CARBONDALE — The Carbondale Human Relations Commission is interested in hosting a public forum to talk about the impact of falling enrollment at Southern Illinois University.
Jerrold Hennrich, chairman of the committee, said on Thursday that the commission has heard from university professors, community members, and business owners about the problems associated with declining enrollment. In response, the commission came up with the idea to have a forum with the community to get input and gather ideas about how to be better stewards for the students.
Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry, Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams, and Diversity and Compliance Officer Alicia Jackson all attended the commission’s Aug. 6 meeting to dissuade the members from getting involved with the university’s business.
“Whenever there is a public forum, there is an implication that (the forum) is being endorsed by the City Council,” Williams said. “I don’t think it is the business of the city of Carbondale to get involved with university politics.”
Williams said he wanted to give advice to those on the commission and feels that hosting a public forum to talk about retention efforts at SIU will ruffle some feathers on campus. If the university held a forum about the city’s crime problem or about why there isn’t more home ownership in town, it would bother those on the city side, Williams said.
Henry told the commission he wasn’t sure talking about retention efforts was in the purview of the commission.
One of the charges of the commission, according to its by-laws, is to “study problems in the city of Carbondale relating to the relationships among individuals and groups of all kinds, and make recommendations to the City Council for the betterment of such relationships within the community.”
Hennrich said he wants the public to have a genuine discussion about the issues.
Henry said SIU is in control of its enrollment situation.
“SIU knows what they need to do to grow enrollment, trust me,” he said. “This will insult them. There is no question about it.”
Henry said the city manager had two phone calls with Hennrich before last week's meeting about what could come of such a forum. He said Williams also spoke with SIU administration, which felt such a forum wasn’t necessary at this time.
SIU professor and Human Relations Commissioner Father Joseph Brown said the commission wants to understand how the enrollment decline has affected business organizations and come up with solutions about how the community can help increase enrollment.
“The point of a roundtable was to have people speak together,” he said. “I think the feathers have been ruffled to the point of almost molting already.”
Brown also said he doesn’t agree that the university knows what to do with enrollment and retention. He added that the new assistant vice chancellor of enrollment at SIU has stated she will spend the first year on a fact-finding mission.
“I don’t see that the HRC is in an antagonistic role with the university,” he said. “Because if we do speak for the quality of life of the citizens of Carbondale, we are speaking about the employees and the students of SIU because they live here.”
Henry challenged Brown’s remark about the assistant vice chancellor, saying that it was disrespectful and she does have a plan to tackle enrollment.
“That is a slap in the university’s face of a brand new employee who has a wealth of experience behind her,” he said. “That is the type of thing I am talking about. You want to hold this open, fair hearing and at least one person here already has an agenda.”
The commission said it will send the proposal for the forum back to a subcommittee to rework some of its principles and come back with a better idea for a forum. Jackson recommended making the topic more general so more people will attend.
“Hearing the story about where does it hurt, I think that is an excellent concept,” she said. “If you ask people where it hurts, you are not being specific about the topic, you are being more general. So any issues they may have you can bring it to the forefront.”
At the beginning of the meeting, Hennrich brought up the fact that his term expired recently and Henry called to tell him that he isn’t going to reappoint him.
Hennrich said there must be somebody appointed and ready to replace him before he will step down as chairman of the commission.
According to the commission’s by-laws, a person on the commission can serve past his or her term until a successor has been appointed and qualified.
Henry said he will abide by those laws and he is currently talking with a couple of people about the seat on the commission. However, he said it has nothing to do with this issue, or because of any animosity between the two men.
“I told him I wasn’t going to reappoint him because I was looking for somebody with fresher ideas,” Henry said.
Henry said there are several boards and commissions throughout the city where he is not reappointing sitting members because he wants to infuse diversity and fresh ideas throughout the city.