Blackburn welcomes new president
By Rick Wade
Blackburn College’s new president Dr. John Comerford said he quickly learned something about his new home.
“Last week, my wife, Rachel, and I decided to sneak back into Carlinville, to check out the schools, churches, some of the services, and we learned one important lesson about Carlinville,” Comerford told those gathered in Bothwell Auditorium for the Nov. 30 announcement that he’d been named Blackburn’s 16th president. “You cannot ‘sneak’ into Carlinville.”
As the laughter subsided, Comerford explained. “Everywhere we went, we were greeted with, ‘Oh, you’re that Blackburn guy from the newspaper!’
“That said two things to us: First, that this community believes in Blackburn and that likewise, Blackburn is connected to the community. And secondly, I’m used to being called ‘that Blackburn guy.’ I thought we should keep that up.”
Young, personable and energetic, Comerford comes to Carlinville from his post as Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Westminster College in Missouri. Comerford’s duties at Westminster include responsibility for fundraising, marketing, event management, and alumni relations.
During the announcement event, Comerford addressed the audience of students, faculty, staff and community members.
“It is truly an honor to be standing here,” he said. “It is difficult to put into words what it means to have been selected by all of you to play a role in the future of this 175 year old college. I am grateful to the Board of Trustees for giving me this opportunity.”
At one point he addressed the woman he will replace July 1, 2013, Miriam “Mim” Pride.
“I must offer my thanks to Mim Pride. I owe her personal thanks,” Comerford said, eliciting a spontaneous standing ovation. “Mim’s enthusiasm for this place was contagious during our time together and I will forever associate that meeting with the moment I knew I could be a Blackburnian.”
Comerford was one of three candidates for the position who visited the campus in early November, to be scrutinized by students, staff and teachers.
Pride, who has served as president of the private liberal arts college since 1991, announced this year that she will retire as president effective June 30, 2013, after 22 years with the institution.
A presidential search committee was formed to begin working on the national search.
“The selection of Dr. Comerford as the president of Blackburn College culminates a national search that spanned several months,” said Blackburn College Search Committee Chair and Board of Trustees Chair Ed Young. “A dedicated search committee spent countless hours reviewing information and interviewing many qualified candidates for the position. I sincerely thank the Committee and the campus community as a whole for their attentive participation in the search process, ensuring that all constituencies were heard in the evaluation of candidates.”
Young said that the search committee and the college’s Board of Trustees felt that Comerford brings excellent experience in higher education administration to Blackburn, along with academic experience in the classroom. “His demonstrated enthusiasm for liberal arts education, the educational environment of a small private college setting and the unique Blackburn College Work Program will serve the College well going forward,” Young said.
Saying it is a crucial time for higher education, Comerford went on to list the many questions asked about higher education, such as, “Why does college cost so much?” and “Is college really worth it?” or “Is college still the best path to success for the American Dream?
“I am proud to stand up here today to tell you that Blackburn has those answers. ‘Why does college cost so much?’ Well, Blackburn says, ‘It doesn’t have to.’ If you focus your resources on student learning and allow students to contribute to their own education, it does not have to cost so much.
“‘Is college really worth it?’ Blackburn has the answer. Blackburn says yes, the academic and co-curricular programs we all know lead to future success for our graduates. We know the facts about placement of Blackburn graduates in medical school and the employment rates that come out of here.
“But beyond that, the Blackburn work program gives students actual, hands-on experience doing what employers need. ‘Is college accessible?’ Blackburn says yes. If you have the skills and ability to be successful in college, we will help you get there.
“A Blackburn graduate has the academic, character, and job skills that employers want,” he explained. “Blackburn College stands alone. We are different, we are making this world a better place, and we are proud of who we are.”
But Blackburn has another thing going for it, said Comerford. “We teach character. Blackburn is one of the few colleges in the country actually taking the time to measure such things as leadership development, moral responsibility, adaptability, self-reliance and independence,” he said. “Well, guess what? Blackburn graduates have shown growth in all of those areas. This is the path to success. And Blackburn makes that happen.”
Comerford is a native of Charleston, Ill. and married with three young children, Garret, 6; Reagan, 3; and Grant, 1. He is also active in the Fulton, Mo., community, serving in leadership roles with the Rotary Club, Boy Scouts, and downtown development efforts.
In introducing Comerford, who came to the podium through the middle of the large stage curtain to a round of applause, Young noted that the new president’s wife is originally from nearby Waverly, and both have a family background of educators.
“Central Illinois and education are in their DNA,” said Young. “It’s in their blood.”
Comerford has held positions at the University of Kansas, Missouri Western State University and Ball State University. He earned a bachelor’s degree with honors from Western Illinois University and went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Central Missouri.
He earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Kansas and his academic research area is legal issues in higher education.