© 2023 WSIU Public Broadcasting
WSIU Public Broadcasting
A Service of Southern Illinois University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The long-time SIC president is set to retire

A photo of SIC President Jonah Rice standing on the Harrisburg campus
SIC (provided)
SIC President Jonah Rice

After 35 years in higher education and 34 of those at Southeastern Illinois College, SIC President Jonah Rice, Ph.D., has decided to retire at the end of his contract (June 30, 2024) to begin a new phase in his life after leading the college through the most challenging times in the college’s history.

Rice began as junior faculty in 1990 and began the theatre program as well as helped coach multiple national championship speech and debate teams for nearly 20 of those years. He also led the college through successful reaccreditations with the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

Dr. Frank Barbre, Vice Chair of the SIC Board of Trustees touted Rice’s service to the industry in addition to his presidential duties at the college.

“During his presidency, Dr. Rice developed many state and national acquaintances and professional contacts that brought considerable positive recognition to the college. He recently served as President of the Illinois Community College Presidents Council and was recognized this year for 15 years of service to HLC having served on numerous accreditation evaluation visits,” said Barbre.

Rice was also awarded the Illinois Community College Trustees Association Advocacy Award in 2019 for his dedicated leadership in advocating for the needs of students and the Illinois community college system.

He laughed when asked about why he took the Presidency in 2009.

“I didn’t want it. There was a failed national search, so I took it only as interim. I even turned down the board at first when they offered to make me permanent instead of interim. Times were rough.”

Rice said he took it because he loves the college and believes in its mission.

“While I love my job and the people at SIC, at the first it was like dealing with the twelve plagues on Egypt,” Rice said. (An appropriate analogy for the region called “Little Egypt.”

Rice said his 15 years at the helm included one Illinois fiscal disaster after another, including the great budget impasse of 2016, as well as a tornado, dropping district population, losses in the local economy, and finally a pandemic.

Gary Allen, who has been associated with SIC for over 54 years in various roles from instructor and founder of the speech team to board member and foundation director, had this to say: “Dr. Harry Abell built SIC, and Dr. Jonah Rice saved it… Despite his reluctance to agree to the position, after a few months with Dr. Rice at the helm, it became obvious that he was that suitable candidate. He went from outstanding student and member of the speech team to instructor, forensics coach and
Humanities division chair. Of course, he became an exceptional president of Southeastern.”

SIC Board of Trustees Chair, Dr. Pat York, added, “He saved the college two times. First, when the state sent no money, and second when he made all the right moves during the COVID pandemic.”

“When I came into office in 2009, my comptroller sat me down and said, ‘Chief, we only have $18,000 in the bank and lots of IOUs from the state. Plus, our working cash bond is pretty small.’ That woke me up in a hurry,” Rice said.

“With state funding being a fraction of what it was supposed to be, under Dr. Rice’s leadership, Southeastern managed to maintain high quality classroom instruction,” affirmed Allen.

“I went through a lot of Tums in those days,” Rice said. “But because of working with a lot of good people and a truly great board of trustees and some exceptional foundation members who stuck it out through a difficult process, SIC is in great financial shape and we’ve protected the core of our mission along the way. And our foundation is hugely successful!”

During Rice’s time, the college developed a fund balance policy ensuring a safety net for emergencies like state impasses and gross late payments. Rice said he’s so proud of what the college has done in the past decade plus.

“We have built the foundation back to a great point, receiving the largest two substantial gifts from the late Col. James C. Hise—the largest in our history and probably larger than any other college in Southern Illinois as well as established some truly outstanding scholarships, like ones from the Graves-Absher and Coyle families,” said Rice.

The new Hise Museum with operational endowment as well as the Hise Estate gifts, worth millions, are testament to his hard work.

“Dr. Rice was the only person able to assuage Col. Hise. He was truly the right man in the right place at the right time, and it’s 100 percent because of him that those gifts were bestowed upon the college,” said York.

Barbre added, “Dr. Rice has been instrumental in bringing many donations and gifts to our college. Due to his exceptional relationship-building skills, the college now has a Regional Museum of Art and a new Career and Technical Education Training Facility at the SIC Carmi Campus.

Additionally, many students attending the new Carmi facility will benefit by receiving financial support from the Absher Foundation of White County.”

Rice also said he’s proud of the unconventional plans he pitched to the board that they allowed him to pursue.

