If we were to grade new Southern Illinois University Carbondale chancellor Carlo Montemagno on his first “State of the University” speech, we’d give him a C — or maybe more like a wait and C.
Montemagno’s first major address to the Southern Illinois community contained nothing surprising. It was long on broad ideas, short on details.
Given the fact that Mongemagno has been on the job just a couple months, we understand the need to speak generalities. The university is a huge, diverse institution. Learning the nuances of every program, as well as the Southern Illinois community, takes time.
Secondly, the new chancellor assumed office at one of the most difficult fiscal junctures in SIU history. The budget impasse and resulting cuts of staff and programs have left the university battered and bruised. SIU Carbondale can recover, but there are no miracle cures.
With that dose of reality, there were several things we liked.
Montemagno did not sugar coat SIUC’s current situation. Tuition costs have increased dramatically in the past decade. Enrollment decline is chronic. And, while there are many new buildings on campus, student housing is aging, a fact that exacerbates enrollment decline.
Another plus from the address, Montemagno drilled into the most daunting issue facing SIUC — declining enrollment and how it will affect the school’s future.
“Yes, we will still need to close some programs,” Montemagno said. “But I want to be clear that academic reorganization itself is not about eliminating programs, faculty or staff, but about creating new scholarly community that will lead to innovation in teaching and knowledge creation.”
We like the sound of that. But, the devil is in the details. How will these lofty ideals play out in real life?
There were few glimpses of academic offerings future SIU Carbondale students might see. Montemagno cited the possibility of a College of Health and Human Services. He suggested the creation of a college of agriculture and life sciences that will include a School of Sustainability and Earth Sciences as well as adding analytics and big data to business programs.
Those suggestions set SIUC’s course squarely into the future.
Sustainability may seem like a quaint notion to some, but the majority of the country’s energy is still generated by fossil fuels. Other nations are leap-frogging over the United States in terms of energy technology. A cutting edge program in alternative energy sources could, and should, create added interest among prospective students.
Regarding analytics and big data, that is the embodiment of futuristic thinking.
If by introducing these ideas Montemagno is saying that maintaining the status quo is to fade into the past, we agree. We anxiously await the details of these proposals.
While cutting programs is a fact of life in Illinois institutions of higher education, we urge caution. The time has passed when SIUC could be all things to all students. Still, great institutions of higher learning provide a wide variety of academic offerings.
Montemagno alluded to that very point, stating SIU must offer a “world-class educational experience.”
The devil, again, will be in the details.
Finally, the re-opening of the University Museum is a cause for celebration.
The closure earlier this year was necessitated by budget cuts. Over the years the museum has had a wide variety of exhibits, ranging from the arts to the history of life in Southern Illinois. While a university museum is not an absolute necessity, diverse exhibits provide educational tangents that wouldn’t be covered in a classroom.
The museum is an intangible stored under the umbrella of “world-class educational experience.”
We appreciate Montemagno’s enthusiasm and the forward-thinking ideas, general though they were. We will be watching closely to see how those ideas are implemented and how they shape the future of SIU Carbondale.