CARBONDALE — Southern Illinois University Interim Chancellor Brad Colwell stood in front of hundreds of concerned individuals from the community and university Wednesday, and said SIU will survive.
He said the university will be a strong — if somewhat different — university on the other side of current problems with financial uncertainty and enrollment decline.
Two weeks ago, the university announced a 7.6 percent enrollment decline, or a loss of 1,305 students. The drop brings the number of students to 15,987.
On top of the enrollment drop, the university had to make a $21 million reduction in its budget due to the cuts to higher education at the state level, and the lack of an official budget. The drop in enrollment translates to about a $6.5 million loss in revenue, but university officials say that money was expected in the initial reduction.
On Wednesday, Colwell said the college is planning to take steps in several areas to continue to make SIU strong. Those addressed areas were: enrollment management, the academic experience, the student experience, diversity and inclusivity, regional engagement, and financial stability.
Colwell said enrollment management has been described as “job one” by President Randy Dunn and the Board of Trustees.
“We will not fix overnight something that has developed over years, but we can take steps now to make progress,” Colwell said.
Increasing new freshman and transfer students by 10 percent each, increasing graduate enrollment by 10 percent and increasing retention of first-time freshmen to 70 percent, were all goals outlined by the chancellor for the fall of 2018.
Additionally, for retention efforts, Colwell said the university has launched “Degree Works,” an online tool that helps advisers and students to track progress toward their degree. Also, he said SIU has placed emphasis on helping students understand the value of taking at least 15 credit hours a semester to graduate in four years.
As for new students, Colwell said administration will work with deans to identify programs that will attract the most students.
“By identifying high-demand programs, we can make better decisions about resources in general,” he said. “Here is an example of success: by adding one nontenure-track faculty member, we were able to enroll an additional 25 new students in automotive technology this year.”
Making SIU affordable is also a key in bolstering enrollment, and Colwell said administration will recommend to the trustees to not increase mandatory student fees for one more year. He said the goal is to have no increase to the bottom line since SIU’s fees have historically been higher than others.
“Every conversation is an opportunity to tell our positive story, and we hope a better understanding of that story will spread exponentially,” Colwell said.
As for graduate enrollment, the chancellor said the school needs to review its recruitment efforts.
"I believe we have been relying too heavily on graduate assistantships as our primary recruitment tool,” Colwell said. “Graduate assistantships are important both to students and the university, but we have a culture of thinking that they are a requirement to be able to recruit. I think we must change this culture, especially in strong, high-demand programs that we can market to paying students.”
The Academic Experience
Colwell bragged about the implementation of the new fermentation science degree and institute as a great example of development of a program that addresses economic needs, attracts students, and incorporates research.
He also mentioned the closing of the master’s program in law. He said the students who are currently enrolled in the program will be allowed to finish, but that the closing of the program is a good example of eliminating programs with low enrollment.
The growth of online learning isn’t lost on SIU. Colwell reported Wednesday that with the addition of intro English and communication classes, all of SIU’s core curriculum is not available online.
Colwell said it is critically important that SIU maintains its Carnegie status as a “higher research active” institute, regardless of the lack of state funding to support such programs.
He said the university is seeing success in federally-funded research.
“While we have had to cut some student research programs due to budget constraints, we are still investing more than $700,000 annually in student research,” Colwell said. “We must do what we can to preserve this funding going forward. The ability for students to gain research and creative experiences early in their undergraduate careers sets us apart from other institutions and is a point of pride.”
The Student Experience
Colwell said there is a direct relationship between engagement and retention, and the university must do everything it can to evaluate and enhance the students through increased engagement.
He referenced a new website designed to help students identify ways to address concerns about financial or academic issues. Also, the website would help with personal and safety concerns.
Additionally, the university has started a student food pantry to assist students in need.
Colwell also addressed campus safety, saying SIU is just as safe as any other campus. However, the safety of the students, faculty, staff and guests is always a priority.
“We will assess student perceptions and views of safety and gender-based violence by conducting a campus climate survey this year,” he said. “While this is a requirement of federal law, it is also the right thing to do. This year’s survey will also be a baseline to track progress.”
Diversity and Inclusion
Colwell said the university has significantly expanded student programming to facilitate open conversations about diversity and inclusive excellence. He said the deans are taking similar steps at the college level.
“We are ensuring that job descriptions advertising for upper administrative positions require cultural competency,” he said. “Further, a group looking at human resources broadly has explored ways to streamline the hiring process so we do not lose good candidates.”
SIU’s enrollment undoubtedly has an impact on Carbondale and surrounding communities, but regional engagement is more than just increasing enrollment, Colwell said.
“It’s about sharing expertise, communicating clearly, and working collaboratively,” he said. “We understand that Carbondale is a college town and that we are in it together, thus we have a shared interest in each other’s success.”
The chancellor also mentioned the improved relationship with Carbondale leaders, including Mayor Mike Henry and Chamber of Commerce leaders.
The university has also increased a relationship with John A. Logan College, as it is offering its first SIU course on the community college’s campus this semester.
“This is a commitment to the relationship as well as a step in the recruitment of community college students who have finished their associate degrees,” Colwell said.
The chancellor said he is also aware of comments from community members who don’t know who to contact at SIU when situations arise, making many of its existing efforts disconnected and uncoordinated.
Colwell said he will make an internal employee reassigned to community leaders, leverage existing relationships of faculty, staff, retires and alumni, and ensure the university is leverage its most attractive public resources to serve the region.
Colwell said as the university takes immediate steps to address current issues, it has to take a long-term look at efficiencies and costs control, and identify new opportunities to grow revenue.
“We can’t continue to cut our way of the budget challenges,” he said.
Colwell said the university has already taken step in this direction. He said the ratio of administrators to students and administrators to all staff are among the lowest in the state. And, of the $21 million reduction, more than $5 million were in administrative costs.
“That said, I will be asking the vice chancellors to make an additional 5 percent in administrative cost reductions over the next year,” he said.
After Colwell finished his checklist of items he wanted to address, he took some time to address what he called additional thoughts.
He said housing is a significant factor in SIU’s enrollment, and the university has to take steps to ensure that housing is competitive and up-to-date.
Colwell said the trustees have requested that a plan to replace the Brush Towers with more modern housing be taken forward with discussion at its December meeting.
He also said the university will move forward to remove the Southern Hills housing complex, and the “unsightly” blue barracks on the east campus.
The chancellor also hit on optimal enrollment and footprint.
“It would be irresponsible to simply guess at a number,” Colwell said. “I believe we can arrive at a best estimate with an analysis of the competitive marketplace and demographic trends aligned with what we know about our programs, space and mission.”
He said his goal is to launch the effort in the spring.
At the end of his address when talking about the future of SIU, Colwell showed a picture of Campus Lake, which is being drained to remove toxic algae. He said when the work is done, the lake may not look — or smell — the same, but it will still be Campus Lake.
“I view our future similarly. We have a history and mission to be proud of. We are taking steps to address our challenges — even though the steps are difficult and sometimes messy,” Colwell said. “We will be a strong — if somewhat different university — on the other side.”