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SIU rolls out the red carpet for Southern Illinois students in effort to boost local enrollment

CARBONDALE — Austin Lane, who joined Southern Illinois University as chancellor of its Carbondale campus in July, said he noticed one glaringly obvious problem area right away: In recent years, SIU had lost sight of the importance of recruiting students from its backyard.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out,” he said. “We have to have our No. 1 priority be here in the Southern Illinois region as it relates to recruiting.”

Lane and top members of his admissions and recruitment staff have spent the past several weeks reaching out to Southern Illinois high school and community college leaders to talk with them about efforts to improve local recruitment and seek their feedback on what SIU can do to draw more students. That has materialized in the form of a series of Zoom calls in light of COVID-19.

Lane said the administrators have been “really brutally honest” in their assessment of the situation. “In each one of the phone calls, they just said we haven’t been there — and the competitors have,” he said.

That includes other regional four-year university recruiters showing up to Southern Illinois high schools with consistency and offering competitive scholarships to a broader range of students while SIU did neither of those things. Lane said there are a significant number of regional high school “legacy” students whose parents or other relatives attended SIU and loved it.

In many cases, it was the school of choice for the administrators and teachers they know as well. But with SIU absent from recruiting events, and other schools offering bigger tuition breaks for low- and middle-income students with at least a 2.75 GPA, too many families have been making the decision to break ranks and go in a different direction, Lane said.

SIU’s recently announced Saluki Commitment and Saluki Transfer Commitment are among the efforts intended to recruit more Southern Illinois students. Through those initiatives, SIU has agreed to cover the cost of all remaining tuition and fees after financial aid is applied for qualifying students whose families make $63,575 or less. The former program applies to dependent Illinois high school students under age 24, and with a 2.75 GPA or better, and the latter to Illinois students preparing to transfer from a community college to a four-year university.

Steve Murphy, superintendent of Carbondale High School — himself an SIU grad — said he has been disappointed with SIU’s recruitment efforts at the high school in recent years. While other regional schools such as Murray State in Kentucky and Southeastern Missouri State in Cape Girardeau were regularly “knocking on our door,” visits by SIU recruiters were sporadic, he said, even though the campus is less than a mile away.

With Lane’s renewed focus, “you can see their desire to reach out to local schools,” Murphy said. He noted that SIU has hosted three application events for Carbondale High students, and is waiving application fees. Individual campus departments, such as the School of Health Sciences, have also invited students to virtual events to learn more about their specific program offerings. 

Murphy applauded Lane’s efforts, and said it’s encouraging to see the energy the chancellor is bringing to the job. The other regional schools are still reaching out to students, but now, “SIU seems to be right there with them,” he said.

SIU’s enrollment freefall in recent years is no secret. SIU saw its enrollment drop from 17,292 students in the fall of 2015, to 11,366 students this fall. While not the only Illinois school to suffer enrollment losses, challenges facing higher education as a whole were compounded on the Carbondale campus by a lack of stable leadership in key positions, including that of chancellor, but also recruitment and admissions specialists. 

The shrinking number of Southern Illinois high school graduates and community college transfers selecting SIU certainly contributed to recent enrollment losses. SIU saw a decline of about 2,000 students from Illinois’ lower 17 counties over the past decade, according to figures the university provided to The Southern. That said, the loss of local students wasn’t the only contributing factor to SIU’s enrollment decline. During the same time period, SIU’s enrollment dropped by about 8,450 students. Just since 2015, SIU has lost nearly 6,000 students.

Students enrolling from those 17 Southern Illinois counties have consistently made up about 20% of overall enrollment. And while the local losses are apparent, another caveat to the statistics is that Southern Illinois high schools and some community colleges have also been shrinking in size alongside SIU, producing smaller graduating classes from which universities are competing for students.

Still, Lane sees an opportunity for the university — and for the local students it hopes to recruit. He hopes to first stabilize and then grow enrollment, while also opening students' eyes to the opportunity that exists in their backyard.

In the months and years ahead, Lane said it’s his intention to personally roll out the red carpet for Southern Illinois graduates considering the pursuit of a college degree. He plans to not only send his staff to area high school achievement events, but also show up himself to hand out scholarships and meet one-on-one with prospective students.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going to not recruit outside of Southern Illinois,” he said. “Obviously we have to do that. But our No. 1 priority is going to be to make sure our schools, our surrounding schools, whether it’s Murphysboro or Carterville or Marion or any of our local schools that are in this area, that they know we want students to come from those high schools directly to SIU.”

Did you know? These 32 celebrities went to SIU.

