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THE RIGHT PRESIDENT AT THE RIGHT TIME: AN INTERVIEW WITH ICO’S SIXTH PRESIDENT, MARK COLIP, OD ’92
On June 14, 2018, the Illinois College of Optometry concluded its Presidential Search. Having met with outstanding candidates from across the United States, the Board of Trustees announced their unanimous choice: that ICO’s sixth president would be Mark Colip, OD ’92. He officially took office on August 6, 2018.
Dr. Colip is new to the presidency, but not the institution. ICO is his alma mater, and prior to this new title, Dr. Colip was ICO’s Vice President for Student, Alumni, and College Development. In fact, he has worked on-campus for over 25 years, seeing the College through growth, change, and three previous presidents.
Lauren Faits, Editor-in-Chief of ICO Matters, spoke to Dr. Colip during the first week of his presidency. They candidly discussed family, how Dr. Colip found optometry, and his hopes and aspirations for the school he loves.
LF: “Dr. Colip, you grew up in a farming community and earned a degree in zoology. Some people might find that surprising. Tell me about life before optometry.”
MC: “My dad was from a farming family. He grew up milking dairy cows at 6 in the morning and 6 at night, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. When I got my driver’s license, I would get up at 5 in the morning, drive a truck into Indianapolis, pick up 5 tons of feed, and drive it back to my dad’s store. Then, after school, I helped throughout the evening. My mom and dad were the hardest workers that I ever met.”
LF: “Does that mean your zoology degree was farm-related?”
MC: “Not at all. When I was in 6th grade, I read a book in the library. It had the Hippocratic Oath in the cover. It just spoke to me. So, from the time I was in 6th grade, my objective was to become a doctor. I applied for a job as an orderly at the local county hospital when I was 15. I took an EMT course when I was 17. I worked in the emergency room, got accepted to DePauw University, and got a scholarship to go there. DePauw University didn’t have a biology major at the time- it was zoology.
I did a one-month internship with a couple of family practice doctors in my hometown. They allowed me full access. I went to the hospital rounds, all that… but there was just frustration on their faces every day. I knew at the end of that month that I didn’t want to be a medical doctor. I was devastated.”
LF: “I understand. You’d been certain for so long. Where did optometry come in?”
MC: “I wanted to get examined for contact lenses. I was 20 years old, and I visited Daryl Hodges, OD ’77, in Greencastle, Indiana. I thought, ‘This is doctor stuff!’ I shadowed him and I fell in love with optometry. He talked about studying in Chicago in this place called Illinois College of Optometry. In my mind, I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to do that, that’s in scary Chicago…’ He felt so passionately about optometry and ICO, he took the day off from his practice and drove me to Chicago to make sure I came here and interviewed.”
LF: “When you applied to optometry school, were you married?”
MC: “When I graduated from DePauw University (May 1985), I was offered a job to go back to Methodist Hospital and teach paramedics and emergency medicine. This was going to be a summer job, before I started at ICO.
Shortly after I started teaching though, I had a health issue arise. Reluctantly, I had to call ICO and give up my seat. What had started out as a summer job before starting at ICO, turned into three years while I worked through my health issue. It was the right thing to do at the time. Interestingly enough, it was during this ‘delay in my plans’ that I met my wife, working at the hospital. She was a brand-new nurse. I fell in love with her at first sight. February 7, 1986, I proposed to her… We got married June 7, 1986. So what started out as a delay in my plans, turned out to put me exactly where I needed to be.”
LF: “That same year??”
MC: “I knew what I wanted. We actually came to Chicago for Labor Day weekend for the Jazz Fest. We were standing in line at Uno’s Pizza, and I told her, ‘You’re going to marry me someday.’ She just laughed.
We both stayed and worked at Methodist Hospital for 3 years. My health improved. I studied and retook the OAT, but wondered, ‘What school is going to accept me?’ By the grace of God, ICO accepted me again.”
LF: “You were so busy as a young man. Were you a super-involved optometry student?”
MC: “No. I was going to be an 80-hour-a-week student; nothing but studying for me. I was mostly scared of failing, but at the same time, I was loving what was happening in class. It was everything I’d hoped and dreamed since 6th grade.”
LF: “It’s comforting to know that even you got scared sometimes. If you had a really tough day at ICO, what did you do to unwind?”
MC: “I played with my dogs. I took them for walks, would play ball with them almost every evening. Jan and I, frankly, would sit on the couch, hold hands, and watch TV. That was a big evening for us… You have to push back from the stress and the studying. Nobody can do this 24/7.”
LF: “When you graduated, did you immediately pursue academia?”
MC: “No. We’d actually decided by January of my 4th year that we were going to go to Michigan and I was going to buy into a practice there. Right about graduation time, the deal broke apart.”
