Rockford University Presidents 1852 – 2022

For ease, this list refers to Rockford University as Rockford Female Seminary during the years it existed, 1847 – 1892, Rockford College from 1892 – 2013, and Rockford University from 2013.

Anna Peck Sill
1852 – 1884

Anna Peck Sill was the first principal of Rockford Female Seminary. She officially opened the school on June 11, 1849, with classes held in the old courthouse building on North First Street, and began hiring staff when the cornerstone was laid by Reverend Aratus Kent on July 15, 1852. She helped the institution flourish and change so that it was conferring baccalaureate degrees by 1882. Principal Sill’s bell, which she rang at the start of each school day, is still used for the opening ceremony for incoming first-year students and at commencement.

Martha Hillard
1884 – 1888

Martha Hillard came to Rockford after teaching for three years at Vassar, her alma mater. Principal Hillard found the seminary had not evolved in the 30 years since it was chartered and felt it was time for a change. One of her first priorities was the creation of the honor code, an attempt to change the “constant espionage” over students to a system of trust. This standard has remained steadfast at Rockford University and is often fondly remembered by alumni.

Anna B. Gelston
1888 – 1890

Principal Gelston, herself, said her two-year tenure at Rockford Female Seminary brought “no great changes.” An 1881 graduate of the University of Michigan and an instructor at Wellesley College, Miss Gelston was described as a woman of “rare scholarship and culture, earnest, conscientious, and able.” When she resigned from her position due to falling ill with both influenza and diphtheria, the Board of Trustees recognized her service with $500 to meet her annual expenses as she rested and recovered.

 Sarah F. Anderson
1890 – 1896

When Sarah Anderson became principal at Rockford Female Seminary in 1890, she was one of the most qualified leaders to lead the institution. Miss Anderson graduated from the seminary in 1869, became a faculty member, taught physical education, served as financial secretary, and, eventually, was the first president when the trustees voted to change the seminary’s name to Rockford College in 1893. President Anderson is credited with changing the curriculum to reflect collegiate academic rigor, increasing faculty salaries, and raising funds for the repair of the college’s buildings and classrooms.

Phebe T. Sutliff
1896 – 1901

A scholar and an intellectual, President Sutliff became President of Rockford College during a time of transition. Not yet a well-recognized college and no longer a female seminary, President Sutliff took charge and presided over the college as it celebrated its first half-century, a celebration attended by all of the women who graduated in the first class of Rockford Female Seminary. Perhaps more notably was Miss Sutliff’s career after leaving Rockford College. She ran a night school for foreign immigrants during World War I, was the first woman to run for Congress in her district in 1924, and was elected into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990.

Emily K. Reynolds
1901 – 1902

Having the shortest tenure of any president of Rockford College, President Reynolds brought new traditions and expanded old ones at the school. Social life at the college was expanded with plays, receptions, and parties. The library was reorganized and the main building renovated. Most importantly, the honor code was expanded to the classroom – students were required to personally sign their blue examination books, indicating that they had received no help on their exam. Uniquely, the students dealt with all discipline matters, not faculty or administration.

 Julia Gulliver
1902 – 1919

Understanding that Rockford College was no longer serving women as a preparatory school, President Gulliver had a vision to make Rockford College students outstanding citizens in society. She included vocational studies alongside of traditional curriculum. Secretarial work and home economics were included and a department of education was created. President Gulliver also believed strongly in a robust building and endowment fund. The Andrew Carnegie Foundation offered $35,000 if the school raised $85,000 and the goal was successfully reached in 1913.  These funds allowed for John S. Barnes Hall to be erected and for the library to be re-organized and recognized as having state-of-the-art materials.

William A. Maddox
1919 – 1933

In the mid-1920s, the citizens of Rockford relished the increased activity at Rockford College and credited the vision of President Maddox who aspired to make the college well recognized, not just throughout the state of Illinois, but the entire United States. He brought academic rigor through strategic nationwide searches for faculty and created community programs such as Dr. Mildred Berry’s speech lessons for children in the community. He introduced music programs and opened campus events to the public. Beloved by faculty, staff, students, and locals, it was a dark day when President Maddox’s death was announced on August 10, 1933. President Maddox and Professor Willgeroth were killed at a railroad crossing when they did not stop for an oncoming train. Rockford College’s sorrow was multiplied when on September 19, 1933, John S. Barnes, president of the Board of Trustees also died.

