Daniel Mahony has yet to serve a minute as president of the Southern Illinois University system, but we agree with his initial assessment of his new job — there is a great opportunity for impact at SIU.
Mahony has held a variety of jobs at the University of Louisville, Kent State University and currently he is serving as president of Winthrop University in South Carolina. His first day of work at SIU will be in March.
Mahony’s initial assessment of SIU is right on the money. It’s hardly a secret that the last few years have been unkind to SIU. The state’s disastrous finances have resulted in loss of staff, deferred maintenance and a plunging enrollment.
In addition, the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses have engaged in an unbecoming civil war, at times behaving like petulant children angling for parental attention. Add to that a seemingly continuous parade of administrators and the odd scandal or two.
A cynic might note that the bar Mahony faces to be considered a success is incredibly low. However, no one can afford to have that kind of attitude — not SIU administrators, not faculty nor staff, not students and residents of Southern Illinois.
We, the people who live and work in the region, need Southern Illinois University to be viable and vital. We need the university to be the cultural and economic center of our mini-universe. If Mahony can get the university back on the right track, he indeed will have a great opportunity for impact.
A university hiring a new president is always reminiscent of a football coach unveiling his new recruiting class — everybody looks like an All-American on signing day. Again, cynicism aside, Mahony comes with credentials that appear to fit SIU’s needs like a glove.
Like SIU and most other major American universities, Winthrop is facing recruiting challenges. Winthrop’s enrollment declined from 6,109 students in 2016 to 5,865 this year. But, the university took several other vital steps forward.
Under Mahony, Winthrop’s four-year graduation rate has increased by 7.7% and its six-year graduation rate has risen to 64%. By comparison, SIU’s six-year rate is 45%. In addition, levels of diversity among students and staff have increased.
In that regard, it appears as if Mahony is coming to SIU at a good time. Freshman applications have spiked. Retention was better last year than in the recent past. And, although Illinois is still on shaky financial ground, funding for higher education has stabilized.
Frankly, SIU’s trajectory can only go up. We have to give Mahony the benefit of the doubt and suggest that his leadership will create a steeper climb.
One of the reasons Mahony found the SIU position attractive is that the position will present challenges.
He’s also right on that front.
Mahony will have to make serious decisions early in his tenure that will shape his overall success. One of the primary decisions will be hiring a new chancellor for the Carbondale campus. Instability in leadership has exacerbated issues on the system’s flagship campus.
Then there is the issue of mending the sibling relationship between the two campuses. A survey of 18 members of the SIU staff across the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses found that none of the university leaders were aware of a long-term plan for the system.
Clarifying the mission of each of the campuses will have to be on Mahony’s front burner.
“Everyone talks about my vision or me being a visionary,” Mahony said. “I’m much more of the perspective of we do that as a group, I want people that are collaborators … that share the same vision and direction that I have. I don’t want people that are ‘yes’ people, but I want people that are on board.”
Let’s all hope that comes to fruition.