Editor's Note: Leonard Pitts is on vacation until the first week of January. His column will return then.
When I first came to Southern Illinois University Carbondale in the late 1960s, it was an up and coming university. Enrollment was booming, new faculty were being recruited, distinguished visiting professors were being brought in and the budget was well funded.
Today, we hear SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno comparing SIUC to a run-down Yugo car. He bemoans the declining enrollment and offers as a fix a radical reorganization.
I think it is wrong to blame declining enrollment, as the chancellor seems to do, on poor performance by the university. The decline is an effect, not a cause.
Back in the '60s, major advancements were made in higher education in Southern Illinois. At least half a dozen community colleges were founded in the region, and the SIU campus at Edwardsville, established in late '50s, was greatly enhanced. The basic idea here was that students would get the first two years of general higher education or training for a vocation close to home and those who needed more advanced work could go on to SIU or other universities. Surely those involved in setting up this system realized that enrollment at SIUC would suffer.
The main magnet drawing students to SIUC was always low cost. And clearly, making higher education affordable for the general population was the driving force behind the education system in Illinois. But, somehow in the last decade that worthy purpose got lost. The state government has virtually abandoned support for the state universities, leaving them to their own devices. That left SIUC with no alternative but raising tuition, which is now quite high compared to community colleges.
So, the cause of declining enrollment — at least a major cause — has to be a matter of simple economics: It is far more affordable to go to a college like John A. Logan than to SIUC.
What is the fix for this disparity? A lot more funding from the state would do wonders, but that is not going to happen in today’s Springfield.
Montemagno has proposed new course offerings that would meet the needs of a changing world, and that seems sensible. But his idea of doing away with departments and chairpersons and replacing them with a structure of colleges seems to me to be hare-brained.
Presumably, the colleges would be headed by deans — pure administrators. Let me tell you about the relationship between faculty and administration at most universities. I first learned about this when I was a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma. I got to know one of the senior history professors pretty well. He was very dignified and polite — strictly old school. We were playing golf one day, and since the dean of liberal arts had recently resigned I asked him how deans were chosen at the university. His answer was a complete shock: “Well,” he said, “they look around the campus for the biggest horse’s ass they can find and make him dean.”
The truth is that faculty often resent deans and all administrators. They wonder what administrators do to earn their high salaries, and they feel that the true work of the university takes place in the classrooms and labs and not in administrative offices and endless meetings.
The go-between for faculty and administration has always been the department chairs. They are faculty with administrative functions. They have a foot in both camps. This system has worked well at American universities for a century or more. It would be a mistake to do away with it.
If SIUC really wants to save money in the personnel budget, a good place to do it would be with the present deans, associate deans, other high ranking officers, and all their staffs. SIUC has an abundance of these.
SIUC is a fine university with many graduates and attainments to be proud of over the years. Even with a smaller enrollment it can continue providing quality higher education by doing what it is doing now and by expanding into new areas, as the chancellor has indicated.