CARBONDALE - Rita Cheng took the job of chancellor of SIUC in the middle of a state budget crisis, declining enrollment and a university-wide budget shortfall.
She feels she can help with two of those problems. The certified accountant and former provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee said she has plans to not only help the Carbondale campus survive the financial punch to the back of the head from the state but also make it a more efficient and more productive campus.
When Cheng came to SIUC, she saw several areas with room for improvement. She said tough financial decisions had been put off and the severity of declining enrollment had not been passed along to the campus. Then massive delays in state appropriations hit and SIU faced a more than $15 million shortfall.
"We hadn't really taken seriously the financial disconnect between revenue and what we were spending," Cheng said.
She said there is growing concern on campus about four percent cuts for academic departments and increasingly likely unpaid administrative closure days.
She said the cuts are painful and the closure days are not universally popular but those measures are not the answers to long-term problems.
"There has to be enrollment and research growth," Cheng said. "We've got great donor support and there is potential for that to be a great third piece."
SIUC has not had an increase in total enrollment since 2004. Cheng said when she got to SIUC she saw a low retention rate, low graduation rate and a decline in the freshman class. She said there needs to be changes to the way they are selling the product.
"My outside eyes felt that our messaging wasn't specific enough," Cheng said.
She said the literature did not seem too enticing, relationships with community colleges were not as strong as they should be and she heard complaints that personnel was not being friendly or helpful to potential students.
Consultants from marketing company Lipman Hearne, one of them an alumni of the College of Mass Communication, were brought on campus to help refine the campus' message.
Cheng said they suggested boosting publicity of the campus' academic achievements and fighting the misconception that SIUC is mainly a party school that cannot churn out successful students. She said prospective students should know that they have some of the best academic programs and great faculty to learn from.
"There is so much pride in the work we do here and so much good work, and we haven't been showcasing that," Cheng said.
Recruiters have been reorganized and now have specific districts so they can become familiar with their high schools and community colleges. She said enrollment management employees will receive customer service training. More attention will be paid to ACT scores so that they not only go after students who list SIUC as an interest but also those who don't. She said the university cannot just wait for students to apply.
More attention will be paid to boosting online education. If family responsibilities or military duties keep a student from Carbondale, Cheng wants to see more online programs to help them get their education.
While Cheng said that the natural beauty of the campus can convince just about anyone to stay, other touches have been added such as banners throughout campus showcasing images such as student life and research.
Getting students to Carbondale is one thing, but they have to want to stay. Cheng said she wants to adopt a university college model similar to what has been implemented at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The model offers programs to help prospective students prepare for college and current students adjust and succeed. It also offers support to family, community members and faculty and staff.
She said it would cover everything from orientation, advising, mentoring, gateway courses and more. Much of that includes expanding Saluki First Year. Mark Amos serves as the academic director of the program while Julie Payne-Kirchmeier is the Student Affairs director. Amos said through the university college model they go far beyond helping first year students.
"We want students to leave here successful," Amos said.
Payne-Kirchmeier said being there for the students makes them more successful during their time at SIUC and after. Happier students equal more retention and happier graduates strengthen the alumni base.
"It's not an accident that we say ‘once a Saluki, always a Saluki," Payne-Kirchmeier said.
Both said Cheng has been very hands-on with the program, including everyone in the discussions and addressing the problems and planning for the future with a lot of energy. Payne-Kirchmeier said Cheng understands the importance of student engagement and said she is hopeful for the future.
"We're moving forward, there's no question," Payne-Kirchmeier said.
Cheng said she is meeting with faculty and staff to discuss the best course for SIUC. She said in the next few years she doesn't think the university will be dealing with shortfalls, nor does she believe there will be any need for cuts.
Cheng said she will be working with her planning and budget committee to solidify a long-term plan. She said she knows that not everyone agrees with decisions such as administrative closure days, but she believes that everyone at SIUC wants the same thing.
"There are differences of opinion, but I think there is a real will to move forward," Cheng said.