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SIU is facing a serious financial crisis in no small part because Gov. Bruce Rauner has refused to s
Chris Wissmann

SIU is facing a serious financial crisis in no small part because Gov. Bruce Rauner has refused to sign a budget until the General Assembly first passes a series of dumb conservative schemes, misleadingly named his Turnaround Agenda.

Rauner’s stubbornness has choked off funding to Illinois’s higher-education system as well as social-work contractors. As a result, when state money has come SIU’s way, it’s been a fraction of what even other Republican governors have approved.

To guide the university through this emergency, SIU system Randy Dunn and interim Carbondale campus chancellor Brad Colwell proposed a series of painful solutions, including budget cuts of about $50 million.

Part of Dunn’s plan also involved the Edwardsville campus loaning money to the Carbondale campus. As Dunn himself predicted, the Edwardsville campus— students, faculty, and staff— immediately objected. Though eventually they will probably approve Dunn’s plan, the Board of Trustees wound up not acting on the proposal at their meeting last week.

On one hand, Edwardsville employees showed a profound lack of historical perspective. After all, once upon a time, there was only one SIU campus, and it was in Carbondale. The Edwardsville campus was only established in 1957, and for a long time thereafter the Carbondale campus carried what essentially was a glorified community college.

In more recent years, however, the Edwardsville campus has grown rapidly, setting one enrollment record after another. At the same time, the Carbondale campus has shrunk even faster. In terms of student-body headcount, the younger school is now poised to overtake the older one in a few years. In 2015, the Edwardsville basketball team even beat the Salukis at home, a transgression that should have cost Barry Hinson his coaching career.

Edwardsville employees are right to ask why they should enable a failing, dysfunctional campus with a long history of masochistic, self-inflicted wounds.

Shall we recount?

In 1989, the city and university conspired to eliminate the popular Halloween Street Fair, turning what John Guyon (technically at the time his title was Carbondale-campus president) called an incipient riot into a full-fledged riot. A few years later, the university abolished the equally beloved Springfest. Simple reforms would have made both festivals much safer, but puritanical city and campus leaders didn’t want to fix either celebration— ashamed by the immorality of it all, they set their hearts on eradicating SIU’s then-well-deserved party-school image at all costs. Enrollment began its twenty-seven-year circle down the drain.

A few years later, city leaders, supported— or perhaps bullied— by the university, raised the bar-entry age from eighteen to twenty-one. It returned to nineteen a few years later, but further damage was done. A university that once had a reputation for fun now had a reputation, from which it’s never recovered, as a drag.

Then, university leaders accidentally did something smart and hired a great chancellor in Jo Ann Argersinger. Things looked like they were turning around. So of course, with the support of the trustees, SIU’s system president at the time, Ted Sanders, removed her, then five months later he skipped off to another job, leaving behind the open sewer of a mess he created.

After a decent man, John Jackson, served as interim chancellor (and was abused by the trustees as a human shield), Walter Wendler, a religious conservative who once tried to remove condom dispensers from the Student Center, became chancellor.

When he assumed the system presidency, Glenn Poshard removed Wendler, who was a terrible fit for such a freewheeling university, especially after the breath of fresh air that Argersinger represented. But Poshard replaced Wendler with Fernando Treviño, who didn’t even last a year— he was missing in action so often Poshard had to place him on administrative leave until Treviño moved on.

After another interim in Sam Goldman, Poshard brought in Rita Cheng. The faculty instantly despised her. Whether it was the trustees, Poshard, or Cheng calling the shots during contract negotiations, the Faculty Association ultimately went on strike, and Cheng took the blame. She left for Northern Arizona University.

His inability to hire a decent chancellor may have contributed to the trustees’ decision to push Poshard out.

And those are just a few of the lowlights, the top-heavy examples of pure, distilled stupid, not the infinite number of stupidities that seeped down and infested even the bottom recesses of the campus.

But if none of that happened, the Carbondale campus might have grown to a point where— like the University of Illinois, Illinois State, and the Edwardsville campus— it would have a lot more revenue coming in to cushion itself against Rauner’s scorched-earth governorship. Instead, since 1991, the Carbondale campus has lost thirty-six percent of its enrollment (and with it millions of dollars in tuition and fees), draining the student headcount to its lowest level since 1964.

Not that this column visits the sins of Dunn’s and Colwell’s forefathers on them. That’s hardly necessary, because just last fall, on their watch, the Carbondale campus suffered a catastrophic enrollment decline the likes of which nobody can remember.

The Carbondale campus is in the midst of a search for a permanent chancellor, and Colwell is a finalist for the position. While Dunn must expeditiously fill the office, perhaps he might have timed the hiring decision until after the fall 2017 enrollment figures came in. That way, he could evaluate whether Colwell was actually turning the university around. (For that matter, the trustees should have made enrollment growth a key provision of the contact extension they gave Dunn in December.)

 

Suppose the chancellor search is a sham and Colwell gets the job this spring— because, you know, the campus needs stability, even though the loss of 1,305 students from 2015 to 2016 wouldn’t qualify as stability in one of George Orwell’s nightmares. Next— and this doesn’t take a lot of imagination— picture enrollment taking another severe nosedive later this fall. Then everyone from the Edwardsville campus who decried the loan to the Carbondale campus would have felt better about loaning that money to an exiled Nigerian dictator, who might more richly deserve their trust, and whose repayment could prove more secure.