They do not have other agendas that get in the way of their teaching.

Arnold is a big proponent of the “teacher-scholar” model, which encourages professors to become experts in their fields without sacrificing the quality of their classroom instruction.

“Our professors are encouraged to conduct research and explore the latest advancements in their fields,” he said.

“Then, it is their responsibility to pass that on to their students and create that same passion in the classroom.”

All access

Arnold often uses the words “affordable” and “accessible” in the same sentence.

“Ronald Reagan came from a modest, even impoverished background, but he was able to attend Eureka College,” Arnold said.

“We want to make sure the Reagan of today has the opportunity to attend Eureka College. You don’t have to be rich to come here.”

Arnold was the first person from his family to graduate from college. Offering that opportunity to other families is very important to him.

Eureka College recently received a Walmart grant to help improve programing for first-generation college students. Currently, about 50 percent of the college’s students are the first in their family to attend college.

“When I was growing up, I couldn’t even think about a private college because it was too expensive,” he said. “I’m happy to see that we can offer a quality education to so many students who are the first in their family to go to college.”

Arnold graduated from Bloomsburg (Penn.) State College (now Bloomsburg University). He completed his graduate work at the University of New Hampshire and post doctoral study at the Institute for Educational Management at Harvard University.

Looking ahead

Arnold said he is excited about the future of the college and he is looking forward to meeting more of the upcoming challenges.

“We’re working in improving some of our facilities. I’m very excited about getting those projects going,” he said.

Plans are in the works to upgrade some residence halls and renovate the science facilities.

“We’re not talking about palatial accommodations here,” he said, smiling. “But, we will make some improvements. These are old buildings. They are due for a face lift.”

Arnold also keeps busy planning events for the Reagan Centennial, which will kick off next year.

A “Reagan in the Midwest” symposium is planned for Jan. 13-15.

“Reagan was the only president who was born, raised and educated in Illinois,” he said. “We are going to bring in some of the top scholars from around the country, and they will discuss Reagan’s years in the Midwest. It will be a very interesting learning experience. Reagan’s story touches so many people ... Small town boy from poor family becomes president ... It all started right here in our own back yard.”