Editorial— SIU Enrollment in Context: Worse Than Almost Everybody Else
Nightlife conducted our annual survey of enrollments at most of Illinois’s public universities as well as nearby Southeast Missouri State. Only a few of those schools— Illinois State, the University of Illinois Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and SEMO— registered increased headcounts.
SIU’s Carbondale campus, however, lost a greater number of students than any other university in the state of Illinois, with a precipitous decline in total population of 1,305 students from fall 2015. (Only the deeply troubled Chicago State, which almost shut down last spring, lost a greater percentage of its students.) It was the worst enrollment decline since the end of the student deferment for the Vietnam War-era draft, making this a systemic failure of historic proportions. Total enrollment dipped to 15,987, the fewest students on this SIU campus since 1964. SIU also fell to sixty-four percent of the 1991 enrollment peak of 24,869 total students.
It’s so bad that when walking our dogs last week before sundown, we saw an entire herd of deer grazing on the lawn in front of the Communications Building. Deer tend to avoid heavily populated areas.
Chancellor Brad Colwell wrote off his school’s epic enrollment faceplant with the following remarks at a press conference:
“There is a sweet spot [with regard to enrollment], and you’re going to hear people say, ‘Go back to the glory days of twenty-five thousand [students].’ Well, that’s not possible. That was a different time, when there were associate degrees being offered here, and things are different. We don’t offer that anymore. It’s a different time.”
Colwell’s “sweet spot” remark sounds dangerously similar to those of one of his failed predecessors, Walter Wendler, who once talked about “right-sizing” a university for which a better description was capsizing.
Should Colwell continue in this vein— in terms of rhetoric or results— the university’s alumni and the local businesspeople who donate to the school will quickly toss away their checkbooks. The long knives will come out instead.
Colwell must know that former university-system president Glenn Poshard may have hit the height of his popularity when he removed Wendler from the chancellor’s office. Should enrollment continue its freefall, university-system president Randy Dunn might not save himself by sending Colwell running with his tail between his legs back to Bowling Green State University, if his previous employer will still have him. By then, Dunn could also be... well, done is too easy a word, but it’s probably accurate. Such a move, however, will certainly earn Dunn’s replacement a semester or so of good will.
Until then, if Colwell thinks that SIU’s enrollment sweet spot is anywhere beneath 24,869 students, here are how his charges can demonstrate what they learned from their chancellor.
SIU students: The next time a professor gives you a D for getting sixty-four percent on an exam, or when the Bursar hassles you about a late or insufficient payment, make an appointment with Colwell. Throw his loser’s words back in his face. Tell him the days of getting one-hundred percent on an exam or paying SIU’s bills in full are over. Maybe that’s disappointing, but not unexpected. It’s a different time. Demand that he change your grade to an A or debit your account with a full payment.
SIU employees: Tell Colwell that the glory days of working forty hours a week for full-time salaries or wages and benefits are over. Things are different. You don’t offer that anymore. Demand a reduction to twenty-six hours a week with no loss of income or benefits.
If Colwell responds unsympathetically, his predictability would make him no less a hypocrite.
To be clear: I want Dunn and Colwell to succeed. Their failures don’t profit me in any way— quite the opposite. Most people seem to feel the same way, for now.
Nobody is visiting the sins of their predecessors upon them— yet. But in the public’s mind, Dunn and Colwell were brought here to solve the enrollment crisis, not to make excuses for its perpetuation, much less accelerate it. Slouching down this path will force the most sympathetic allies to draw a straight line between Lawrence Pettit and John Guyon, whose dumb polices started this enrollment mudslide, right to Dunn and Colwell’s abject failures.
And after twenty-five years of failure, patience for the full restoration of this university is running out.
Dunn and Colwell are dead wrong if they think that spinning or making excuses for unforgivable failures will help them retain the public support they need to maintain the backing of SIU’s Board of Trustees. The only way they can do that is to take full responsibility, promise to do better, and deliver. Fast.