Dorsey speaks with student government leader

SIU President Kevin Dorsey speaks with Undergraduate Student Government president Toussaint Mitchell on Friday after an open meeting with students and faculty.

CARBONDALE — SIU System President J. Kevin Dorsey was direct, funny and candid in an open conversation Friday afternoon with SIU Carbondale students about the health of their university and the greater SIU system.

His message wasn’t grim, at least not compared to SIUC’s enrollment numbers. But he told attendees that the university has “no choice” but to “shrink its footprint,” consolidating and becoming more efficient, as it seeks new growth.

The bad news: SIUC’s total enrollment will most likely be down again next year, even if administrators meet their goal of growing the freshman class. That’s because the senior class that will graduate in July (if they turn their homework in) is more than three times the size of this year’s freshman group. Even a big bump in next year’s freshman enrollment won’t replace that.

“Don’t despair when the headcount is down next year,” Dorsey told the crowd. Instead, “focus on how many new students we’re getting and what we’re doing to be more efficient and effective.”

For Dorsey, that means continuing deceased Chancellor Carlo Montemagno’s academic reorganization, which would repackage the university’s programs into a new structure of schools and colleges that administrators hope will excite students, foster collaboration between faculty, and cut down on administrative costs.

“If the reorganization is done thoughtfully ... we become more competitive for grants,” and more relevant to changing industries, Dorsey said, by providing interdisciplinary education.

Critics of Chancellor Montemagno’s plan maintain he never backed up his claims it would boost enrollment, and dispute Montemagno’s projection of $2.3 million in yearly administrative savings as a downsizing in disguise.

Now for some good news: Dorsey said next year’s state budget is rumored to be very favorable to Illinois public universities.

“People are talking about an 8 percent increase or more,” in the state’s contribution to public universities, Dorsey said. In Fiscal Year 2019, the state funded SIU Carbondale at about $87 million.

If a state budget is approved in early summer and Dorsey’s projections are confirmed, the university could receive a $7 million budget bump for next school year.

But don’t expect a spending spree, Dorsey said.

SIUC must still repay over $20 million in loans it received from the greater SIU system during the 2016 budget impasse. SIUC sought the loans from other SIU institutions to cover the massive $73.4 million dollar cut in state funding between Fiscal Year 2015, a fully-funded state budget, and FY 2016, when Illinois was budgetless.

Dorsey also tackled tough questions from students about racial divisions on campus, sharing his personal experiences with race and emphasizing all students must feel welcome on campus.

As the SIU System’s top executive, Dorsey said he’ll work to make permanent hires in the numerous high-level interim posts throughout SIUC, and make sure there’s a “critical mass” of top-level administrators who represent the diversity of the student body.

Students should feel that there’s “somebody else in the room that looks like me, so I can feel supported, not alone,” Dorsey said, a philosophy that guided his hirings in his past job as dean of the SIU School of Medicine.

In addition to his duties overseeing the SIU university system, Dorsey has been leading the Carbondale campus since the unexpected death of Montemagno in October.

He and the SIU Board of Trustees are currently vetting candidates for the interim chancellor post, an 18 to 24 month appointment leading the Carbondale campus as SIU searches for a permanent successor.

Dorsey and company had hoped to make that appointment at the next Board of Trustees meeting on Dec. 13, but the agenda for that meeting doesn’t currently indicate any such action will be taken.

At the same time, Dorsey is searching for his own replacement. Dorsey became SIU's interim president after Randy Dunn's July resignation, after documents revealed that he advocated for legislation to separate the SIU system in coordination with SIU Edwardsville President Dr. Randy Pembrook, and behind the backs of SIU Carbondale leaders and the Board of Trustees.

Since he took office, Dorsey has advocated for keeping the campuses together, and has promised he’s not interested in a permanent post.

As SIU chooses his replacement, and Montemagno’s, Dorsey said stability and longevity are key.

“I was the dean for 14 years, and you can get something done over a long period of time,” he said. “How do you get anything done if you’re in the chair for 18 months or three years? You can plan but you never get a chance to really get traction and start to see problems.”

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Gabriel Neely-Streit is a reporter for The Southern covering higher education.

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