Editorial: How to Rebuild SIU Enrollment, Part II: Improve the Quality of Life
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the arts and entertainment scene of Southern Illinois was a huge magnet for me, so that may well lead me to overemphasize its importance to current students. Nevertheless, raising the excitement level on campus by investing in more student-oriented activities can only help improve the university’s reputation among students, current and prospective.
City government has begun doing its part by approving street fairs of ever-increasing size, culminating thus far with the other week’s great CarbondaleRocks Revival. (Sadly, though, the Homecoming street fair with Andy Frasco and the U.N. and the Jungle Dogs appears as if it will not take place.)
So has SIU, albeit in more modest (and more family oriented) ways, through programs like the Films on the Field series shown on the Saluki Stadium jumbotron. (It also provided some support to the CarbondaleRocks Revival.)
The university, however, must go much further. To briefly recap Nightlife columns printed back in February, SIU needs to reenergize Shryock and the SIU Arena. The former was great for helping to recruit and retain good professors who were excited about being able to enjoy, for example, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ladysmith Black Mambozo, or Dave Brubeck right here— big-city culture in a beautiful, rural setting. It also offered students a place to see— and through the Student Programming Council, to book— cutting-edge acts that couldn’t yet fill the SIU Arena, like the Pixies, Widespread Panic, or A Tribe Called Quest.
As far as the Arena is concerned, nobody came here in 1987 because Def Leppard or Great White played there that fall. But those and other concerts validated the decisions a lot of students made to choose SIU. They were stoked by the chance to see what at the time were— honestly!— bestselling bands within walking distance of the dorms. My roommates bought bunches of tickets to those and other Arena concerts, and our dorm was packed with their high-school friends who came to the shows and got a great taste of SIU and what it had to offer.
More recently, other than the few dozen days a year when it’s used for Saluki basketball, the Arena has generally been a waste of space rather than an important contributor to student life. That must change.
One exception: Move Springfest back outside and make it free. Hold it inside the Arena only if inclement weather strikes.
SIU should extend the Sunset Concert concept into the good-weather weeks of the fall and spring (and allow alcohol consumption, as during the summer). Instead of out-of-town acts, book local bands featuring SIU students at the school-year events, turning them into not just public festivals, but de facto scholarship performances. Moreover, SIU offers degrees in music business and media industries, and among its registered student organizations the university boasts a Music Business Association and Digital Dog Records in addition to the Student Programming Council. A regular concert series would further the academic mission of the university by giving students interested in entertainment-industry careers the chance to apply their classroom learning to real-world settings.
Make campus visits more exciting by holding welcome fairs and open houses when major campus events are scheduled. Here’s how not to do it: A few years ago my then-high-school niece came to an open house at SIU— held during the university’s spring break. My wife and I took her to the Student Center to buy her some Saluki gear, but the Student Center was closed, the doors locked. We took her to Morris Library to get some coffee and a snack, but Delyte’s was closed for spring break. She spent an hour or so in the Student Services Building where mostly old people talked to her about SIU. When it came time for a tour of the mostly deserted campus, she’d had enough.
She attends Lindenwood.
Even when open houses take place during university breaks and holidays, SIU needs to jump with athletics, lectures, films, and concerts. The Student Center must remain open, with scheduled activities taking place to welcome prospective students.
If the university doesn’t want to provide entertainment that students want, or when students want it, they’ll go off and seek their own. Eighteen-year-olds, however, can’t get into the city’s nightclubs, which are policed, licensed, insured, inspected for health and safety violations, and staffed by employees trained to recognize and cut off patrons who have consumed too much alcohol.
Too many students, instead, turn to illegal house parties, where the chance of tragedy greatly exceeds that at legitimate nightclubs and restaurants. For safety’s sake, SIU administrators should publicly lobby the city to reduce the bar-entry age to eighteen, and then work with students to learn how to responsibly enjoy their rights.
Lowering the bar-entry age, by the way, will not result in more underage drinking, because alcohol is freely available to those of any age at any number of illegal parties throughout the city. Instead it will encourage underage adults to have fun in far more carefully monitored environments.
The bar-entry age is nineteen in Champaign, but it’s eighteen in Urbana, and the number of all-ages events at Chicago and Saint Louis-area liquor licensees boggles the mind. Southern Illinois is a special place, but it’s not so wonderful that vast numbers of students will give up the rights they have in major cities to come to school here.
To combine two subjects mentioned above— university breaks and all-ages shows— local bands with a touring presence up north used to arrange unofficial SIU events in Chicago-area venues (which, if memory serves, included Fitzgerald’s, the Cubby Bear, and the Metro) during intersessions and spring break. Students had a fun way to keep in contact with each other when school was out, and they could bring younger friends and siblings for a taste of what awaited them if they decided to attend SIU. It’s time to revive this tradition, but in an official capacity, with the university itself booking these shows, making them sanctioned SIU events, and promoting them to alumni as well as current and prospective students.
We could go on, because there’s no shortage of great ideas. To reiterate a point from Part I of this article, however, all of the above will cost money that, between falling enrollment and the state budget stalemate, SIU doesn’t just have laying around. That will require sacrifices by every part of the university, including core academics.
Those who would finch from such diversions of funds must bear in mind that further enrollment declines will have even more dire impacts on the university’s academic programs than investments that make students want to come to or remain at SIU.
Meanwhile, again, we’re open to presenting sincere suggestions from our readers. Please send yours to <mailto:email@example.com> and we may share them in in a future column.
To be continued?