50 Influencers: Mark Kern, setting records

INA, Ill. (April 29, 2017) - The longest serving president in Rend Lake College’s history also happened to be the first local product in the head office.

Ewing native Mark S. Kern was an instrumental part of RLC almost from the beginning, but it was his 17 years as president (1991-2008) of the institution that cement his legacy and earn him a spot on the 50 Influencers list.

Kern started his collegiate instructional career at Wabash Valley College in Mt. Carmel in 1967, the same year Mt. Vernon Community College transitioned into RLC. It took the local farm boy a single year to jump ship and come back to the area to help kick start the new college’s Agriculture program in 1968.

kernWMark Kern, left, teaches two Agriculture students during the first years of Rend Lake College.

In total, Kern spent 40 years of his working life in the Illinois Community College System – longer than any employee in the history of the system, according to the Illinois Community College Trustees Association at the time.

He was hired in to help start the RLC Agriculture program and, played a major part in enrollment growth – from 765 students in 1968-69 to a fall 2003 record enrollment of 5,283. The Ag program even had to survive a tornado which destroyed its original facilities in Bonnie Grade School.

Joining RLC as an Agriculture Instructor in 1968, Kern moved up to Agriculture, Automotive and Architecture Department Chair two years later and became Dean of Community Services in 1974 and Dean of Instruction in August 1978. He was named RLC’s fifth President in 1991.

Kern, a Benton Consolidated High School graduate, left the family farm in Snowflake to pursue his Bachelor of Science Degree in Agricultural Industries at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (1966). He continued his education at the University of Illinois, with a Master of Science Degree in Agricultural Economics (1968). When he went to college, he did so with the intentions of going into agricultural banking.

But, when the Wabash job came up, a young Kern thought he might like to try his hand at teaching.


mark kernWKern

He was appointed Interim President from March to June of 1989, filling the gap between the service of Dr. Harry Braun and Dr. Jonathan Astroth. Astroth submitted his resignation after two years to become the founding President of Heartland Community College in Bloomington, opening the way for Kern to vie for the leadership role.

He officially took the president’s office effective Sept. 3, 1991.

“I am very excited and pleased about the opportunity ahead,” Kern told media shortly after he was voted into the top administrative position.

“I grew up in this area and that makes it even more special. I really believe this college has been a wonderful asset for this area. To be in a leadership role at the college is a great opportunity. Probably the biggest thing the college does for this area is provide a quality college education within driving distance of home for most of our students. Some people, if they weren’t able to attend college here, would not be able to go (to college) otherwise.”

Kern admitted he was eager when he began his new job.

“There are a lot of good people here to work with. I am looking forward to working with them and the challenges ahead,” he said following the vote.

During Kern’s tenure, several major projects were undertaken and executed. Some of the major highlights include:

  • The RLC Foundation Children’s Center, the totally renovated Dr. Allen Y. Baker Administrative Building which doubled in size and a Staff Clock Tower which serves as the campus centerpiece were all added at no expense to the district’s tax-paying citizens.
  • There were also the renovations of the RLC Theatre, the addition of a North Road, which was in original campus plans, and the renovation of all roofs, parking lots and heating and plumbing systems.
  • The Rend Lake College Murphy-Wall Pinckneyville Campus, which became a reality because two politicians of opposite parties were willing to combine forces for the good of the Perry County community, with plenty of extra help from Murphy-Wall banking friends, the City of Pinckneyville and many others.
  • Studio RLC, the Paul Mitchell Partner School which was the first in the nation affiliated with a public community college.
  • The one-of-a-kind RLC MarketPlace in Mt. Vernon, which transformed a dying outdoor mall into a workable mix of retail stores (including the cornerstone RLC Golf Outlet) and a popular restaurant; educational training facilities for such programs as Cosmetology, Therapeutic Massage and Nurse Assistant; classrooms and computer labs; the former Kumon Center; rental space for the Child Care Resource and Referral Center, the statewide Project: CHILD grant program and the One-Stop Center for a variety of related state agencies, and meeting facilities.
  • Dual credit opportunities which have become overwhelmingly popular with high school students desiring to get a head start on college credits and save in-district parents millions of dollars.
  • Innovative programs, including Title III Grant-funded Wireless Communications, Radiologic Technology, Heavy Equipment Technology and expanded Culinary Arts Management facilities.
  • The Hitting Zone, Sports Center and state-of-the art Track and Field complex to support a National Championship program.
  • The two latest additions to the Ina layout, the 22,300-square-foot Mark S. Kern Applied Science Center, and a 20,000-square-foot Coal Mining Training Building, which opened in Fall 2009 thanks to $2.7 million in federal and state aid to design and construct the facility, equip it and provide training in anticipation of a resurgence in coal mining in Southern Illinois.

