CARBONDALE — A group of Southern Illinois University alumni and community members held a town hall meeting Thursday afternoon to discuss declining enrollment of African-American and minority students at SIU Carbondale.
Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Ra Joy, Chris Kennedy’s running mate, spoke at the event, which was hosted by a group called “Concerned Black Alumni and Citizens for SIUC” at the Eurma C. Hayes Center in Carbondale.
Members of the group plan to consolidate comments from the meeting into a “white paper” report, which will be submitted to the SIU Board of Trustees. The Rev. Charles Koen, a prominent Southern Illinois civil rights activist, moderated the discussion.
“The purpose of the meeting is principally to save and to advance Southern Illinois University in Carbondale,” Koen said.
University data show that overall student enrollment dropped about 19 percent between fall 2013 and fall 2017, while African-American enrollment sunk about 30 percent.
Joy, who graduated from SIUC with a degree in political science, said he counted himself among the “Concerned Black Alumni,” but spoke little about the university itself in his remarks, focusing instead on Kennedy’s platform and possible fixes for the state’s public higher education system.
“Chris Kennedy is running for governor to make Illinois the best-educated state in America. He believes that education is the great equalizer and the greatest way to achieve upward mobility. One single greatest thing that we can do for the future of education and for the future of SIU is to get Bruce Rauner out of office,” Joy said.
Student Trustee Sam Beard said SIUC’s rising tuition costs deter prospective students and said people who oppose big changes coming to campus, such as Chancellor Carlo Montemagno’s proposed restructuring, aren’t being listened to.
“The more upset that we are, the more annoyed that they get, and quite frankly, that’s just not fair,” Beard said.
Beard also denounced the planned formation of a police academy, now called a “Public Safety Institute,” which will be situated in within a new School of Homeland Security.
“This is in the context of a country that is on a clear shot towards fascism, where there’s police occupying our neighborhoods and killing black and brown men and women at increasing rates every single year, and we’re a university where the department of Africana Studies has been systematically under fire since it was made, and we’re trying to create a police academy. That would brand SIU as a white university,” Beard said.
Graduate and Professional Student Council President Johnathan Flowers said the university needs to offer institutional services like writing centers and academic support programs to ensure the success of disadvantaged students.
“Any reorganization, in my mind, needs to take into account the lack of these services, or the reduction in provision of these services, to not only retain students but to maintain its longstanding mission of being an access and opportunity institution. So that is to say without an appropriate reinvestment in academic instructional support services, no additional increases in enrollment or retention will be possible,” Flowers said.
Ella Lacey, a retired SIUC health education professor, said the SIU administration often touts the university’s history of diversity but that it fails to support African-American students.
“I have noted that the current chancellor says, ‘Diversity and inclusion is the legacy of SIU,’ and I had the situation of challenging him on the ‘inclusion.’ Because some of us were here kicking and screaming. … I was at a forum at one of the halls on campus not too long ago, and (African-American students) said, ‘We don’t feel welcome.’ That’s now,” Lacey said.
Joseph Brown, professor in the Africana Studies program, said the university has gotten rid of critical support services and that he regularly sees talented students fail to finish their degrees.
“I have been maintaining at every school I’ve ever worked at that retention is crucial. The fact that 28 percent of our population is African-American, and only 33 percent of them graduate over a six-year period, and our chancellor has already said it’s even worse if you just count for the four-year period — well, sir, why aren’t you talking about that? The programs that some people in this room staffed and made extremely successful have been erased from our campus,” Brown said.
Speaking to the newspaper after the meeting, Joy said he was concerned about SIUC’s declining enrollment and other issues facing the campus.
“I think that we’re making headlines for the wrong reasons, when you read about nepotism from the chancellor’s office. I think when we’re losing talented staff and professors. I’m concerned with SIU because I’m a proud graduate, and I think that the issues that we see here in Carbondale we also see affecting all of our universities and colleges across the state. They’ve been starved of resources,” Joy said.