Almost a Quarter of a Century of Commitment – Our President Dr. James Dennis

By Magdalena Knapp, Editor

Many McKendree students only know Dr. Dennis as the person who stands in front of the Bearcat Statue and hands out a cool cone of ice cream on a hot spring or autumn day. However, our President is much more intimately involved in the everyday life of his students and the minute-by-minute running of the university than most could ever imagine. Working at McKendree University for him is not simply a job, it is his Lebenswerk: A mission he has successfully been working to fulfill since 1994.

Dr. James M. Dennis – the 32nd President of McKendree UniversityPhoto: Facebook/ McKendree University.

After growing up in Los Angeles, California, and getting a degree in Education, JD – a nickname Dr. Dennis received in college – worked for seven years at the University of Southern California. In 1994, he was offered a job in the beautiful and historical city of Lebanon, Illinois. McKendree University was once a small college and not very known in America.

Most students came from the area, and only a few of them had spread their wings and come from overseas. Dr. Dennis changed this situation. Since he began working at McKendree University, more and more students who were not born in “The Land of the Boundless Opportunities” are getting their degrees at the university. Dr. Dennis acquired his experience of teaching and leading a university from many places all around the world because he loves to travel and see new places. He was part of the Fulbright Program and taught for a couple of months in the country of Albert Einstein and Karl Marx – Germany. “The German system of University is the foundation for the US system… only a few people know that,” explains Dr. Dennis.

Dr. Dennis at the Convocation 2017 – His speeches leave a lasting impression on students and parents.
Photo: Facebook/ McKendree University.

Walking around campus, Dr. Dennis often thinks about all the travels he has already made. “I love to travel; I’ve almost visited every state in the United States.” Dr. D, as many students call him, has not only seen the brightest sides of the United States, he also made the big jump over the big puddle: the Pacific Ocean. Whether he was running with bulls in Pamplona, Spain to get a free ticket to the bullfight, or enjoying the stunning view from the top of the Italian Alps, he did everything. “If you made it to run with the bulls and survived, you could watch the show for free. What people see of me today is not who I was in college,” explains Dr. Dennis. His favorite places to go to are Salzburg, Austria, and the Alps. Not even countries such as France or Japan have been saved from his inquisitiveness. The next places on his bucket list are China, Alaska, and Africa.

Dr. Dennis is a president who wants to have a personal relationship with every student. Whenever you meet him during the rush hour at Ames, when everyone else is in a hurry and running around to fill his or her plate, he will always have the time for a nice talk. Dr. Dennis’ most important goal is that students understand how much he wants them to succeed. Students should not miss the unique opportunity to get a good education. McKendree students should not only get prepared for their graduate school, but rather for their future life. “Students sometimes do not understand how lucky they are that they have the opportunity to go to college.”

Who could refuse a cool ice cream cone on a hot spring day handed out by the President himself? – Dr. Dennis forms a personal relationship with his students.
Photo: Facebook/ McKendree University.

Dr. Dennis was born in a middle-class family, which means the family did not have a lot of money. His parents were teachers so he grew up on a college campus, much like many other children of faculty members. He thought that the facilities where part of his property: “In my eyes, it was my gym, my swimming pool, and my library,” giggles Dr. Dennis. He spent a lot of time in the library reading “his books” and that is probably why he is so well-read and interested in literature. “I was a very lucky child,” Dr. Dennis says.

One of his big passions is reading. The shelves in his office are full of professional books about leadership and higher education. Dr. Dennis tries to apply some of the principles from these books to McKendree University, and the education of students. “I like to get lost in a book. I think I will go back to reading novels and stories about detectives, once I retire – just for fun!” claims Dr. Dennis, eyes lighting up with joy.

The Bearcats are one big family, and families celebrate Thanksgiving together – Cutting the turkey is the President’s honor.
Photo: Facebook/ McKendree University.

Even though Dr. Dennis’ heart beats for McKendree University, a part of him will always be with his five grandchildren, who live in Los Angeles. “Being a grandfather is a great experience, and I love it!” reveals the President. His two sons still live in Los Angeles and he visits them as much as he can.

Being the President of a university is not always easy, as one could imagine. There are a few stumbling blocks on the path. The biggest challenge Dr. Dennis has to vanquish every day is the financial battle: “I want to support all the great ideas people have, but we do not have the money for everything.” Dr. Dennis faces every obstacle with a smile; the joy outweighs the challenges, as he defines it.

McKendree University has a beautiful campus, especially during the warm autumn days, where stunning colors can be seen all around campus. Although, Dr. Dennis’ favorite part of the University is not the campus and the facilities: “My favorite part about the University? Well, you! The students. I love them!” Dr. Dennis wants to have a personal relationship with every student. Everyone should feel welcome and at home in our “McK-Bearcats” family. Dr. Dennis always takes the time to talk to the students, get to know them, know their story, and their background. A very big and important part of McKendree University and crucial for Dr. Dennis are the faculty and staff members, as well as the coaches. The McKendree President has not always been a President, as some might know; he worked also as a swimming coach. He knows how essential good coaches are for a team and individuals, saying, “They are great mentors”.

Facing every obstacle with a smile – and how could this be easier than with the perfect “Purple Friday socks”?
Photo: Facebook/ McKendree University.

Since Dr. D started working at McKendree University 24 years ago, many things have changed. The school became much bigger and is now known all around the world, as we can see from the high rate of international students. Although, McKendree University has not reached his full potential yet, according to Dr. Dennis. Dr. Dennis wants to get at least 100-200 more students to his campus. “There is a huge list of things I still have in mind to do, at least 50 points!” says our President. It is a gargantuan desire for him to focus on the academic part. Students should get the best possible education in humanities and liberal arts. He wants to finish the campaign for the Science Building, the library, and add a classroom building. In the 21st century, technology is fundamental, which is why he wants to improve McKendree University with artificial intelligence, drones, and more involvement in cyber activities. A new parking structure should add more space for parking, and more room for student leisure time will be offered. Dr. Dennis also wants to remind his students that we should not get too upset about little things on campus, because the people who work here, in students affairs or other offices, try their hardest day after day to help students and make the discipuli’s experience as best as possible.

Dr. Dennis has huge plans for our McKendree University.
Photo: Facebook/ McKendree University.

When Dr. Dennis’ children graduated many years ago with a law degree and a PhD in education, he was very proud of them. “However,” he explains, “students should not study for their parents. They should study for themselves, for their future.” It is sad for him to see a student who does not succeed because of a lack of effort. College, in his eyes, is hard work, and some underestimate it. “It is your life and your future, and you have to make the best out of it.” Through Dr. Dennis’ guidance, McKendree University works hard to prepare students for their life.

Dr. Dennis inspires many people and students on campus. The biggest inspiration and role models for him were his parents. As teachers, they provided him terrific inspiration, day by day, as he elaborates. One old saying that motivates him and is always on his mind is “Preparing people for their last job, and not for their first job.” “This is what I want McKendree students to learn. They have to learn how to think, and how to work, not just how to make widgets that you don’t need at the end of the day.” This is what Dr. Dennis does day by day: He tries to shape students and form their character.

Dr. Dennis is not only the President of our school; he is much more than that. He does not start his workday at 8 a.m. and end it at 5 p.m. McKendree University is more than just his workplace. It is his life and he put his stamp on it, wherever you look. Whether he hands out ice cream, chats with students at Ames, or shows up at sporting events around campus, Dr. Dennis is always there for his students and his university, and he made our beautiful “McK” to what it is today.

Everyone knows Dr. Dennis and his wife, they always have an open ear and time for everyone.
Photo: Facebook/ McKendree University.

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