Meredith Bunch

President and CEO, Midstate College

A life’s work in higher education, building a skilled and trained workforce

My primary role in serving the Peoria community has been through education and service at Midstate College for the past 20 years. Connecting with students one at a time, watching the light go on when a student finds understanding, and sharing the joy of completion and renewal as the journey to a new way of life comes to fruition for a graduate is at the core of what has driven me to dedicate my life’s work to higher education.

My leadership role at Midstate has grown over time, but as president and CEO, I’ve been able to expand my roles in the community. As a member of the CEO Council, I am serving as co-chair of the Education and Workforce Committee and participating in the working group for Peoria Pathways to Prosperity (PP2P). I have joined the board of directors of the Economic Development Council of Central Illinois, serving as the education representative and member of the Finance Committee. Additionally, I am currently serving as chair of the Economic Development District (EDD) Governing Board. Through my work on that board, I represent education and serve as co-chair of the Communication Committee. I was also recently named to the Project Review Team, which selects viable projects for economic development and federal funding in the central Illinois region.

I have been a member of the Midstate College Board of Directors since 1999, and served on the Midstate College Alumni Board of Directors since 2004. I also serve on the Illinois Board of Higher Education Proprietary Advisory Committee. It has always been a priority of mine to be involved in the community, and specifically, my interests lie in bettering the overall educational landscape in this region. Ultimately, growing a skilled and trained workforce has long-term positive effects on our citizens, the local business climate and the long-term economic viability of our region, and I’m thankful to be playing a part in that work.

Tell us a little about your educational background and how you got started on your career path.
I fantasized about being a teacher since I was a little girl playing school. I grew up in a family of educators. My Spanish teacher in high school was a fantastic teacher who also inspired me to teach, but I did not realize education would become my career focus until I was in college. My undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Arts in secondary education and Spanish from Bradley University. I spent a month in Spain as part of a student exchange program in high school and a summer in Guadalajara, Mexico, as part of intensive Spanish language training at the University of Guadalajara in college. My goal of teaching Spanish to high school students shifted to teaching adult learners when I was given the opportunity to instruct a college-level course. It was exciting to teach adults who truly want to learn.

Once I began teaching adults at Midstate College, I quickly took on additional responsibilities. Teaching remained my first love, but over time, I worked in many areas of the college, including institutional research, student success, admissions and marketing. I returned to college while I was a working mother and earned a Master of Arts in organizational management. While serving as director of enrollment management, I also took a very active role in the early development of Midstate’s online learning system and became the director of eLearning. I later served as chief operating officer and vice president. In the years leading up to my presidency, I was afforded the opportunity to work with nearly every aspect of the college.

Tell us briefly about growing up and how family influenced your commitment to education.
Looking back, it’s easy to see how the passion for leadership in education has surrounded me my whole life. My grandmother, Arline H. Bunch, was a pioneer in education for her time. She came from a long line of educators and pursued leadership in education through many teaching endeavors—even running a secretarial school out of her home. She was a teacher for Brown’s Business College and worked her way up to being the dean. When the opportunity came about for her family to become part-owners in the college, she gathered up all available resources with her husband, A. B. Bunch, and jumped in with both feet. My father, R. Dale Bunch, soon became involved in the school with the help of other family members. Brown’s Business College—established in 1888, with roots going back to 1867—eventually became Midstate College, and educating students for new careers became the central mission of our family.

Growing up with my father, I watched him and my grandmother work tirelessly for the improvement of the college and the betterment of student lives. They lived and breathed it every day. My mother worked in higher education, too. The old Midstate campus—on Liberty and Jefferson in downtown Peoria from 1906 to 1996—was in my life longer than any family home. I grew up playing in the classrooms and running through the building every summer and on days off from school. My first “job” at the college was at the age of eight, putting stickers on mailings.

