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McMillan retiring after 25 years as a distinguished business professor

Barry McNamara
05/06/2019
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Ken McMillan is moving on to his next challenge.

And judging from how his garden is already flourishing, that challenge will be another in a long line of successes for the retiring Monmouth College business professor.

Over the course of two stints, McMillan has taught finance and economics at Monmouth for 25 years. Prior to joining the faculty for the first time in 1989, he was chief speechwriter for the U.S. secretary of agriculture and an Illinois state senator, among other positions. He also worked for the Illinois Farm Bureau and Country Financial.

He took time off from his college studies at the University of Illinois to serve a one-year term as national president of the Future Farmers Association, and 30 years ago he was the founding chair of the Illinois Agriculture Leadership Foundation.

At a recent retirement ceremony honoring McMillan, Dean of the Faculty Mark Willhardt remarked on those diverse successes.

“His reach outside the academy is large,” said Willhardt. “He is a man of parts, and he is a man of distinction at Monmouth College.”

Connecting students with subject

At the ceremony, McMillan described the “pure joy” of seeing the growth in students from their first day in class as a freshman to graduating senior. Earlier, he had reflected on the challenge of teaching, which he said is to “connect” with students to better enable them to connect with the information being presented.

“I enjoy being able to go into the classroom and actually see the lights come on for students,” he said. “When I can see a student start shaking his or her head, I see that realization: ‘Yes, I finally get it.’ I work very hard to do that. That’s the biggest accomplishment – when I leave the classroom and say to myself, ‘I think I really connected today. They really got it.’ In general, I think I was able to do that in my classes. That’s the great satisfaction in teaching.”

To establish that connection, McMillan didn’t mind using an “old school” approach.

“I never used a PowerPoint, because I don’t think they keep a student’s interest,” he said. “I was fond of the blackboard, and I became fond of the whiteboard, except when you get black marks on a white shirt. ... I gave a lot of exams and a lot of long exams. I believe in three-hour final exams. If students have to prepare for a long and comprehensive exam, they are exposed to the material for longer periods as they study, and the chances of the material catching on are much better.”

McMillan also believes in pop quizzes, with emphasis on “pop.”

“If I gave 200 quizzes over the course of my career, 195 of them were pop quizzes,” he said.

Although McMillan had his own style of teaching, he also bought into the departmental philosophy of how to teach political economy and commerce.

“I taught economics conceptually,” he said. “I don’t teach economic theory. I want students to understand concepts.”

McMillan said a good example of that was provided this semester by 2006 Monmouth graduate Mitch Tanney, who spoke to Monmouth students via Skype. Tanney is director of analytics for the Denver Broncos.

“Mitch told our students, ‘If you don’t have good communication skills to convert your data and convey it to your coaches, then it’s worthless.”

McMillan said embracing that philosophy in the College’s political economy and commerce department is generally credited to Monmouth professors Rod Lemon and Mike Connell.

“Our department takes an institutional approach to teaching,” said McMillan. “All of the economics stuff needs to be translated to help people make a profit, to help governments make decisions, and so on.”

At the retirement ceremony, Connell shared his admiration for his fellow University of Illinois alumnus.

“When I took over chair of the department, my goal was to become the worst professor in the department,” said Connell. “The way to do that was to hire people who were better than me. Hiring Ken McMillan was one successful part of that.”

McMillan received the College’s Outstanding Professor of the Year honor four consecutive years during his first teaching stint, even though he was not on a tenure track. During his second stint that started in 1999, he was named the Pattee Professor of Political Economy and Commerce and received the first Leadership Award as part of the athletic program’s ESPY-style awards.

In all, McMillan taught 16 different courses, specializing in finance during his first five years at Monmouth and economics during the last 20 years. He served on one presidential search and two dean searches, and did notable work with the Faculty and Institutional Development Committee and the Curriculum Committee, among other assignments.

In the public’s eye

For the early part of his professional career, McMillan was in politics, serving in the Illinois State Senate from 1977-83 and was twice the Republican nominee for Illinois’ 17th Congressional district. He called that work the most challenging, because of its “enduring and sometimes condemning consequences.”

“It was extremely rewarding, and there were lots of positive results,” he said. “It was the most stimulating time of my career because the work you did could basically explode in your face immediately because the press was out there, looking at every vote, looking at every speech.”

He said that two particular highlights include legislation that he successfully advanced in the Illinois General Assembly regarding the way in which all farmland is assessed for tax purposes, and legislation he worked on to give tax breaks to farmers for machinery and equipment related to their operations. He recalls fighting hard to make sure the latter legislation was passed in its entirety.

On the speechwriting side, a personal highlight was a “major speech” he wrote on international trade for Vice President Spiro Agnew.

“Only one word in the whole speech got changed,” he said.

Life on the farm

Even before he wrote his first speech, ran for his first office or taught his first class, McMillan raised sheep. Born in Macomb, McMillan grew up on a farm near Walnut Grove.

Acknowledged as an expert in breeding and pedigree, he raised purebred Suffolk sheep until four years ago. He will be inducted into the Suffolk Sheep Hall of Fame later this year.

“I knew the great-great-great grandmother of every sheep I’ve ever had,” he said, recalling that he brought some of those sheep into the world “when it was 10 below zero.”

“I got used to getting up at 2 o’clock in the morning during lambing season,” he said. “That was not so difficult. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that my butt is really dragging by 2 o’clock in the afternoon on those days.”

McMillan remembers one particular 2 o’clock in the afternoon. After teaching his morning classes at Monmouth one lambing season, he’d headed home and was immediately put to work. That caused him to be about five minutes late for his 2 p.m. class, so he needed to explain.

“I told them ‘I just delivered two babies.’ Some of the students knew what I was talking about, some didn’t.”

For his next challenge after teaching – tending to his impressive garden – McMillan shouldn’t need to rise at 2 a.m. very often. He claims 25 kinds of irises, 45 varieties of daylilies and 30 types of hostas, in addition to a variety of vegetables and herbs.

“I’m planning to do more gardening – and at the time of the year you should be doing gardening, not waiting until school lets out – and enjoying a little more single malt scotch, and in a more leisurely fashion,” he said of his retirement plans.