Gordon K. Chalmers
1934 – 1937

At thirty years old, Dr. Chalmers was the youngest president to lead Rockford College. Graduating magna cum laude from Brown University, studying on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University, and completing his Ph.D. at Harvard made him well qualified. President Chalmers brought new ideas to the school, believing that classroom teaching should be complemented by informal discussions in more relaxed areas of the campus. Well-liked by the students, President Chalmers was responsible for creating the October Day tradition that continued in its original form until the mid-1980s. All classes were dismissed for the day when the president walked through campus ringing the Anna Peck Sill bell, urging faculty, staff, and students to take advantage of a lovely fall day in northern Illinois.

Mary Ashby Cheek
1937 – 1954

Dr. Cheek led through the turbulent years of World War II and used the changing times to bring change to the college. When General George Marshall asked colleges in industrial centers to offer a two-year liberal arts education to aspiring male engineers, Rockford College enrolled male students and kept them in separate classes from the women. When filling factory jobs became a problem due to men serving in the armed forces, President Cheek developed work-study programs for Rockford College students and women were able to earn money and serve their country working at places like Woodward Governor Company. President Cheek was admired by the students and often held waffle breakfasts in her apartment at the Faust Hotel. Although she believed strongly that a women’s college should inspire leadership and independence in young women, President Cheek supported the decision at the end of her tenure to make the college co-educational. She is remembered today as the President who brought a Phi Beta Kappa chapter to the school, only one of 290 in the country. Her legacy is also remembered through Rockford University’s Mary Ashby Cheek Society which honors people who have included the school in their estate plans.

Leland Carlson
1954 – 1959

President Carlson graduated from Rockford High School at the age of 16, enrolled in Beloit College where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa, attended Chicago Theological Seminary, and continued his studies at the University of Chicago, the University of Grenoble, France, and Cambridge University, England. More importantly, to the citizens of Rockford, he was the first Rockford native to assume the post of President of Rockford College. His legacy became one of constant change. On February 27, 1955, it was announced that Rockford College would immediately start recruiting men for the fall semester. The school was separate from Rockford College and was named Rockford Men’s College. In 1956, President Carlson announced Rockford Evening College, a school townspeople could attend to further their education. The last major change under President Carlson’s direction was the major announcement to the Rockford Community on November 4, 1956, that Rockford College would relocate and move its campus to the east side of town.

John A. Howard
1960 – 1977

Dr. Howard attended Princeton until his junior year when he joined the army and served in combat. He was awarded two Silver Stars and two Purple Heart decorations and finished his undergraduate study at Northwestern University. When more than 100 people applied for the President’s position at Rockford College, there was no question in the Trustees’ minds that John Howard was the right man for the job and he was installed as president in 1960. He faced head-on the problem of financing and maintaining a new Rockford College, one at a new location and one with a co-educational student body. President Howard was regarded as an excellent fundraiser, but many alumni and students disliked his policies. As national student dissension rose, bringing picketing, sit-ins, and rallies across the country, Rockford College was not spared. Dr. Howard made it clear that he believed it was the college president, alone, who should be responsible for the direction of the institution, not public opinion, and he banned students from any form of protest. In January 1970, after a series of candlelight vigils, the Student Government Association officially censured Dr. Howard.

Norman L. Stewart
1979 – 1987

Dr. Stewart strongly believed in the importance of small, private, liberal arts colleges and knew that Rockford College was vulnerable. He maintained that high standards of academic rigor and good management of limited resources were needed to ensure a successful future for Rockford College. To that end, President Stewart set out to make the school a unique place that stood out among its peers. Under his tenure, Weekend College was brought to campus. Community members were able to attend classes on Friday evenings and Saturdays so that furthering their education did not interfere with work or family. These non-traditional students were allowed to stay on campus, eat in the cafeteria, and use the library and recreational facilities. President Stewart’s second innovation was to invest in Regents College, a university and campus in London, England. At the time, international programs for college students were rare, and offering a semester abroad at a school owned by Rockford College was thought to attract students. This decision created financial havoc for the school for decades to come.

