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CARBONDALE — When Aaron Lisec first came to Southern Illinois University Carbondale as a graduate student in 1990, the campus was a different place entirely.

The Towers and the Triads, demolished in 2012, were full. Finding a place to park was a daily struggle — even though fewer students owned cars back then, campus lots filled up by 7:30 a.m.

Lisec, now a research specialist at Morris Library, has witnessed the university’s steady decline.

“I was just saying to someone yesterday, I keep having the feeling — I feel like a ghost, when I think of what campus looked like on a warm spring day back then,” Lisec said. “There were just people everywhere, and in between classes, there were throngs — it was almost crowded walking down the sidewalks. … Now even on a nice day sometimes, even in the middle of the morning, you don’t see anybody. And I just can’t get used to that. It’s really odd.”

Since enrollment peaked at 24,869 students in fall 1991, SIUC has lost nearly half its student body — enrollment has sunk 46.3 percent, or by 11,523 students, as of spring 2018. And the numbers don’t look good for next year, either: Chancellor Carlo Montemagno has said freshman enrollment for fall 2018 is projected to fall below 1,000 students.

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Buoyed by the growth and optimism of the Delyte Morris era, dogged by the excesses and riots of the 70s and 80s, SIUC entered the 1990s in a state of instability and transition. Although the university was at its height, those who were there describe an institution overtaxed by its own success.

Under the leadership of Morris, who served as president from 1948 to 1970 and is credited with turning SIU into a major research university, enrollment had exploded, helped along by students cashing in on educational benefits afforded them by the G.I. Bill as they returned home from the Vietnam War.

John Jackson, now a visiting lecturer with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, has had a four-decade career at SIUC. He served as an administrator through the 80s and 90s and became SIUC’s 17th chancellor in 1999.

“We became a major graduate institution slowly. You don’t do that overnight, but we started building that in the late stages of the Morris era, and we worked hard on it in the 70s and 80s — various administrations encouraged the graduate and research mission, and so we kind of emerged from the pack of Illinois institutions,” Jackson said.

Declines in state funding have plagued public universities nationwide, driving up tuition costs and changing the landscape of higher education utterly. But even when SIUC was at its zenith, state disinvestment was already beginning to take its toll.

In 1987, when enrollment first surged past the 24,000 mark, then-Gov. James R. Thompson cut $3.3 million from SIUC’s appropriations, according to news releases and articles from the university’s archive. Admissions instituted an enrollment limit of 3,500 incoming freshmen for fall 1988 to prevent overcrowding.

Jane Adams grew up in Jackson County and started teaching anthropology at SIUC in 1987.

“Even though it was the height of the number of students, the state had been scaling back,” Adams said. “We’d had the massive inflation of the 70s, we’d had the recession of the 1980s, but in the early 90s, things were very tight at the university. There were times, as I recall … when we barely had paper to run our exams on.”

More and more high school graduates were going to college, and soaring enrollment put a strain on high-demand general education courses.

“A varied, large, comprehensive university requires a large and comprehensive curriculum, and we were stretched to always offer the things that we advertised,” Jackson said.

Jackson, who was dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the time, said he and his colleagues were always scrambling to find graduate assistants to teach about 110 sections of English 101 in the fall. (This past fall, the English department had just 54 sections of the same class, according to chair David Anthony.)

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“I applied kind of at the last minute to grad school here, and they accepted me right away because they needed people to teach composition … so we got a weeklong training and then we were thrown into class, which was kind of a shock to me — I had never taught before,” Lisec said.

The high number of students also put a strain on the university’s infrastructure.

“The university was stretched to offer enough on-campus university housing, and I think that helped stimulate the boom in the private housing market that started about then,” Jackson said.

“One of the things I remember ... is that every fall, kids would be stacked up like cordwood,” Adams said.

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In those years, she said, housing was in such short supply that some students had to sleep in the lounges at Brush Towers for the first few weeks until they could be reshuffled into rooms that had been reserved for students who hadn’t shown up. Adams recalled having to teach in a Quigley Hall common area when there were no classrooms available.

With SIU’s law and medical schools, only the University of Illinois had a more significant graduate, research and professional mission in the state. The Carbondale campus also had a vocational technical school, now called the College of Applied Sciences and Arts.

“We were the only four-year institution in the state that had anything at all like that, with two-year degrees and four-year practical degrees, career-oriented degrees … and that was a part of the diversity and the range of our offerings in those days. It still is, but to a lesser extent,” Jackson said.

“The university had a real identity complex: what are we to be? You had faculty coming in from some of the top universities in the country, people from Harvard and people from Northwestern and from Michigan … and we had a higher administration that didn’t know whether we were a community college or an undergraduate college or a research university. And so there were lots of dissonances that way, real identity issues,” Adams said.

Looking forward

Twenty-seven years later, SIUC is at another critical juncture. Montemagno, who was brought in as chancellor last August after an extended search, has proposed a bold, controversial academic reorganization plan that would eliminate the university’s department structure. But the chancellor, beset by accusations of nepotism, has struggled to get SIUC faculty on board with his vision.

In recent weeks, SIUC has been at war with its sister campus, the historically smaller SIU Edwardsville, which is expected to surpass Carbondale in terms of enrollment this fall. A bill that seeks to sever the campuses by establishing separate boards of trustees, introduced by State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, passed a House committee this week.

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Jackson said the university must focus on recruitment and retention and demonstrate why it is worth the somewhat differential tuition for undergraduates.

“I think we’re small enough to be very personalized. I think we treat students very well here, and I think students are given personal attention by the faculty and staff that you don’t get at bigger places. … We have by far the best physical setting out of any of the 12 universities in the state. I’ve been on all 12 campuses, I know them reasonably well, and there’s not another physical setting in the state remotely as attractive as ours, and there’s a lot to be said for that. Couple that with a rich and comprehensive curriculum at both the undergraduate and many graduate levels, and that is a very attractive package,” Jackson said.

This story has been updated to correct the year Delyte Morris stopped serving as SIU Carbondale chancellor. He served from 1948 to 1970. A previous version incorrectly said he was chancellor until 1980.

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janis.esch@thesouthern.com

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On Twitter: @janis_eschSI

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