Editorial: To Rebuild Enrollment, Make SIU Fun Again
“SIU Carbondale enrollment down as anticipated,” read the defeatist headline of Tuesday’s University Communications and Marketing press release.
SIU has 878 fewer students than a year ago.
A cursory look to SIU’s neighbor, Southeast Missouri State, can offer one reason why the Carbondale campus suffers from falling enrollment.
SEMO has experienced steady growth for the last fifteen years, expanding from 8,951 students in fall 2000 to a peak of 12,087 in 2014. (During that same period, SIU enrollment plummeted from 22,552 to 17,989.)
True, SEMO’s enrollment dipped slightly in fall 2015, but SIU’s fell considerably harder. And while this spring SEMO’s first-day headcount also declined by a tiny 0.5 percent (compared to 5.3 percent at SIU), the Cape Girardeau school touted a twenty percent increase among graduate students (while SIU graduate enrollment plunged by 11.5 percent) and an almost thirty percent rise in freshmen, which gives it a lot of hope for future expansion.
Why the growth at Southeast Missouri? This semester, SEMO’s Show Me Center arena scheduled four big events, including a Brad Paisley concert, a big Christian-rock showcase, a World Wrestling Entertainment smackdown, and a double-bill featuring outlaw legends Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Southeast also slated an impressive roster of lecturers (Wes Moore, Common, and Bethany Hamilton). The River Campus’s many offerings include a Cirque du Soleil-style performance by the Momix troupe and a production by the Moscow Festival Ballet.
For the last few years, such activities at SEMO have given the school a veneer of excitement (and it’s rapidly grown, in part as a result). But during that same period, we might feel lucky to hear crickets in once-vibrant venues like Shryock Auditorium and the SIU Arena.
During my first few years in Carbondale, the SIU Arena brought in concerts by Metallica, Eddie Murphy, Def Leppard, Public Enemy, Whitesnake, Tom Petty, Bon Jovi, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., ZZ Top, the Black Crowes, Hank Williams Jr., and Van Halen (and that’s hardly a comprehensive list). Those artists almost certainly date me to today’s college students (and even then I hated the hair-metal acts that dominated the bookings). But the larger point is that those were incredibly popular performers at the time, and today’s equivalents aren’t coming to the Arena. To see a major concert, current SIU students need to hit the road to Chicago, Saint Louis, Memphis, or Nashville. Or, increasingly, they can transfer to SEMO.
Reasons that SIU officials might cite do not hold water. Booking large-scale touring productions has become enormously expensive— and that’s a real obstacle, but since SEMO has overcome it, then SIU can’t use it as an excuse. (Southeast is doing it, by the way, with the help of Robert Cerchio, now the assistant director of that university’s School of Visual and Performing Arts. Cerchio booked Shryock Auditorium during that venue’s heyday as a performing arts center.)
SIU administrators might also point to decreases in enrollment, which have resulted in less revenue in the Student Activity Fee used to fund some entertainment events— but those enrollment declines are largely the fault of incompetent or malicious SIU administrations, often enabled by a complicit Carbondale city government. The current administration must stop making this excuse and reverse course or make way for others who can.
It does appear as if SIU leadership and Carbondale mayor Mike Henry both understand that quality of life as students define it must improve for the university to begin attracting the huge numbers of students who flocked here twenty-five years ago. It’s one of the few occasions in my life here that SIU and Carbondale don’t appear to be holding themselves back (and the rest of us with them).
Most of the impediments are currently coming from Springfield, where state government is locked in a budget impasse. That subject requires more attention than this space can address right now— but the result is, money at SIU is tighter than ever, and academic programs are complaining with increasing justification that they don’t have the resources to properly educate even the shrinking student population. And when the state finally sends some sort of annual allocation to SIU, it will probably constitute a significant decline compared to the previous fiscal year.
But to improve the atmosphere on campus and in the larger community, to make it exciting and fun once again for the students we need for the revival of our university and town’s cultural and economic health, will require sacrifices. Not everyone will be happy if SIU moves entertainment up the totem pole at the expense of, say, academics, and nobody can dismiss out of hand those who would argue against such a realignment of priorities. That, however, may prove the quickest, and perhaps only, investment that will pay off with a significantly larger, more vibrant student body— without which professors, administrators, staff, and community alike are all doomed.