Gretchen von Loewe Kreuter
1987 – 1992

Graduating from Rockford College in 1955, Gretchen Kreuter earned a Master of Arts and a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin. She is only one of several presidents to have attended Rockford College and her background in higher education as a professor, assistant to the president, and assistant to the vice president of academic affairs gave her a strong background to take on Rockford College. Arriving at a point when the college’s finances were disturbingly strained, President Kreuter was well received by present faculty, staff, and students, and revered by fellow alums who knew of her strong academic and administrative background. During her five-year tenure, President Kreuter worked diligently to shore up the college and its finances. In 1992, she served another small Midwestern college in the midst of a racial conflict that earned national attention. In 1998, she authored a book named Forgotten Promise about this incident.

William A. Shields
1992 – 2002

Once more Rockford College was suffering from financial hardship, declining enrollment, and vision. William Shields, former president of the College of Great Falls in Great Falls, Montana, took on the challenge. President Shields oversaw the completion of one of the most successful capital campaigns in Rockford College history. The Vision Campaign raised $20 million, setting a course to keep the college alive and functioning. In 10 short years, President Shields became a familiar face in the Rockford Community. He served as chair of the Greater Rockford Council of 100, on the board of the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Rockford Golden Apple Foundation, and Growth Dimensions. He was also responsible for establishing a football team at Rockford College to attract additional student-athletes, and for creating the annual tradition of the school’s Gala, a premier fundraising event.

Paul C. Pribbenow
2002 – 2006

Paul Pribbenow graduated from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and earned a Master’s degree and his Doctorate degree in social ethics at the University of Chicago. Believing deeply in social service, equity, and equality, President Pribbenow worked to bring the face of Jane Addams, Rockford College graduate of 1882, to the forefront. Building on her legacy, he created the Jane Addams Center for Civic Engagement at Rockford College and used Jane Addams to recruit students and interest them in community service. President Pribbenow has authored many articles on philanthropy, nonprofit management, and social ethics. Currently, he is the author of a bimonthly email newsletter, “Notes for the Reflective Practitioner.”

Robert L. Head
2008 – 2016

Starting his career in the banking industry and serving as vice president for trust services at Toledo Trust Company in Ohio, and vice president for trust services at Northern Trust Company in Chicago, Robert Head brought financial expertise and leadership to the helm as President of Rockford College. Once more, Rockford College faced crushing debt. Under President Head’s leadership, enrollment rose to a 20 year high. He expanded degree offerings and created collaborative partnerships with Rock Valley College and the Rockford Public Schools. President Head expanded Rockford College’s international program so that local students or students going abroad could learn from diverse relationships. His capital investments updated roads, dormitories, and classrooms. In 2016, under President Head’s leadership, Rockford College became Rockford University to better reflect the numerous academic programs, departments, and degrees.

Eric W. Fulcomer
2016 – 2022

Two decades of leadership experience in higher education and a three-year tenure as Rockford University’s Vice President for Enrollment Management made Eric Fulcomer the perfect candidate for president in 2016. Under his leadership, Rockford University ended its Rock Solid and Steady campaign raising $1.1 million more than the original goal of $17.3 million. Those funds were put to good use, making significant improvements in campus infrastructure, student experience, and technology. By creating a strategic plan and diligently following it, President Fulcomer has created a campus environment where all trustees, faculty, and staff take shared responsibility for the institution’s success. President Fulcomer’s background as an elected official in Bluffton, Ohio, serving as village council member, council president, and mayor, prepared him well for the challenges and complexities of university leadership. President Fulcomer is a welcome addition to the Rockford community, as well, actively serving on many boards and lending his expertise to local organizations.


Resources for this guide to Rockford University Presidents include Rockford University Archives, Rockford College – A Retrospective Look, and other information in the public domain.

Rockford University
5050 E. State Street
Rockford, IL 61108