My grandmother set an example of hard work and dedication by working through physical pain and disability though the last days of her life, and my father continues to demonstrate dedicated leadership in education to this day. He has always sought to affect the greatest good for the college over the pursuit of personal gains. We share a similar set of values, and he has taught me so many skills that serve as the foundation of my leadership at the college. He shared with me his motto and a simple litmus test for any tough decision we face: “What is best for the students?”

Please reflect upon your major accomplishments in recent years.
Being named president and CEO of Midstate College is by far my greatest career accomplishment so far. The board of directors and my family—as well as the staff, faculty and students—have faith in me to lead the college, and I am truly humbled by the many accomplishments we have worked together to achieve. In recent years, Midstate College has continued to flourish. To name a few accomplishments:

  • Despite recent downturns in higher education enrollment, Midstate has experienced growth in new students over the past year.
  • One of Midstate’s strategic priorities has been to establish improved budgeting and resource management, and we have made great strides in this area over the past two years.
  • In 2014, Midstate established key performance indicators and improved data processes to better facilitate data-driven decision making and reach strategic performance targets.
  • Midstate added its sixth bachelor degree program in the fall of 2013—the Bachelor of Arts in law and social justice.
  • Midstate College added concentrations to the Bachelor of Business Administration degree program in marketing, human resources and management.
  • Midstate College is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and participates in its Academic Quality Improvement Process pathway of accreditation. Through our quality improvement initiatives, we successfully completed another AQIP accreditation cycle, with substantially significant performance in quality outcomes in 2012.

How do you maintain a balance between your work and personal life?
Like many leaders, I have workaholic tendencies. I find that my work easily expands to fill most of my waking hours in any given week. If I am not actively working, my mind is always working on a plan or challenge related to my institution. For this reason, I find it very important to take care of myself and find ways to unplug. I find music, meditation, Reiki, yoga and time with my family to be areas of my life where I can channel my energy in positive ways and turn inward to reflect and harvest peace. The secret is making sure you create time in your schedule for the things in your life that bring relaxation and happiness. It’s important to invest time in nurturing yourself so that in turn, you can be a happier person and a better leader for others. I remind myself often that tomorrow is promised to no one, and we must make time to enjoy life.

What is your leadership philosophy?
I believe in leading by example and sharing decisions with my leadership team—rolling up my sleeves and working side by side with my colleagues. I believe listening and learning from my colleagues provides new insights and promotes a shared understanding and respect from which great collaborations arise. As I have grown through my leadership roles, I’ve learned that a great leader must not only lead by example, but continually balance that with maintaining the vision for the work, charting the course, and holding all parts of the whole accountable for successful outcomes.

Did you have a mentor in the early stages of your career?
My father, Dale Bunch, has been my lifelong mentor. He has modeled gentle, kind, dedicated and supportive parenting throughout my life. Professionally, he has guided me though every step of growth. My father is humble, kind, honest, hardworking and very wise. He has had faith in me, no matter what the circumstances, and he always believed I could achieve far more than I ever imagined. He has stood in my corner, but not in my way, and allowed me to blossom as a leader by gradually exposing me to greater opportunities to lead and encouraging me to make critical decisions. Not a day goes by that I don’t continue to learn from him, and I am truly grateful for that.

What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
The hardest lesson I’ve ever had to learn was to have hope and faith no matter what. Our faith is often strengthened by the lengths to which it is tested. I have been to a point in my life where I truly believed all hope was lost. It is not only in our darkest hours that we need to have faith; we need to have hope and faith in everyday life. We must always challenge ourselves to imagine the best possible outcomes and have faith that the dreams in which we invest our time and energy can truly become reality. We create our own lives, and it is through this positive, creative energy that we construct satisfying realities for our families, our careers and ourselves.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
“What is the best way to climb a mountain? One step at a time.” As simple as it sounds, the best advice I have ever received is to take one thing at a time. We often become overwhelmed by the stress leadership places on us, the many things we want to accomplish, and the long haul we may have in front of us before achieving the summit. I remind myself to take one thing at a time, several times each day, as I seek to focus on achieving each step well, without getting caught up in worry about the next steps to come. iBi