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The SIU Board of Trustees needs to clarify the mission of system president Randy Dunn and Carbondale
Chris Wissmann

The SIU Board of Trustees needs to clarify the mission of system president Randy Dunn and Carbondale campus interim chancellor Brad Colwell, the university’s top administrators. Were they brought here to revive SIU, or to preside over its demise?

Some of Dunn and Colwell’s actions and statements indicate they’ve quit trying to accomplish the former, while thus far, the only metric that matters— student enrollment figures— loudly suggests the latter.

When Dunn took over in 2014, SIU had 16,216 on-campus students. Last year, on-campus enrollment fell to 15,378— the lowest level since 1964.

Fall 2017 enrollment figures are expected to come out during the first week of September. How bad is it going to be?

As far back as April, SIU’s leaders budgeted for a three percent decline— a loss of about 461 students— signaling surrender with regard to enrollment growth this semester. “We knew that we would be down this fall and so we built that into our budget,” Colwell told WSIU-FM’s Jennifer Fuller on August 9.

Twenty-five years ago university housing was so full that overflowing students had to bunk up in the basement of Brush Towers. This year, Colwell said, SIU was forced to shut down three floors in Schneider Hall.

On August 22, Dunn told Fuller that he would greet an enrollment loss similar to those of recent years as a win. That’s the sort of Orwellian doublespeak that marked the failed chancellery of Walter Wendler, who frequently talked about rightsizing SIU’s headcount. And if losing by a little really was winning, Dale Lennon would still be coaching the SIU football team.

I sure hope I’m wrong about this, but anecdotally, things look like a lot worse than a three percent decline.

The week before fall classes begin, my wife and I like to walk our dogs on campus. We look for students who appear lost and try to help them find their ways around. The dogs adore the attention they get.

During move-in weekend this year, the campus was dead, by far the worst I’ve ever seen it. The lack of people made the campus feel almost creepy, like a horror-movie set. Carbondale has more festive graveyards. If a neutron bomb went off, it would only have killed deer and squirrels.

Look, SIU’s most ardent critics must admit that student recruiting these days can be difficult in general, and it’s even harder for this university. SIU has been run into the ground for years— some would say since Delyte Morris began to suffer from Alzheimer’s. Popular interim chancellor Paul Sarvela, widely expected to take the permanent position, died in 2014, creating a leadership setback until Dunn could bring in Colwell. (And credit where credit is due: As bad as things are at SIU, the university is far more financially stable than Chicago State, Eastern, or Western, so the present administration is working some real miracles.) Illinois’s budget stalemate has scared promising graduate and low-income students away to states with more secure higher-education funding. The current generation of students is less independent and emotionally capable of moving far from parents, and SIU is a long way from the population center of Illinois. Furthermore, the high cost of a university education encourages frugal students to live at home and commute to nearby universities or community colleges.

All of these factors may contribute to the current downslide.

SIU administrators, however, can’t lay all the blame on previous campus leaders, outside pressures, and bad luck.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign saw unofficial first-day enrollment figures jump to a record 43,893, up a whopping 712 students from last year. We should all wish that the state budget impasse and leadership scandals would hurt SIU enrollment that badly.

Despite state-funding issues, Eastern Illinois University expects at least a ten percent increase in graduate students this fall.

Nearby Southeast Missouri State University, meanwhile, announced its unofficial first-day enrollment figures. SEMO is off its fall 2014 record by a tad, but from 2015 that school saw a 1.1 percent overall increase, a beginning freshmen jump of 10.6 percent, and the highest retention rate in the school’s recent history with a remarkable 74.3 percent of its new students coming back this semester.

In the face of that enviable competition, here’s another choice quote Colwell gave WSIU (emphasis ours):

We have a full complement of enrollment staff for the first time in a while and are really going to make a conscious effort to visit every high school in the state of Illinois.... And like I said, fully getting all the recruiters fully staffed. Like I said, that hasn’t happened in a few years, and so there have been regions of the state that haven’t necessarily gotten full coverage as we’ve reached out to our students.... We’re going to do our best to get that turned around.”

There’s no way to view a twenty-five-year-long, and assuming the administration’s projections for this fall are accurate, thirty-two percent enrollment suckhole as anything but a crisis needing immediate, tireless attention. For a few years, however, SIU hasn’t had a complete complement of recruiters visiting high schools and community colleges.

Dunn and Colwell must fire whomever allowed that to happen— the entire chain of employees through which that unconscionably stupid decision was routed must go.

But it can’t stop there, if indeed revival is the SIU Board of Trustees’ goal. The trustees have enabled a culture of failure in its administrations that it would never abide in its students. Trustees must immediately deliver the message that university employees will pay for ineptitude with their jobs, and that needs to start at the top.

 

The trustees need to tell Dunn and Colwell that their time is up, and they will not tolerate further enrollment declines. Trustees need to give explicit, aggressive recruiting performance standards for fall 2017 and beyond, and fire them if they can’t meet those quotas. Then the trustees need to bring in someone who will fire everyone beneath the president and chancellor level who contributed to student-recruitment failure and replace them with competent employees. Either that, or the trustees will reveal why they really brought in Dunn, and Dunn why he brought in Colwell: Rescue of SIU was never really the plan.