LF: “How awful! So you had to salvage something pretty quickly?”
MC: “I worked for [Dr. John Gardner] most of my second year, and even into third year. His dad was an ICO alum. When the deal fell apart… I started working with [Dr. Gardner] right away.”
LF: “…but something brought you back to ICO.”
MC: “It wasn’t long after. That Fall, ICO’s president [Dr. Banwell] called. He said, ‘I’d like you to come back… We’ve had some admissions problems.’ I said, ‘Wow, I’m sorry to hear that, but I’m not your guy.’ Early December, another call came. He was very persistent. By that time, 25% of that first year class had failed out. That was devastating to the budget and to the people.
Here’s how it is. Without ICO, I’m probably a farmer, struggling to survive. ICO flipped that switch for me. I am forever indebted about that. So, I started April 1. We’d had a baby on February 28, moved into a new house in Downers Grove, and I started a new job!”
LF: “You have had over 25 memorable years at ICO before this presidency. What are you most proud of so far?”
MC: “When I came back to ICO, we had about a decade and a half of alumni who were really angry at the school. I finally came to the conclusion, after struggling with this for months, if not years: I can’t apologize enough. All I can do is talk about how ICO is a different place now, and what our plans are going forward. I made it my mission just tell our story to every individual that I could.”
LF: “It’s very mindful, encouraging people to see what’s happening now, but you’re also not trying to make excuses for the past.”
MC: “No, there’s no excusing some of the things that happened in those days. At the same time, there were a lot of good people here. Enter Dr. Charlie Mullen. He came in and basically said, ‘The best disinfectant is sunshine… There’s nothing we’re not going to let people outside look at.’ It was hard, but… I learned more from working with Dr. Charlie Mullen about college administration, about doing the right thing, about strategic planning, than anybody in my life.
Look at what has been accomplished in the past 20 years. People who have seen the contrast, I’ve heard them say, ‘You know, amazingly enough, ICO has always kind of found the right president for the right time.’ I think that’s just so true.”
LF: “So, you got to watch and learn from several ICO presidents. How did you, Dr. Colip, decide to apply for the role?”
MC: “When Dr. Augsburger called us all to his office and said, ‘I’m retiring,’ I was dumbfounded. The search launched. A good candidate probably should have jumped and applied immediately. I didn’t… all through December, all through January, early February. When I would think about the hardest parts of the job, I would get very anxious. When I would have thoughts of the positives, I would get kind of excited, but then the negatives would come in.
I told Jan, ‘I’m going to go to the lake house.’ I committed myself to, for a weekend, not thinking about Boyd Banwell, not thinking about Charlie Mullen, not thinking about Arol Augsburger, as much as I respect all of them, but thinking about Mark Colip. I forced myself to divorce from history and habit. Sunday night, I drove back home… started writing my letter.”
LF: “What was it like during the interview process at ICO?”
MC: “Some people generously sat and coached me. I appreciated that. I had great confidence in the search committee. The hardest thing was knowing that there were other ICO alumni who I love dearly that were in the process; I just felt like I wasn’t supposed to communicate with them or congratulate them.”
LF: “How did you find out that you were chosen?”
MC: “That was amazing. The Board had a second interview with the two [final] candidates. Forty-five minutes to an hour later, I got a call from Maggie at the President’s Office. She said, ‘The Committee has some more questions for you.’ I thought, ‘Oh, this probably isn’t good. They saved the zingers for now.’
They asked me to sit at the head of the table. Dr. Karen Eng, the Chairman of the Board, said, ‘We asked you back because we have one more question for you: Would you be our next president?’”
You’re always taught to say, ‘Oh, I need 24 hours, I need to talk to my wife and family.’ I’d had all those talks. I just responded, ‘I would be delighted.’ Every person in that room gave me a hug. I still get emotional thinking of that moment.”
LF: “In a previous edition of ICO Matters, you spoke about the applicant pool and ICO’s acceptance standards. Now that you’re in the driver’s seat, do you have anything you want to add?”
MC: “The selection of the students that come to ICO and the current applicant pool- ASCO is officially calling it a crisis, now- it’s our #1 issue, no question about it.”
LF: “Speaking of, the amount of scholarships given out this year was a bit larger. Can you tell me why you think that’s important, and maybe how the decision was made?”
MC: “After last year, and taking a smaller class, we really sat down and took a look at the data. We said, ‘Everything indicates that next year’s pool will be less than this year’s. So, we can do things exactly the same, and expect to get even fewer numbers in our class, or we can pull the levers and do what we can. The one thing I knew we could do more of was scholarship. I worked closely with Dr. Augsburger and the rest of the PAC group, and ultimately came up with a recommendation that we wanted to make increases to scholarship offerings to try and get the best candidates.”
LF: “When it comes to fundraising for decisions like this, I’ve heard you use the term ‘friend-raising.’”