Did you know? These 32 celebrities went to SIU.

editor's pick top story
Election 2020
Bost, Lenzi paint different pictures of America in race for Illinois' 12th Congressional District

CARBONDALE — Voters in Illinois’ 12th Congressional District have two distinct choices — the traditionalist conservative values of Republican incumbent Mike Bost and the progressive ideas of his challenger, Democrat Raymond Lenzi.

Bost, a Murphysboro native, first won the seat in 2014.

This was the first time in nearly a decade that a 12th Congressional District debate was not held. The Southern Illinoisan, along with WSIU and The Belleville News-Democrat, have traditionally hosted the event. However, the Bost campaign declined the invitation for a virtual debate sent by WSIU’s associate director of news, Jennifer Fuller. It was not the COVID-19 pandemic that was the reason for the declination. It was his opponent's campaign.

“Mr. Lenzi and his campaign have consistently run a smear campaign since day one, including attacking the family of Congressman Bost … The real question is, with a bad message, no money, and no momentum, what kind of campaign is he even running,” Myles Nelson, Bost’s campaign manager, wrote in a statement to debate organizers in September.

Both Bost and Lenzi met with WSIU and The Southern Illinoisan for candidate interviews.


Bost shares much of the current Republican platform. In his candidate interview, Bost spoke about how the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the biggest threats to the U.S.

“China is one of our biggest threats,” Bost said. He pointed to the superpower’s development of a navy as an example. Adding to this more obvious threat, Bost said as the COVID-19 pandemic spread to the U.S., China’s hold on the medical supply and personal protective equipment supply was realized as a major threat and was proof that the U.S. needs to make more of its own goods at home.

Speaking directly to the pandemic, Bost said it isn’t as simple to beat as people might believe, noting that anybody can “Monday morning quarterback” the pandemic. Bost announced last Friday that he and his wife had tested positive for COVID-19. According to the Belleville News-Democrat, Bost said he was feeling fine a week after his diagnosis, but his wife is still ill and has pneumonia. Their daughter also tested positive for the virus.

He passed the buck to Democrats on the stalled COVID-19 relief bill.

“Unfortunately, politics has gotten involved on the fourth COVID bill,” he said.

Bost also took a moment to praise President Donald Trump’s policies, noting that if you take the drama out, they were working before COVID hit. He pointed to the record-breaking highs of the U.S. economy and markets that were in headlines before the pandemic.

Shifting to his energy policy, Bost wasn’t against anything.

“My policy would be we are all in,” he said of renewable energy sources. But he wasn’t ready to leave his coal mining roots.

“I’m for solar. I’m for wind, but I’m also for fossil fuels to keep us where we can compete in a worldwide market,” he said — pointing out that he even has solar panels on his house.

Pivoting to the current unrest over the killing of unarmed Black men and women by white police officers, Bost said the people who hate bad cops the most are good cops. He said it’s unfair to jump to conclusions about someone’s feelings about race.

“We’ve got to quit having knee-jerk reactions,” he said. He encouraged unity to overcome pervasive racism, but also pointed out that “we are a nation of laws.”

Provided by the Lenzi campaign 


Lenzi painted a different picture of the state of the country. He condemned the “failed leadership” of the president and named Bost as complicit in Trump’s agenda. He characterized his campaign as being against Trump and his ilk, saying it was a “referendum on the administration’s performance … and on Mike Bost’s silence on all these issues.”

Lenzi also expressed support for Joe Biden and his proposed economic plan, which includes taxing the rich more and is a plan he said is projected to generate 8 million jobs.

When asked about his stance on energy, Lenzi said he understands coal and coal miners — he was one. But, he said, the future is not in coal. He said he also supports the Justice for Energy Workers Platform, which he said offers a 50% tax credit for investment in the future salary and benefits of displaced energy workers.

“We have a great need for jobs,” Lenzi said of the current economy. He said he would like to see a new civilian corps similar to the program under FDR’s New Deal economic plan during the Great Depression.

Pivoting to health care, Lenzi expressed his support for a public option.

“I prefer a system that would be largely at least single payer,” he said.

Speaking directly to older voters, a group Lenzi lumped himself into, he said he uses Medicare and is on Social Security.

“I want to make it clear that I support expansion and better benefits under both Social Security and Medicare,” Lenzi said.

Lenzi said he supports “practical gun regulation and control” and noted that he himself is a gun owner. However, he said there should be a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. But, he said, a thriving economy can also reduce gun crime.

“We have to have an economy that’s providing full employment, especially in some of our more depressed communities,” he said.

