Editorial: Endless Fall(ing) Enrollment

Editorial: Endless Fall(ing) Enrollment
Chris Wissmann

Earlier this week, a federal grand jury indicted a Chicago man for making a bomb threat against Southern Illinois University. The man allegedly planned to kill four-thousand students and staff by bombing three dormitories and the Student Center, according to a Federal Bureau of Investigation press release.

The question for any prospective bomber is, “Why bother?” Enrollment statistics released last week prove that SIU is doing a perfectly good job of self-destructing. Just letting present trends take their course may require some patience-- at this rate, SIU has only about ninety-nine years until it completely vanishes-- but it is the cruelest, most vindictive action a person could take against the university.

Total on-campus enrollment stands at 17,815, and total undergraduate enrollment stands at 13,339. SIU school lost 181 total students on campus between fall 2010 and fall 2011, and 111 undergraduates. The latter number, by the way, gives lie to the administration’s claim that the declines stem from “softening enrollment in graduate programs,” according to a university press release. Undergraduates also shun SIU.

This at a time when the Edwardsville campus hit another record for enrollment. When the University of Illinois at Chicago hit another record for enrollment. When Southeast Missouri State University hit another record for enrollment. When enrollment rose at Illinois State University. When enrollment rose at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

That puts SIU in the same sad category as Western Illinois University and Eastern Illinois University, where enrollment also tumbled. There is this to say: At least falling enrollment hasn’t yet forced SIU to close several entire floors of dorm buildings, as it has at EIU.

The operative word, however, is yet: if the twenty-year trend of enrollment declines continues at SIU-- during which the university has lost just about twenty-percent of its on-campus student body-- soon enough the university cannot justify keeping all those dorms open. More ominously, nor can it justify keeping all the professors and professional staff it employs.

Administrators are still whining about the university’s image, particularly the party-school image, as an impediment to enrollment. But SIU’s enrollment and party-school image both peaked in 1991, so enough with specious excuses, especially that one.

Though the university does have an image problem, the actual truth is harder. Campus Chancellor Rita Cheng made an astounding observation to her Spring Leadership Meeting-- shocking not because of its veracity, but because an SIU administrator actually voiced it aloud, and in front of witnesses. “Recent studies... suggest that eighty percent of the real reasons students leave are related to service-- they don’t feel valued or engaged with the campus,” Cheng said.

Students, on campus and in the community, often face outright hostility instead of the appreciation they deserve for the cash and culture they bring to our city. SIU can’t market itself out of a substance problem like that. Maybe it can create an advertising campaign, but without a serious adjustment to the substance of the product that SIU offers and the attitude with which SIU provides it, students won’t stay, they won’t leave happy, and they won’t come back for homecoming or donate money to the university or join the Alumni Association or tell their friends that SIU is a fun place to seek a quality education. If their dorms are robbed, if they don't feel safe or welcome or appreciated, if they aren't learning anything they perceive as useful, if they're bored, if they feel gouged by insane, unjustified tuition costs, then marketing efforts and the money they cost are wasted. Bad word-of-mouth will contradict and overwhelm any advertising campaign.

If the students who are here tell their high-school friends and their families about what a great time they're having, about all they're learning, then image problems will not quite take care of themselves, but will prove far easier to polish. Whether Cheng and her administration-- or university system President Glenn Poshard or the Board of Trustees-- is capable of changing the campus’s often toxic atmosphere is another question.

Cheng and Poshard at least seem to recognize the many crises that falling enrollment presents the university, and they understand that rebuilding enrollment is no longer optional. Again, the question arises of that gulf between understanding the implications posed by an emergency and the ability to reverse one. History, alas, is not on their side.

One more thought: Northern Illinois University’s enrollment has varied in recent years, and declined this year. But earlier this month that school’s president, John Peters, announced plans to grow enrollment at NIU from 22,990 today to thirty-thousand by 2020.

Imagine such a vision for SIU, and the implications-- financial, cultural, statural-- that would result from its fruition. If NIU can so dream, it is not nearly too much to ask for leadership at SIU with the ambition and skill to pull off far greater feats.