First the pandemic, then a ransomware attack force Illinois college to close its doors after 157 years

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LINCOLN, Ill. — Commencement ceremonies normally signal the end of one semester and the beginning of another.

At Lincoln College, a historically black institution named after Abraham Lincoln, it marked the end of the school's existence.

The school announced it would be closing due to low enrollment brought on by a devastating double-crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by a ransomware attack. The school's last day is Friday.

"Lincoln College has survived many difficult and challenging times – the economic crisis of 1887, a major campus fire in 1912, the Spanish flu of 1918, the Great Depression, World War II, the 2008 global financial crisis, and more, but this is different," the college posted on its web site.

Despite record enrollment numbers just three years ago, the college said that it scrambled to stay afloat with fundraising campaigns, a consolidation of employee positions, and exploring leasing alternatives.

“Unfortunately, these efforts did not create long-term viability for Lincoln College in the face of the pandemic,” the school said in the statement. The college opened in 1865 in Lincoln, about 170 miles southwest of Chicago.

Lincoln’s president, David Gerlach, told the Chicago Tribune that the school paid a ransom of less than $100,000 after an attack that he said originated in Iran. But when the systems were fully restored, the school that had just over 1,000 students during the 2018-19 academic year discovered “significant enrollment shortfalls” that would require a massive donation or partnership to stay open beyond the current semester.

A GoFundMe campaign called Save Lincoln College was launched with a goal of raising $20 million but as of this week, only $2,352 had been raised. And Gerlach told the Tribune that the school needed $50 million to remain open.

“The loss of history, careers, and a community of students and alumni is immense,” Gerlach said in a statement.

The college hosted its final commencement ceremony Saturday honoring 235 graduates who earned both associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees.

The day filled with emotions both happy and sad offered a traditional commencement ceremony.

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Shwanda Cross of Bloomington, there to support her daughter Kiara Cross, said it is unfortunate the school was closing.

"She really enjoyed being in a supportive environment. Lincoln College gave her the opportunity to finish her Bachelor of Business Administration degree. I am glad they are able to do this and let the students graduate," Cross said.

Kamela Cross said she was thankful for programs that allowed her mother to finish her bachelor degree.

"It allowed her to finish many of the courses online and she didn't have to make the commute back and forth. It helped because she could keep working while going to school," Kamela Cross said.

English Associate Professor and Department Chair for the English and Humanities Department Spring Hyde gives a tearful hug to her former student Miguel Reyes of Puerto Rico following the commencement at Lincoln College Saturday May 7, 2022. Hyde has worked at the college for 16 years and this will be the last commencement because the college is closing. [Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register]
English Associate Professor and Department Chair for the English and Humanities Department Spring Hyde gives a tearful hug to her former student Miguel Reyes of Puerto Rico following the commencement at Lincoln College Saturday May 7, 2022. Hyde has worked at the college for 16 years and this will be the last commencement because the college is closing. [Thomas J. Turney/The State Journal-Register]

Kim Flood of Wilmington, a parent of two Lincoln College graduates, said it was unfortunate the small school could not continue.

"It is sad. Both of my children loved it here," said Flood.

Shannon Cabit, a Contemporary Jazz Studies student of Lincoln, said she has only one more year to go and has found two schools that can accommodate her field of study.

"Schools that I'm looking at are either Illinois State University or Milliken University. Both have what I need so once I decide, I will commute to finish my degree," said Cabit.

Two honorary degrees were awarded to speakers Michael Phelon, CEO of The Outlet in Springfield and retired Rev. Glenn Shelton of the Second Baptist Church in Lincoln.

Shelton, who gave the commencement address, told the student body they must follow the three C's in life.

"There will always be a price that will be paid for everything you do in life," Shelton said. "There will be chaos, but one thing that you must do is to keep moving. It will never be easy but you must remember to follow the three C's. Those being cost, commitment and continue."

Lincoln College Alumnus Jaqujah Cooley, from Chicago  who graduated in 2020, takes a selfie with one of her former professors Monica Overton after the Lincoln College commencement Saturday May 7, 2022. [Thomas J. Turney/ The State Journal-Register]
Lincoln College Alumnus Jaqujah Cooley, from Chicago who graduated in 2020, takes a selfie with one of her former professors Monica Overton after the Lincoln College commencement Saturday May 7, 2022. [Thomas J. Turney/ The State Journal-Register]

Faculty marshal Jan Bowers, who once was a student at Lincoln College and came back to teach mathematics, said the day was filled with bittersweet memories.

"It has been an amazing time for me. I've met some wonderful students and worked with some awesome faculty. It is bittersweet for me because I have had the opportunity to enjoy a small school setting where we focus on the students and now it's over," Bowers said.

Bowers said she will be taking a teaching position at Mount Pulaski High School starting in the fall.

"I've been here close to 40 years," Bowers said, "and when I say we are the Lincoln College family, I truly mean it."

Lincoln College: College in Illinois to close after 157 years due to COVID impact

Some of the notable school alumni include current Atlanta Braves manager and 2021 World Series champion Brian Snitker, former NBA player Kevin Gamble and mixed martial arts fighters Matt Hughes.

Contributing: Associated Press

This article originally appeared on Lincoln Courier: Lincoln College's last commencement filled with bittersweet emotions