The state of Southern Illinois University is in flux, as university leaders are trying to find “a new normal” in times of a changing relationship with state government, according to SIU President Randy Dunn.
Dunn gave his annual State of the University address at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on Tuesday, addressing the issues facing the whole SIU system in the current political and financial climate.
Dunn referred to the “trauma” that state universities have suffered. “I don’t think that word is too over the top,” he said. “If you look at some individuals who have lost their jobs and livelihoods … that has been traumatizing.”
With state government in its second year of no budget, Dunn said Illinois seems to be in the process of a re-evaluation of the state-university covenant, but he believes all campuses in the SIU system will remain viable for years to come.
“We have no more clarity today than we did a year ago on how this gamesmanship is going to play out,” Dunn said. Instead, he said, he is working on a broader vision for the future of the university system, emphasizing strong and stable leadership at the campus level, managing risk and focusing on the aspects of SIU that make it unique.
“We’ve always been able to navigate our way, to figure out our way to the next day, the next year,” said Dunn, as he advocated for administrative systems that facilitate flexibility rather than staying within established procedures.
Dunn quoted the late SIU President James Walker, who said in 2001 that SIU was challenged to find its niche and allocate resources accordingly. “That means setting priorities,” Walker had said. “It means making tough decisions about which programs should be expanded and which should be eliminated or curtailed.”
Dunn said in the current era of “retrenchment” the university has focused efforts on reducing administration, increasing grassroots political advocacy and closing revenue and expense gaps in some programs that are not yet self-sustaining.
“I do think we have to keep working on the number of administrators,” Dunn said — he is considering a hard freeze in administrative jobs and reducing some positions by attrition.
But tactics like that are only buying time, Dunn said. What lies ahead is what he termed “reshaping the state-university covenant,” stemming from the ongoing stalemate over the state budget and the state’s role in funding higher education.
This titanic struggle for the soul of Illinois over the budget battle was not something we could have predicted. We see the ground potentially shifting under us … the reshaping of the state-university covenant.
SIU President Randy Dunn
“This titanic struggle for the soul of Illinois over the budget battle was not something we could have predicted,” Dunn said. “We see the ground potentially shifting under us … the reshaping of the state-university covenant.”
Dunn said they must continue to focus on what makes SIU distinctive from other university systems, and on relationships with community colleges that are both partners and potential competitors for students. In terms of operations, Dunn said they must become more flexible and find ways to make decisions more quickly.
“The good ideas and strategic decisions that will make this university stronger are sitting out there in this room,” Dunn said.
In the meantime, new SIUE Chancellor Randy Pembrook and Madison County Chairman Alan Dunstan have announced the SIUE Community Task Force, an entity charged with promoting the partnership between SIUE and the public and private sectors. The task force will focus on three areas of collaboration: public works collaborations such as the outdoor swimming pool currently leased by the city of Edwardsville; regional collaborations in economic development, work force and healthcare; and student and faculty opportunities for internships, consulting and entrepreneurial development.
“SIUE has made a positive and significant impact on southwestern Illinois and is the key economic engine for Madison County, but the university’s impact can be even greater,” Dunstan said.
Pembrook said a strong relationship between the university and the public and private sectors present opportunities for students to take their education beyond the classroom.
“The success of this program will not only benefit the participants, but also will strengthen our goal of effectively preparing our students to become viable, contributing members of the region both while pursuing their education and upon their graduation,” Pembrook said.