MC: “When I started doing fundraising more formally at ICO, the people that were training me were Trish DeMaat and Connie Scavuzzo. The thing that Connie really pushed with me was that you have to ‘friend raise’ before you can fund raise. It’s absolutely right. People aren’t going to give you money to support your mission unless they are your friends, or believe deeply in what you do. I fully expect to spend 30, if not 40, percent of my time in that area.”
LF: “Your first major staff choice was Erik Mothersbaugh, OD ’12, FAAO, Dean of Student Affairs. Why was he the right fit?”
MC: “I’ve watched [Dr. Mothersbaugh] from the time he was in undergraduate school at Augustana. I was delighted when he decided to come to ICO. When he picked ICO to do his residency, during that time he told me that he had aspirations of going into teaching, perhaps even administration… He’s doing a marvelous job already.”
LF: “What are some of the things you see his role taking on, particularly in the realm of student success?”
MC: “Lots has changed in 10 years’ time. Clearly, we have the applicant pool issue that we’re wrestling with, but also student concerns with regard to anxiety, depression… it’s an area where I feel I probably wasn’t doing as good a job as I could have. [Dr. Mothersbaugh] brings some insight, some energy. He’s going to be able to tackle that issue.
With regard to the Student Success Task Force, that’s something that I appointed last Spring to help us really take a hard look at student success issues within the institution. Beth Karmis is chair… other faculty and staff are helping out. They’re meeting ultimately to make recommendations to serve students even better.”
LF: “We just drafted an institutional 5-year Strategic Plan. Is there anything you’d like to share with our alumni about it?”
MC: “I will have the Strategic Plan on my desk every day. Right now, it has 6 key overarching goals, ideas, and concepts, addressing each major area within the institution. We’ll start building it out even more. One of the things is ‘Determine the optimal class size at ICO.’ There are lots of steps that we have to go through to ultimately come up with an answer for that…
You know, the other thing that I fully realize is that any plan that’s done at any one point in time- honestly, it’s good for that point in time. Then, every day thereafter, life changes and the world changes… as far as I’m concerned, the strategic plan is alive.”
LF: “How do you see your relationships at ICO changing or evolving?”
MC: “That’s something that I struggled with throughout the whole process. I really have not wanted my relationships to change. I realize that I may have more appointments and I may be off-campus more, but I want people to stop in. Honestly, in my previous position for 25 years, it was how I learned a lot of stuff that was going on in the institution.”
LF: “Is there any general message you might want to send the alumni reading ICO Matters to show them that the institution is still moving in a great direction?”
MC: “I guess all I would say is, give me an opportunity to prove myself and I promise to put ICO first in all of my decision-making. I think everything else falls into place after that. I promise to work my hardest to make sure ICO stays at the forefront of optometric education. This program has a 146-year history, and I’m not going to let that falter on my watch.”
LF: “I couldn’t help but notice an alumnus on Facebook who remembered an old quote of yours: ‘I love this school, I love this school, I love this school.’ Why do you think students come to ICO in 2018?”
LF: “What else is on your Presidential To-Do List?”
MC: “The president’s cabinet- I had my first meeting with them. The number one thing that I asked them was, when you’re making decisions, put ICO first. Our students and our alumni and donors and patients- put them first. We’ll always make the right decisions if we do that.”
LF: “There is a lot of change in optometry. We have disruptive tech like Opternative and Warby Parker, but also conglomerates buying up private practices. How do you see the climate of the profession affecting ICO and your presidency?”
MC: “In my first week, I had a company in that really is at the forefront of some of that technology. I wanted to hear what they’re doing, what’s driving them and motivating them. I think our role as an educational institution with regard to those things is not to decide whether it’s good or it’s bad; it’s to be involved in researching it and kicking the tires and helping our students and alumni to understand how it works and how they can use it best to serve their patients- if it has a role at all. Maybe it doesn’t have a role, and in that case, we’ll do our best to shed some light, as well.”
MC: “I hope, first and foremost, they want to be awesome clinical doctors… but I think there’s a lot of different reasons today. I think young people today are attracted by the city, our class size, our facilities. I think they’re attracted by the cutting edge use of technology in the clinic. Our faculty have awesome reputations. Boiling it down to some very simple things, I think their Interview Day experience. We hear back from many of them, ‘Everybody was so nice and helpful and wanted me to succeed.’ I think ICO is a very personal place.”
LF: “What is most exciting about this job?”
MC: “I think the opportunity to do the right thing and impact some change and improvement, based on what we do collectively. There are lots of people within the organization that have more impact than the president ever could. I’m very happy with the complement of the work force that we have, and the students that we have here. We just all have to keep doing the best that we can to energize each other and actuate each other to reach that potential. That’s my job.”