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CARBONDALE — Southern Illinois University Carbondale is standing at the crossroads. That’s not necessarily a reason for panic, as the university has found itself here many times in its 147-year history.

Looking through the long lens of history, the fact that SIU stands at all — as a well-respected research institution, an unmatched regional economic engine, and with a lengthy list of accolades both in academics and athletics — is an amazing tale of persistence, political shrewdness and ingenuity that spans the decades. And like any good tale, the one of SIU is also chock full of drama, growing pains and missteps along the way. 

“The University That Shouldn’t Have Happened, but Did,” is the aptly titled name of former geography department chair Robert Harper’s book published in 1998 about the explosive transformation of SIU between 1948 and 1970 under the leadership of then-President Delyte Morris.

Life as the underdog? Yeah, Salukis know all about that. The underdog mentality has been embraced through the ages with both pride and contempt, through good times — academic accolades and Cinderella story trips to the Sweet 16, for example — and through bad times — falling enrollment, leadership vacuums and reputational struggles.

This past week, The Southern Illinoisan sat down with SIU system President Randy Dunn and SIU Carbondale Interim Chancellor Brad Colwell in the WDBX 91.1 community radio studio to talk about the future of the university, particularly its Carbondale campus.

In a series of stories over the coming months, the newspaper will continue to explore SIU’s future from a variety of angles and perspectives, including more from Dunn and Colwell, as well as others who make up the broader university community — faculty and staff, board members and administrators past and present, students and parents, alumni and community business leaders.

Here to stay

For starters, Dunn and Colwell both emphasized that SIU isn’t going anywhere. While acknowledging that tough conversations are going to be necessary, both also said they have no reservations about guaranteeing that SIU will remain a vibrant part of the fabric of Southern Illinois for decades to come.

That said, some changes are likely, and some of those changes are likely to be met with resistance. They have yet to articulate how those changes may take shape, saying those conversations, while they are happening unofficially in small circles, have not begun in earnest. Instead, they spoke in broad terms about the need to recognize that change is necessary. In that way, it’s like the patient who has finally accepted that her pesky prolonged hiccups could be an underlying symptom of actual damage to the heart muscle. All hope is not lost. But diet and other lifestyle changes may be what the doctor ordered.

Without giving specifics, Colwell and Dunn said those changes could ultimately include reductions in academic offerings in order to narrow the focus of the Carbondale campus, as well as employee reductions to more appropriately reflect the shrinking undergraduate student population that has been on a downward trajectory for years — long before the current protracted budget fight began under the Capitol dome.

That’s not to say the chaos in Springfield hasn’t forced difficult immediate decisions. Dunn and Colwell said about $34 million has been cut from the Carbondale campus over the previous two years as they faced unstable state funding. But they have managed those cuts without significant layoffs by deferring maintenance, leaving positions unfilled and other smaller items.

Colwell said SIU still has all the same offerings on the menu, though it may require some patience with the kitchen. For instance, he said, students and advisers will have to be extra diligent to make sure a requirement doesn’t slip through the cracks, because certain classes may only be offered in either the fall or spring.

“I apologize for the inconvenience because there’s no doubt it causes an inconvenience not only on the academic side, but also on the non-academic side,” Colwell said. He said another example of this scaling back is that the response for financial aid coordinators to return calls has grown somewhat from the 10-minute goal. “Now, it’s probably half an hour. Will you get that call back? You bet. Is financial aid alive and well? Absolutely. But, we’re doing it with 10 financial aid advisers instead of 15.”

Those haven’t been easy choices, he said, nor have they been extremely difficult.

Hard choices ahead 

“The hard choices are coming because we’re going to have to really start looking at who are we as a university,” Colwell said. “What do we do? Are we all things to all people?”

Colwell said this is a “healthy conversation” — one a long time coming.

“I don’t want to run from that conversation,” he said. “I embrace it. I want to be transparent with it.”

Dunn agreed. He said the infrastructure of the Carbondale’s employee base is one that should support a student population of about 20,000. But enrollment locked in at 17,292 in fall 2015, which was down 4 percent from 17,989 in fall 2014.

