Editorial: Ass-backward Thinking About SIU’s Fiscal Emergency
Two weeks ago, SIU system president Randy Dunn told WSIU-FM that the Carbondale campus has “been living for many years with a structural deficit that hasn’t been corrected. In the most simplistic way possible, describing it as having too many programs for now too few students.”
It’s extremely difficult to argue that the Carbondale campus, which has ever-fewer students to serve, isn’t overstaffed.
Between 1991 and 2015, SIU lost about thirty percent of its enrollment. But during that same time (counting the School of Medicine and excluding graduate assistants and undergraduate employees), the total number of faculty and staff declined by only about ten percent.
In addition to having far fewer students paying tuition and fees, the university is in Gov. Bruce Rauner’s fiscal stranglehold. Rauner has refused to sign a budget for almost two years, choking off state funding for higher education and social services, among other essential government functions. As a result, SIU is looking down the barrel of a $50 million budget cut.
No reasonable person can doubt the math— in the short run, SIU must contract, despite the painful human and economic toll that will take. The budget axe will fall on people who aren’t remotely responsible for the crisis, and that’s not fair, but it may need to happen if the institution will survive to recover and eventually rebuild.
(Layoffs and rebuilding, however, must take place in a strategic fashion. Cuts must come from places that students have abandoned. Upon restoration of sanity in the governor’s mansion, probably two long years from now, SIU probably shouldn’t simply reinstate programs and positions it eliminated during this crisis. Instead, SIU should look to institute new, innovative curricula where it can reasonably expect enrollment growth, perhaps by looking to what the job market demands but other state universities aren’t providing.)
That said, Dunn described the dilemma backward. It’s not that SIU has too many programs for too few students. SIU has too few students for the programs it offers. It’s a distinction with a serious difference.
The way Dunn put it, the way to right the ratio of students to programs is to eliminate programs and the personnel who run them. If he’s thinking about the immediate future, again, that may prove necessary. Nevertheless, while Dunn has a responsibility to face the financial crisis head-on, in doing so he cannot completely demoralize his employees and students or the surrounding area.
Of course, there’s another path forward, one that will tip the balance in far more favorable ways toward everyone in the SIU community— dramatically increase enrollment.
By more publicly charting that course, Dunn would at least give hope that SIU can, in fact, rebound. Right now, however, that leadership is as necessary as it appears absent.