“Bowling, archery, esports, powersports, the OWL [Outfitter Wildlife Management] program, and so much more were ideas that proved very fruitful to the college and regional students,” said Rice.

In terms of academics, Rice is proud of the biofuels program through the Technical Assistance Coordination Center grants early in his tenure as well as the Outdoor Recreation program.

The use of public health and safety bonds, private donations, state capital funds, and other creative venues have helped improve the campus appearance and function. Under Rice’s leadership, multiple spaces underwent substantial renovations, such as the Learning Commons area, gym, student center, bookstore, and so much more.

“I believe that programs are people, and no matter how good the building you have, if you don’t have good, effective people operating them, then you have an empty shell,” Rice said.

Rice’s leadership style has always been about equity interaction and servant leadership.

As for ‘equity interaction’ Rice says he keeps two jars on a book shelf in his office, one full of honey and the other vinegar. Below the jars is a sign that reads, “Be sure to taste your words before you spit them out.”

“When people become hostile and spit ‘vinegar,’ that usually results in a verbal altercation,” Rice said. “I like to remind people when we’re at the negotiation table or discussing differences, honey is so much better than vinegar to build relationships and achieve meaningful results.”

“But I hate fake nice,” he said while laughing. He whole-heartedly believes in servant-leadership, he said.

“But that doesn’t mean you just give people what they want. It means you serve the institution, putting its needs above your own or any individual. That is something I promote in my leadership team and with all of our employees,” said Rice.

He also believes in sharing the stage. “Look, it takes more than one person to make success happen. I have great people around me—people I care about like family.”

Rice is fond of telling his team that they all “hold hands” on big decisions.

“I don’t believe in pushing people in front of a bus, and I don’t like to be pushed in front of a bus. We hold hands and go together. We debate. We discuss. We’re honest with each other. When people quit holding hands, they’re on their own, and that’s a very lonely place.”

He believes his work with the board of trustees has been a large reason for his success. And the board members echo that sentiment toward Dr. Rice.

“SIC has been extremely fortunate to have Dr. Jonah Rice as its president since 2009,” said Barbre. “His exemplary leadership skills and educational experiences have provided an opportunity for the colleges’ administration, faculty, staff, and students to accomplish many significant institutional goals during the past 15 years. These accomplishments have been attained within the districts’ financial resources available and limited budgets.”

“I’ve enjoyed working for my Board,” said Rice. “I’m so pleased we have board members who have been honorable, selfless, and dedicated to SIC. They have not been driven by revenge, political opportunities, or bias. When that begins to creep into a board, that’s when a college goes down the
tubes. It’s not servant leadership—it becomes individual desire, and that’s deadly for education,” he said.

Rice’s wish for SIC is “that we continue to maintain servant-leadership on the board and keep personal politics out of governance. And also that the community supports the college as much as it can. Without it, the region suffers. People like to promote ‘shop local.’ Well I say ‘educate local.’”

All three of Rice’s children are proud graduates of SIC, all majoring in health and science professions.

What are his plans for the future?

“More family time for sure. More time with my wonderful wife, Megin, and my three amazing kids Jacob, Haley and Connor. Ramping up my business ventures like my consulting company. I have a few books in me that I’ve never had time to write,” said Rice.

Rice and his wife also plan to develop a cabin rental business near the Shawnee National Forest.

“I’d like to teach part-time, read and sketch more, work on my wood art projects… Heck, I might want to display at the Hise Museum one day. I gotta keep busy.”

Rice danced around with politics in his future as well.

“I’ve considered it when I’ve been asked by others who have suggested I take the plunge,” he said. “Who knows? Maybe.”

Would he take on another presidency?

“Doubtful,” he said. “I’d feel like I would be cheating on SIC. Temporary assignments are possible, I suppose. As a colleague of mine from Chicago told me recently, ‘You can’t just shut down. You have to be busy doing something.’ I suppose she’s right. But I think I’m finished with full-time, permanent presidencies. It’d be tough to top SIC!”

What is his advice for his successor?

“Take a deep breath. Put everything into perspective. Stick to your priorities. Enjoy change. Document everything. Listen more, talk less, and e-mail even less. And remember to laugh as much as you can—even in tough times. It’s better than the alternative.”

As a WSIU donor, you don’t simply watch or listen to public media programs, you are a partner. By making a gift, you help WSIU produce, purchase, and broadcast programs you care about and enjoy – every day of the year.