Oakton Community College President Margaret Lee, who announced this week her plans to retire in June 2015, has never strayed far from the classroom.
Since being appointed president in 1995, Lee has had many tasks, including oversight of academics at campuses in Des Plaines and Skokie, of multimillion-dollar budgets, and of teachers and staff who contribute to the education of an estimated 46,000 credit and noncredit students.
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But she still counts herself as one of those students seeking to continue her education.
Her attitude hasn't changed from the time she entered a Boston convent, where she later earned an undergraduate teaching degree, or when she attended the University of Chicago and earned master's and doctorate degrees in English language and literature.
So it was no surprise when Lee, who says she has a "love of language," signed up for an Arabic class at Oakton. She called it the hardest language class she ever took.
"What I admire most was the Arabic teacher," Lee said in an interview Wednesday. "It was her first year here. When someone told her the president was going to be in her class, she was a little scared. But she was the best teacher I ever had. She was fabulous. She was the teacher and I was the student with other students."
Lee, the third president in the college's 46-year history, publicly announced this week her plans to retire, having previously told members of the college's board of trustees that she won't be seeking an extension of her current contract, which runs through June 30, 2015. She said she wanted to give board members enough time to conduct a search for her successor.
She currently is making a base salary of $259,066.
Board Chairman Joan DiLeonardi pointed to Lee's staying power at Oakton, despite being approached by headhunters throughout the years to take jobs elsewhere. DiLeonardi lauded Lee for developing an environment for "mutually beneficial bargaining" with unionized employee groups that hasn't led to any labor strife during her tenure.
Within Oakton, Lee is totally devoted, DiLeonardi said, and outside, she's had a number of high profile assignments.
"She's been recognized nationally. She was the only community college president on a trip to India. During a White House conference, it was the presidents of the University of Illinois and University of Chicago and Peg. She's highly regarded."
Lee, 70, a Wilmette resident, was hired at Oakton in 1985 as vice president of academic affairs, after having served in a similar role at a college in Kalamazoo, Mich. She previously took her first leadership role as a dean at Alpena Community College in Michigan, where she started as a part-time English teacher in 1975. That was at the same time that she and her husband were living on the family farm, and full-time teaching jobs were hard to come by.
"We had a garden and fed ourselves and raised pigs," Lee said.
After enrollment spiked and she was hired full time, she was encouraged to apply for a deanship, though she says she never had any ambition to do so. The daughter of two teachers, Lee said all she ever wanted to do was become a teacher.
"I found it was basically being a teacher in a different way," Lee said. "It was still teaching ... It was fun."
DiLeonardi said the board will embark on a search for a new president in the coming months and plans to include the college community in the search process.