“Thank you very much,” Kern said when it was revealed that the Applied Science Center would carry his name. “This comes as quite a surprise. It is greatly appreciated. I did not expect to have a building named after me . . . I am very humbled and very appreciative.”

Kern is one of only three individuals to have a college building dedicated to him.

The others are the Dr. Allen Y. Baker Administration Building after the founding Board of Trustees member, Pinckneyville optometrist and pillar of community service; and the James “Hummer” Waugh Gymnasium after the longtime coach, instructor and supporter of everything Rend Lake College.

Kern also played a major part in such accomplishments the various successful reaccreditation visits from the Higher Learning Commission, formerly the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools; recognition from the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges as one of the first three institutions honored nationally for Outstanding Service to Industry; establishment of a Community Coordinator system; the cooperative efforts between Franklin and Jefferson County 4-H programs and the Rend Lake Conservancy District in building shared facilities on campus, and the addition of many educational programs.

He was responsible for initiating the first Advisory Council – comprised of community leaders actively involved in various fields of agriculture who provided valuable input for college staff and programs – and Cooperative Education (on-job training) programs, both of which are still in existence for almost all career-technical programs, and introduced the Community Service / Community Education concept as Dean of Community Services.

As president, he was also instrumental in acquiring three different Federal Title III “Strengthening Institutions” Grants which netted the college approximately $5 million and brought drastic improvements in many areas, including fund-raising through the RLC Foundation, campus-wide computerization and the Wireless Communications program.

In May 2004, Kern became the first person to be recognized for 35 years of full-time service to Rend Lake College. The RLC Foundation Board of Directors also named Kern an Emeritus Member for his support to the organization over the years.

“There has been no one more instrumental in the growth of the Foundation than Mark Kern,” former RLC Foundation Chair Hunt Bonan said at Kern’s retirement. “When he became President, I think the Foundation had approximately $100,000 in assets. Today, we are proud to say, the Foundation has over $5 million in assets. That is a big number. But, more important is that last year the Foundation gave out over $300,000 in scholarships. That assists students in the district with coming to Rend Lake College; however in some cases, it meant the difference in whether a student would go to college or not. I think that is an amazing statement and the work Mark has done with the Foundation – his dedication and absolute tenacity in demanding the very best – has been so important for our growth . . . We hope he keeps promoting the Foundation because he is our best promoter in the community.”

He was inducted into the RLC Sports Hall of Fame class of 2008; Warrior/Lady Warrior athletics increased threefold while Kern was president.

“I have had a very rewarding career. You have to be fortunate to become a community college President, and becoming one in the area in which you grew up is even more special. I have been able to watch the college benefit people and the children of people I have known all my life,” Kern said during his final president’s address before his retirement on June 30, 2008.

“I really believe the community college system has been the most exciting and most productive area of education during the last 40-plus years. I have been fortunate to have spent 40 years in that system. I won’t miss the night meetings or the trips to Springfield or Chicago. I have made friends with many fine people, including staff, Board members, Foundation Board members and other key people in the community. I will miss spending time with these people.”

“Thank you very much for the support you have given me, my family and Rend Lake College. Please keep providing that support to one of the finest educational institutions in the State of Illinois.”

KernLastDayWMark Kern's on his last day in the president's office

Current RLC President and product of the Agriculture Program Kern helped build, Terry Wilkerson said of his predecessor, “It’s difficult to say enough about Mark. He always was and still is dedicated to Rend Lake College, and I believe the good of this place was first in his thoughts in the decisions he made here. He’s been a huge advocate for not only the college, but for college education in this area.”

Kern has been honored previously as the Franklin County 4-H “Outstanding Alumnus” and Franklin County Soil Conservation “Farmer of the Year” and was one of three Illinoisans selected for the Cooperative Extension Cow Tour in 1987. The Southern Illinois farmer-turned-RLC President was recipient of the 2001 Statewide Commercial Producers Award.

He also is a past Vice President and Secretary of the Illinois Council of Community College Administrators, a past member of the Benton Consolidated High School Board of Education and a past member of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee and Administrative Board at First United Methodist Church in Benton.

Kern farmed in partnership with his father, Frank, for many years and presently owns and operates a 660-acre farm with 100 head of beef cows.

“Rend Lake College has met every challenge it has faced since 1967, and I am sure we will continue to do likewise in the future.”

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