It All Started Here … Dr. Gell led Cecil College through tumultuous times
The late 1970s was a tumultuous era in American history with the Iranian hostage crisis, remnants of the oil embargo, and an emerging economic recession. Cecil College was not immune to these turbulent times as it faced a fiscal crisis on top of being on the verge of losing its academic accreditation.
Enter Robert L. Gell, Ph.D., as the College’s third president.
“My immediate concern was to make sure the College had enough funds,” said Dr. Gell, who was recruited from Montgomery College. “Every one of these problems had a solution. It was a case of finding it. So, that was my challenge when I walked in.”
When Dr. Gell came to Cecil College, then known as Cecil Community College, the institution was experiencing a decline in enrollment due to the graduation of Vietnam era veterans causing a decline in revenue, capital funding for the physical education building that had just broken ground was needed, and the Middle State Commission on Higher Education had postponed the accreditation visit for a year.
“Jeanette Cole, who was the Chair of the Board of Trustees, went down to Annapolis to meet with members of the general assembly in order to arrange for Cecil Community College to be included in the small college funding group. That brought in considerably more state aid, which was very important,” said Dr. Gell.
Dr. Gell proved to be a man of vision by looking outside the box for the answers. His strength was his ability to drill down on the issue at hand, devise an end solution, and develop a plan to reach the goal.
“The College was in crisis. The morale was extremely low and most of that criticism was coming from within. It was critical to improving the morale of the faculty and staff. To have them feel good about working at Cecil Community College and spreading a positive word,” said Dr. Gell, who put an emphasis on improving the institution’s educational standards.
Through the use of staff development, open communication, and a rotation on personnel, the atmosphere at the College improved dramatically over a five-year period.
On the suggestion from Dale Zigler in the early 1980s, Dr. Gell initiated the Continuing Education Program as the State of Maryland was modifying education funding toward retraining displaced workers during this decade’s recession. A key stakeholder in this endeavor was Cecil County’s private industry council, which was seeking education avenues to meet employment purposes.
“Enrollment went up because there was an unmet need that was now being met by the new classes offered. The program had a tremendous impact and allowed the College to go forward,” said Dr. Gell, as the number of FTEs from non-credit courses was nearly equivalent to the credit courses.
Since the North East Campus did not have the space for the creation of the Continuing Education Program, it was moved to various locations throughout Elkton, including an elementary school, a shopping center on Bridge Street and the old Jodlbauer’s Furniture store building.
Cecil College continued to grow and meet the needs of the County during Dr. Gell’s 22-year career. The College hired Lois Lowry, a nursing educator, who hit the ground running to develop the nursing program and pushed for approval and certification from the Maryland Board of Nursing.
“The timing was right because we were very interested in anything that would create jobs. This was in the 1980s. There was a need at Union Hospital and in the whole health industry. We had the clinical sites available at Jennersville and Union hospitals, so we had the capabilities,” said Dr. Gell. “Louis Lourey came in and set up a tremendous program. The nursing program had an impact on the entire county.”
Dr. Gell went on to say that no single program had a bigger impact on building the image of the College than the nursing program.
“There are some things I could have and should have done differently, but I feel pretty good about my time (at Cecil College). They always say, ‘quit while you’re at the top of the game.’ I felt the College was going very well, and I thought whoever came in would have a growing organization. I didn’t have that when I came,” said Dr. Gell. “I just want to see the College grow with the County.”