Lenzi also called for major police reforms that would curb the killing of unarmed Black citizens by police.

“There is a problem I think to some degree that there is a certain element of the police force that is not necessarily attuned to racial justice and examining their own prejudices,” he said.

In-person voting will be held Nov. 3 with early voting currently taking place throughout the region.

The 12th Congressional District covers parts of Madison County, and all of Alexander, Franklin, Jackson, Jefferson, Monroe, Perry, Pulaski, Randolph, St. Clair, Union and Williamson counties.

This story has been updated to correct that Lenzi is a Medicare patient, not Medicaid.

Everything you need to know about the 2020 General Election in Southern Illinois

editor's pick
Election 2020
Downstate Illinois judges face off for 5th District Supreme Court seat

The race for the seat on the Illinois Supreme Court that represents 37 counties in Southern Illinois is pitting a centrist Democratic candidate against a self-described “constitutional conservative” Republican.

Democrat Judy Cates, 68, and Republican David Overstreet, 54, are competing for a spot on the state's highest court that is currently held by Lloyd Karmeier, a Republican who plans to retire from the bench in December.

Cates and Overstreet both serve on the 5th District Appellate Court — one of five state appellate courts, which are below the Illinois Supreme Court and hear appeals from circuit courts.

The losing candidate in November’s election will continue serving on the appellate court until his or her term ends.

The Illinois State Bar Association rated both Cates and Overstreet as “highly recommended.”

After graduating from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis in 1977, Cates worked as a prosecutor in the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s Office. She spent about 30 years in private practice before she was elected to a seat on the 5th District Appellate Court in 2012. She was a founding partner of the Cates Law Firm in Swansea, but left the firm upon her appellate court election.

Cates, who grew up in Belleville, is the only woman to serve as president of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association.

Overstreet, a Mount Vernon native, earned his law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law in 1991. He has worked in small, private firms — in Southern Illinois and Knoxville, Tennessee — until being appointed to the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court in 2007 by Karmeier, who Overstreet describes as his role model.

He was elected to the circuit court in 2008, appointed to the appellate court in 2017, and won election to the appellate court in 2018.

In an interview, Overstreet said identifying as a “constitutional conservative” means he believes in judicial restraint, and not inserting his own personal or political preferences into a decision.

“I do my best to go where I find that the law leads me,” Overstreet said. “I’m not running for Congress. I'm not running for the Legislature, so my policy preferences have no bearing on my decisions as a judge. And that's what I mean by constitutional conservative.”

Though she is running as a Democrat, Cates said she dislikes that label.

When people ask her if she is a Democrat or Republican, she responds, “I don’t know,” Cates said.

“And when they ask me why, I tell them, ‘Because, I’m a Democrat with a gun,’ and then they laugh because the story down here is that if you’re a Democrat, they’re going to take your guns. Well, not if I’m a Supreme Court justice because I’m a hunter…So, I get past that pretty quickly when I talk to people,” Cates said in an interview.

Cates said she believes a major issue in this election is the selection of circuit court judges to fill judicial vacancies, which are generally filled by an appointment from the Illinois Supreme Court.

Although the entire Supreme Court votes to appoint new circuit or appellate judges, the court gives deference to recommendations from the justice who represents the district where the vacancy occurred.

If elected, Cates said she would recommend qualified and diverse candidates to the bench.

“Because what is not well understood by voters, is that the Supreme Court justice for your district selects judges whenever there's a vacancy (in the district),” Cates said. “That's why this whole race is going to be about how to select judges. What is the judiciary going to look like in 10 years? Are we just going to have more of the same, or are we going to have a bench that more fairly reflects Southern Illinois?”

Overstreet said he would follow Karmeier’s approach to selecting circuit and appellate judges – a process that Karmeier used in 2007 to choose Overstreet.

He said Karmeier’s process involves appointing a committee of legal professionals, including attorneys and retired judges, to interview applicants for a vacancy. The committee would recommend a few candidates, and pass those recommendations to Overstreet, who would make the final selection, he said.

“As it relates to diversity on the bench, I am a firm believer that we need the most qualified judges but we certainly need a bench that reflects diversity, and that would include of course, men and women serving on the beach here in Southern Illinois,” he said. “I would be appointing my fair share of females to the bench because there are certainly a great number of females who are qualified to serve the judiciary.”

For both candidates, the theme of law and order has also dominated this election campaign.

Overstreet has claimed the statewide endorsements of the Illinois State Rifle Association and the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police.

