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SIU enrollment

Pulliam Hall is seen in the background as students walk between classes at SIU in September.

The Southern File Photo

Southern Illinois University Carbondale is at a critical juncture in its existence.

The university, which was chartered in 1869, has undergone major changes in its nearly 200-year existence. In its early days, the institution was known as Southern Illinois Normal University. It was primarily a teacher’s college.

The school’s focus broadened under the vision of Delyte Morris in 1948.

And, there was a time when our beloved Salukis were known as the Maroons. In an institution as big and broad as SIU, change is inevitable.

Now, SIU is suffering another identity crisis. Enrollment figures are not only falling, they are falling fast.

The stakes in this political/fiscal war are $5.1 million in funding.

Proponents of SIU Edwardsville want state monies earmarked for the two campuses allocated more evenly. Traditionally, the monies are split about 60-40, with the larger sum headed to Carbondale. According to a recent editorial in the Belleville News-Democrat, SIU Carbondale spends $33,541 per student, SIU Edwardsville $21,172. And that figure is skewed by Carbondale’s higher percentage of graduate students.

On Thursday, the SIU Board of Trustees could vote to move that additional $5.1 million in funding to Edwardsville. The board could approve a portion of that amount, or it could move to table the vote.

And, to be honest, the pro-Edwardsville proposal seems to have some merit. Edwardsville’s enrollment continues to grow. The campus is located in the heart of an urban area that is home to thousands of potential students. The logic supporting a bigger piece of the pie is seductive.

Obviously, the administration at the Carbondale campus has a different point of view.

SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno counters that making the decision based solely on enrollment is unfair, noting that the law and medical schools affiliated with the Carbondale budget are more costly to operate and the faculty-to-student ratio as a research facility will be lower at a research-based facility.

This intramural squabble has caught the attention of area lawmakers.

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost and Illinois lawmakers Paul Schimpf, Dale Fowler, Terri Bryant, Dave Severin and Natalie Phelps-Finnie are unanimous in their call for the SIU Board of Trustees to put the brakes on any action. That kind of unanimity is unusual in today’s world.

The politicians and Montemagno point out that the proposed cuts would be devastating to the Carbondale campus and to the regional economy.

We agree to a point.

SIU president Randy Dunn said he is in the process of hiring a consulting firm that will study the historical 60/40 split of state funding by the two campuses. Dunn said enrollment should not be the sole factor in allocating funds, but that it will be a major variable in any formula proposed by a consulting firm.

The Board of Trustees should table the vote for Thursday. The funding issue will have to be addressed sooner or later, hopefully sooner. But, logically it makes sense to have more information before taking action.

However, we also believe the Carbondale campus needs to present a more compelling case for maintaining their funding advantage. What are the exact costs for maintaining a medical and law school versus undergraduate degree programs? How much money do SIUC’s research programs bring into the system?

It is also critical that administrators at SIUC address the dire problem of declining enrollment.

We understand the university is debating a structural overhaul of its academic program. The philosophical argument is part of the evolution of society and how our nation approaches education. On the other hand, there is the reality that $5.1 million is on the line right now, not to mention millions of additional dollars in the future.

If Carbondale hopes to maintain its current share of state funding, administrators need to produce a viable plan to stem the enrollment loss, not to mention concrete ideas to retain students.

Obviously, we want to see SIUC maintain its position as the economic engine of Southern Illinois. The stark reality of Illinois’ economic situation has changed the equation. SIUC can no longer claim it needs the money because of what the university is, it must now justify the need.

We are confident the local administrators can make that case. They just need the time to do it. Given the arguments made by the Edwardsville campus, that time is no longer unlimited.

SIUC needs a coherent plan to save itself. And, it needs it now.

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