Predominantly Black rural university to shut down after 2021 cyberattack

A predominantly Black rural university in Illinois will close on Friday after falling victim to a cyberattack in December and struggling with declining student enrollment during the pandemic.

Lincoln College, about 2.5 hours outside of Chicago, posted a notice about the permanent closure on its website, saying that despite “record-breaking student enrollment” in 2019, it was winding down operations after a crippling cyberattack and a devastating pandemic.

The closure is expected to have a big impact on the rural area of Lincoln. Before the pandemic, the nonprofit college typically had an active enrollment of close to 1,000 students, about 40 percent of whom were Black, and an estimated $53 million economic impact in the central Illinois area.

The college had earned the designation of a Predominantly Black Institution (PBI), according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“Lincoln College has been serving students from across the globe for more than 157 years,” said David Gerlach, president of Lincoln College, in a statement. “The loss of history, careers, and a community of students and alumni is immense.”

The pandemic created “economic burdens” after curtailing fundraisers, student life activities and sporting events, while it also required expensive investments for the university in technology and infrastructure.

The college was working to recover from declining student enrollment when a cyberattack crippled data and information systems in December. Gerlach has said publicly the hackers were Iranian.

The four-year university, founded in 1865, did not fully restore operations until March. By then it was too late, and they needed a “transformational” donation or partnership to survive.

“Lincoln College has survived many difficult and challenging times – the economic crisis of 1887, a major campus fire in 1912, the Spanish flu of 1918, the Great Depression, World War II, the 2008 global financial crisis, and more, but this is different,” university officials wrote in the notice.

The college announced the closure in April, drawing the ire of some current and former students, some of whom promised to protest and “fight” the decision, according to local news radio station WGLT.

Gerlach told WGLT he had “poured my soul” into the college, but the university needed more than $20 million and they simply couldn’t cut enough to stay afloat, saying it was “irresponsible to continue to operate next year.”

Students in the Lincoln area noted the closure of the college would have a big impact on the entire community, not just college students.

Davon Thompson, who graduated from the college in 2016, told WGLT that many local first-generation students began their college lives at the university.

“Lincoln gave them a way to move away for the time being and to be able to get necessary resources,” he told the outlet. “A lot of those kids come from low-income environments and they needed a place where they can be surrounded by people similar to themselves. Regardless of if you graduated from Lincoln, that impact was still felt.”