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CARBONDALE — Southern Illinois University System President Randy Dunn said at a Monday evening "State of the System" address that Illinois seems to be in the midst of a “grand reshaping of the state-university covenant.”

But Dunn offered few definitive details about what that possible reshaped relationship may mean to the campuses of Carbondale, Edwardsville and the SIU School of Medicine in Springfield.

The lack of details is in part because it’s still too early in this unprecedented political battle playing out in Springfield to provide state university leaders a clear picture of the end game for higher education.

“We have no more clarity today than we did a year ago on how this gamesmanship is going to play out to the bitter end,” Dunn said.

To that end, Dunn warned early on in the speech that if anyone came to hear a bullet-list of consolidations or cuts coming down the pike, it wasn’t going to happen.

Dunn and SIU Carbondale Interim Chancellor Brad Colwell have been publicly discussing for several months now this notion that major structural changes may be in the works, and in broad terms, what they envision as the Carbondale campus of the future: one that may be leaner and more focused.

Dunn’s speech on Monday more broadly addressed the SIU system. His purpose in the address, he said, was not to prescribe to the individual campuses a step-by-step path forward through these difficult times, but rather a broader vision for the future of SIU. Still, the themes he discussed struck a consistent chord.

Early in his speech, Dunn’s PowerPoint presentation flashed a quote from the late former SIU President James Walker.

It read: “We need to find our niche and allocate resources accordingly. That means setting priorities. That means making tough decisions about which programs should be expanded and which should be eliminated or curtailed.”

Walker said those words in 2001, Dunn noted — 15 years ago.

Dunn said his point in highlighting Walker’s vision was not to disparage anyone for what he perceived as a lack of action on this call for programmatic reform. “Rather, we’ve always been able to navigate our way through, to figure out our way to the next day, the next year,” Dunn said. “But President Walker’s words are back and we’re going to have to heed them, I do believe.”

While it’s unclear how the relationship between the state and public universities will shake out in the end, Dunn said that it does appear as if there will be a different relationship as it relates to the state’s level of funding for higher education and the manner in which funds are allocated.

He said he’s drawing that assumption based on both policy discussions about the future of higher education in Illinois, as well as changes to the relationship that have occurred recently by default via a lack of action on the state budget.

The increasing payments due to the State Universities Retirement System of Illinois (SURS) as part of ramp plan pushed by then-Gov. Jim Edgar in the mid-1990s is also squeezing the portion of public funding that is available for operations as more and more is earmarked to pay for pensions.

Dunn said based on conversations he’s heard, that redefined relationship may include the consolidation of certain duplicative degree programs offered at institutions throughout the state, and a possible shift to performance-based funding for universities, however that might be defined, which could lead to the elimination of degree offerings defined as “low-functioning programs.”

Dunn said the discussions may ultimately also include a serious debate about the number of public institutions appropriate for Illinois. He noted that there are two to three universities at the present time “crumbling and being dismantled.”

Dunn said he believes all campuses in the SIU system will remain viable for years to come, but he also emphasized in his speech, as he has in other recent public conversations, that SIU leaders need to tackle these tough questions about how the university can be the most effective at upholding the tenets of its mission both in light of budget decisions (or the lack of) at the state level, and because it’s good for the university to look introspectively. Stepping successfully into the future will require the fortitude for the SIU campus community to stomach risks, and necessitate strong and stable leadership at the campus level, Dunn said.

But Dunn also clarified that his call for innovation should not be interpreted as a call to retreat.

In his 2015 State of the System speech, Dunn suggested that the university had entered into an era of retrenchment, and outlined several key tactics related to meeting financial goals.

A year later, Dunn said he’s rethinking using the term “retrenchment” to describe SIU’s modern epoch.

“I’m not necessarily sold on that now,” Dunn said. “The reason for that is we’re in the midst right now of this grand reshaping of the state-university covenant … As we move away from education, particular higher education as a public good, as something you do as an economic investment of the state — to build the commonweal — as we move away from that, the tactics aren’t going to work.”

Dunn said that in preparing his speech for Monday, he went back and looked at the one he delivered in 2015. And that word stuck in his craw.

“Because you know what that suggests? It suggests retreat,” Dunn said. With use of that word, Dunn said he’s come to believe that builds an unintended narrative and “plays right into what some of those watching us in the state and beyond kind want us to do: Pull back. Get smaller. Get away from the front lines.”

“That is not the thing we need to do,” Dunn said. “It is the biggest mistake we can make.”

molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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