Cates touts endorsements from sheriffs in Jackson, Madison, St. Clair and Randolph counties, as well as her experience as a prosecutor.

“Law enforcement to me, as a former prosecutor, is very important to keep our community safe,” Cates said. “I know what criminals are like, and I know what that devastation does to a family. ... I get it. I understand that.”

Overstreet acknowledged that he never tried a case before a jury while he was a private practice lawyer in Illinois, and he emphasized his role as a circuit judge in the 2nd Judicial Circuit.

“I am the only candidate in this race who has actually been a trial judge. As a trial judge for almost 10 years, I handled every type of civil, criminal, juvenile case and jury trials,” he said.

Combined, both campaigns have spent roughly $1 million — which pales in comparison to the $9.3 million total spent during Karmeier’s 2004 election contest against Democrat Gordon Maag.

Karmeier was the first Republican elected to the Illinois Supreme Court in the 5th District since the judicial districts were formed in 1964.

In 2005, Karmeier cast the deciding vote to overturn a $1 billion jury verdict against State Farm that was awarded in a 1999 case, Avery v. State Farm.

Years later, State Farm faced a federal class action lawsuit that alleged the insurance company illegally funneled money to Karmeier’s 2004 campaign. State Farm reached a $250 million settlement with the class of policyholders in 2018. The insurance company maintained the claims in the lawsuit were without merit, and the settlement was "made simply to bring an end to the entire litigation,” according to a State Farm news release at the time. For his part, Karmeier has said he didn’t know who was funding his campaign.

Cates said Karmeier should have recused himself from the State Farm case, adding that she already recuses herself from cases that involve her campaign contributors.

“If a case comes before me now, and I have a donor involved, I’ve already recused myself,” Cates said.

Overstreet said he would follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 opinion in Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co.

In Caperton, the Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a justice on the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia should have recused himself from a decision that reversed a $50 million judgment against Massey Coal Co., after Massey's C.E.O. donated $3 million to the justice’s campaign.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that Justice Brent Benjamin should have recused himself from the case because the campaign donation from Massey’s CEO represented a “risk of actual bias.”

Specifically, the court found that a serious risk of actual bias can occur “when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge’s election campaign when the case was pending or imminent.”

Overstreet said the court’s ruling presents a broad standard without explicit guidelines for recusal.

“But I would follow that rationale,” he said. “I don't want to be on a case where anybody questions my impartiality. So, if there was a significant contributor to my campaign and they were a party before me on a case in the Supreme Court, then I would follow the U.S. Supreme Court dictates and recuse myself.”

This story has been updated to include comments from Overstreet.

Everything you need to know about the 2020 General Election in Southern Illinois

breaking top story
7 Southern Illinois counties at warning level for COVID-19

The Illinois Department of Public Health on Friday reported seven Southern Illinois counties are considered to be at a warning level for COVID-19.

Locally, Alexander, Jefferson, Johnson, Pulaski, Randolph, Saline and Union counties are on this week's warning list, which is updated weekly on Fridays and reflect data from the Sunday to Saturday of the prior week.

In total, 34 counties in Illinois are considered to be at a warning level for COVID-19, up from 26 counties last week. A county enters a warning level when two or more COVID-19 risk indicators that measure the amount of COVID-19 increase.

The reasons for counties reaching a warning level vary, according to a news release from IDPH.

A Friday news release from Shawnna Rhine, community outreach coordinator/public information officer at Southern Seven Health Department, said four of the seven counties covered by Southern Seven showed an increase in two risk metrics: new cases per 100,000 residents and test positivity percentage, from Oct. 4 to 11. A warning for new case rate indicates the rate is greater than 50 cases per 100,000 people. A warning for test positivity indicates that the percentage was above 8% from the previous seven-day period.

Alexander County had 165 potential new cases (based on 10 positive cases) per 100,000 and test positivity rate of 9%.

Johnson County had 610 potential new cases (based on 76 positive cases) per 100,000 and a test positivity rate of 15.2%.

Pulaski County had 311 potential new cases (based on 17 positive cases) per 100,000 and a test positivity rate of 11.8%.

Union County had 647 potential new cases (based on 109 positive cases) per 100,000 reported, and test positivity rate of 18.5%.

Pulaski and Union counties showed decreases in the metrics, but still met the criteria for a warning level. Both counties were on the warning list last week. Jefferson and Saline counties were on the list last week, as well.

Jackson and Massac counties were removed from the list this week.

Individuals, families, and community groups should use this information to help inform their choices about personal and family gatherings, as well as what activities they choose to do, according to the news release.

To view the IDPH county-level risk map, visit