In part, that was attributed to more stringent academic admission requirements, based on a combination of ACT scores and other college-preparedness factors, which led to a smaller freshman class. Freshman enrollment dropped 17 percent between the falls of 2015 and 2014.

Dunn and Colwell repeated during the interview that enrollment will be down again this fall. How much? They aren’t saying at this point. Enrollment numbers are traditionally released 10 days after the start of the semester.

Crisis of identity 

Dunn said part of the issue administrators are having with wrapping their arms around the enrollment situation is sifting through the specific causes of the downward trend. A portion of the decline is — and may be for some time — related to budget woes stemming from Springfield. For instance, SIU and other Illinois institutions of higher learning have suffered over the uncertainty of state funds for Monetary Award Program grants awarded to students by the state based on financial need.

But before this, SIU's Carbondale campus also has suffered from what Dunn opined were significant administrative missteps — in terms of both SIU past leaders' desires to raise standards on the high end, with regards to its standing as a research institution, and drop them on the low end, by opening the doors to students who were ill prepared for the university setting, based on tests and other factors, as a means of bolstering enrollment to avoid difficult budget decisions.

Somewhere in this equation, the university’s bread-and-butter, students from Illinois’ bottom 30 counties, were neglected, and began choosing regional universities offering in-state tuition in neighboring states in greater numbers.

“I would submit to you that about 15 years ago, we started on this path that said SIU is going to be a mini-University of Illinois or University of Michigan,” Dunn said. “That was a goal to put us in the top 75 of research institutions and things like that.”

Dunn said that he believes in setting an aspirational goal but “that may have been an overreach.”

“I’m convinced that we went too far on that end of the continuum and forgot about the fact we are still a public institution, the regional institution for a bunch of counties in Southern Illinois,” he said.

On the other end, as enrollment dropped, Dunn said it’s his understanding, from reviewing enrollment data and corresponding student profiles, that during that same time frame some poor decisions were made to enroll students who, by all traditional measurements, were not prepared, leading to a retention problem when those students ultimately dropped out a semester or year later.

That also amounted to a disservice to those students, Dunn said, because the university did not have the structures in place to provide that many academically struggling students the supports necessary for success.

When they dropped out, many did so saddled with a semester or two of debt into a difficult economy for someone without a diploma or certificate. SIU will always be an access institution, he said. In other words, SIU will always be home of the underdog: first-generation college students, lower-income students who juggle jobs and school, students raising children, and even students without perfect high-school grade cards who show other signs of readiness. 

“We’re about access. Not open access,” Dunn said. “That’s different.

“We can serve a certain number of those access students and we tend to know what that number is and the supports are pretty good. But we were flooding the system with unqualified students who were dropping out after a semester or a year — with some debt, typically. Some stayed in the community, some went off without any set of skills. … We’ve got to quit doing that.”

Finding the sweet spot 

So what is the sweet spot for enrollment?

“There is a sweet spot, and I don’t think we know it yet,” Dunn said. “I’d love to say its 20,000 (students) for the jobs and economic development those students bring to the area and to absorb the capacity we do have. … We still run a campus for 20,000 when we’re sitting at 17,000. That can’t go on forever.”

Dunn said that he’s also realistic that it may be a smaller number, and that’s not a bad thing either, he said, even though it forces hard decisions. He said many of the country’s strongest institutions are in the range of 12,000 to 15,000 students, specifically naming Notre Dame and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“We’re trying to hold things together,” Dunn said. “Let us buy a few years here to see where that settles out.” But one thing is clear, he said: “We need to get clearer on what our mission is. We need to do better at marketing to our potential students and recruiting them in. We need to refine the academic programs. We’re trying to get time to do that and see where that spot is … then, we’ll adjust that infrastructure around that point.”

Colwell said that part of the refining process will be figure out what sets the university apart among the sea of choices facing college students. “That’s the future piece: What makes us unique,” Colwell said.”

He mentioned the Fermentation Science Institute on the Carbondale campus, which offers a bachelor’s degree in fermentation science. It’s one of only five in the country, Colwell said, and fits nice with Southern Illinois’ wine trails and budding craft beer industry.

“That’s a win-win,” Colwell said. “That’s what we need to be thinking outside that box to do.”

molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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