Editorial: The Phantom Menace— The Real Threat SIU Faces

For the third time in two years, and the second time this semester, SIU received some sort of terror
Chris Wissmann

 

For the third time in two years, and the second time this semester, SIU received some sort of terrorist threat. In 2011, it was a bomb threat that eventually brought an indictment against Maurice L. Wiggins of Chicago, who later pled guilty and was sentenced to sixteen months in federal prison. Officials haven’t released all of the specifics about this year’s threats, but one was deemed serious enough to force the evacuation and search of the Towers on SIU’s east side the evening of September 20.

Here’s the thing: If the perpetrators of these threats-- or anyone else, for that matter-- really want to hurt the university, here’s how to do it and avoid a lengthy prison sentence: Do nothing. Stay quiet. Just let the status quo continue.

Initially, SIU reported a 2012 ten-day enrollment decline of 970 students from fall 2011. That, however, turned out to be a figure inflated by the inclusion of off-campus students taking classes online and at military bases. Last week the university quietly released the number of students who actually take classes on the SIU campus (which, by the way, is for some reason still inflated by including students on the medical campus in Springfield), and no wonder the administration didn’t lead with it-- the loss was 1,011 students, leaving a campus that had 21,999 students in 1991 with only 16,804 today.

This is a real, existential threat. At this pace, SIU is just a little more than sixteen years away from having no students at all. Long before that, however-- and when SIU will cross that threshold is anyone’s guess-- state revenue will not compensate for the loss of student tuition and fee revenue. The university will not have enough money to make payroll.

Just look at what’s about to happen this school year. Tuition and fees for a full-time, in-state undergraduate student totaled $5,763 for fall 2012. Double that figure to account for the spring semester, and multiply it by 1,011 students (to simplify things, assume that all are full-time, in-state undergraduates) and in one year SIU’s pathetic recruiting and retention efforts have sucked a minimum of $11,652,786 out of the school. Multiply tuition and fees by nearly twenty-one years of enrollment declines, and the total gets really depressing. Then spread the impact into the larger community, and the financial impact the loss of those students have on the off-campus economy grows incalculable.

But during the last ten years, as enrollment plunged by 2,756 students, the number of faculty and staff has increased by 618.

There is no way SIU can sustain that level of employment-- no way it can continue to pay a growing employee pool with decreased tuition and fee revenue, especially in the face of declining state financial support. In fact, it’s already started. In fall 2009, SIU had 7,503 employees. Today it employs 7,352.

To offset those financial losses, SIU can continue to raise tuition, but could easily price itself out of the market by doing so, and probably already did some years ago. Last week campus chancellor Rita Cheng admitted as much to WSIU-FM, stating that many prospective students recruited by the university balked at SIU’s cost and probably decided to attend community colleges instead. (Meanwhile, Cheng tried to insist that SIU was affordable, which is an inherent contradiction-- if the university was affordable, its price would not drive prospective students to community colleges.)

And at some point, just as the market of prospective college students has rejected SIU en masse, state government will decide that SIU isn’t worth the money-- that with its own financial exigency Springfield cannot continue to send tax dollars to fund a university that too few state citizens are willing to attend. And when so few people, and even fewer Democrats, live in Southern Illinois, the Chicago-area Democrats who control the state legislature will pull the plug with virtual impunity.

So the bottom line is, barring a drastic change in the trajectory of SIU’s enrollment, the university will need to make deep personnel cuts everywhere, from the administration to professors to professional staff to student workers.

Look at the financial hole that losing 1,011 students has left in the university and local economy. Now compound that with burgeoning unemployment sparked by mass layoffs at SIU. Not a pretty picture.

In the wake of atrocities committed at Northern Illinois University and elsewhere, last Thursday SIU did a fantastic job of taking seriously and promptly responding to an external threat. SIU had developed a good plan and executed it through strong, effective leadership, evacuating and searching the dorms and systematically ruling out various dangers without provoking panic or disorder.

The question remains whether SIU can similarly respond to an internal threat-- an enrollment death spiral brought on by complacency, apathy, incompetence, and intransigent infighting-- that poses a far less dramatic but arguably more serious threat to the university.

Let’s just hope that past isn’t prologue.