Pembrook grew up on a farm in Greenfield, Ill., and was a first-generation college student when he attended Lewis & Clark Community College and SIUE as a music major. He played the trumpet and the piano, studying both with the goal of becoming a music teacher. Slenczynska was the music artist in residence at SIUE from 1964 to 1987, an internationally known prodigy who had debuted professionally at the age of 6 and studied in Europe with the acclaimed composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. As an undergrad, Pembrook studied piano with her, and they have stayed in touch.
Now living in New York City, Slenczynska wrote Pembrook a letter back full of congratulations on his new appointment to lead the university from which he graduated in 1978. Pembrook later earned a master’s degree from SIUE in 1980, and then fled Illinois winters to Florida State University for his doctorate in music education in 1984.
Since then, Pembrook has been a teacher and administrator at the Conservatory of Music and Dance in Kansas City, Baker University and most recently Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., where he was the chief academic officer for the last five years. After a nine-month search considering more than 60 candidates, SIUE leaders chose Pembrook to replace previous chancellor Julie Furst-Bowe, who resigned to take another administrator position in Wisconsin last year.
Pembrook said he believes his familiarity with Southern Illinois will be an advantage as he settles into his new position.
“I have a feel for the people in this area,” Pembrook said. “They’re hardworking people with wonderful aspirations, and they know how important education can be for a career.”
The average person changes careers seven times in a lifetime. For some people, the job they will be doing doesn’t exist yet. That’s why a solid liberal arts foundation is critical, because people have to be able to ask the right questions ... to be critical thinkers.
SIUE Chancellor Randy Pembrook
Q: You graduated in 1978. What was it like in your time here, and what has changed the most?
A: “There were only six or seven main campus buildings when I was here, and there’s at least twice as many as that now. But to me, the main thing that has changed is the character of the campus. When I was here, only about 400 people lived on campus near the lake. We were all commuters…. Now if you include the residence halls and the (apartments) on the edge of the campus, there are 4,000 people who are having a residential experience. It’s different in terms of how the campus feels, as people spend more time here and have conversations between classes.”
Q: You launched 15 new programs in five years at your last position. Do you anticipate that kind of expansion here, and what programs would you like to develop?
A: “The launching of new programs will be dependent on the community needs. At Washburn, we had strong feedback from the community about the things that they needed. Hospitals told us they needed more phlebotomists; businesses told us they needed more accountants. The state told us they can’t process evidence fast enough and so we constructed a new forensics program. In each case, we had a strong community partner saying, ‘This is what we need, can you help us get there?’ … As I talk to local businesses, I want to see what they need and don’t have.”
Q: How do you envision the role of SIUE in the community?
A: “I think that one of the essential roles for the university is to be in communication with the community, with its challenges and needs. At Washburn, we had HICE — high impact community engagement (the community partner). We start with that as the beginning point for conversations. Then we bring in faculty advisers and experts, and we get the students involved, so we build the three-legged stool. The students get to practice their skills in the community, and hopefully we improve the situation… We found a lot of people coming to the ER with health problems who didn’t have insurance. The ER wasn’t the best place to get those treated. So we got a mobile health clinic for students to deliver healthcare out in the community... Those are the conversations I’m looking forward to having.”
Q: SIUE has had steady enrollment growth over the years even as other universities are struggling to keep their numbers. How do you maintain that growth while balancing the quality of the instruction?
A: “The way you continue to grow enrollment is to offer the programs the students want and need. The heart of a university will always be a quality academic experience, excellent faculty, student life and the experiences the students have… SIUE has made great strides to create a vibrant learning environment on campus. I’m looking forward to having some conversations with the students — we’re kind of on a break between the summer session and the fall session right now, but I’ve talked with the editor of the student newspaper, and we talked about some of the things we can do for the students on campus.”
Q: Affordability is part of the national conversation on higher education. SIUE has the lowest tuition rate in the state, but what more can universities do to help more families afford college without debt?
A: “One of the things the literature shows is that if you have on-campus employment for students, it helps them earn money and keep their loan amounts down, but it also means they’re more likely to graduate. You would think that a student who is only taking classes would be more likely to graduate. But it turns out that involvement, identifying with an institution, makes them feel more invested in it… As I said before, when I was here, it was mostly a commuter school. You drove in, went to classes, and drove home. The idea of student life, of identifying with the institution, was more difficult then.”
Q: SIUE has a high percentage of alumni who remain in the area after graduation now, doesn’t it?
A: “Yes, and the largest proportion of alumni live in Madison County. I think that’s a success story for the university. There was a fear in Topeka that when you educate young minds, they will go on to Kansas City or St. Louis — they call it ‘bright flight.’ But (SIUE students) want to stay here. And when you have an educated, young population that stays and puts down roots, it grows your community.”
Q: Surely you’re aware of the state budget situation, which has had a significant impact on higher education institutions. How do you plan to help SIUE avoid some of the problems that have plagued other universities?
A: “I have to believe that the current situation, which didn’t result in a normal higher-education budget… I can’t imagine it will go on much longer. Of course, there are probably plenty of people who didn’t think it would go on for a year. But because of the importance of higher education to the state, I think it will get worked out. There were good people at SIUE who looked at the most efficient ways to delay new costs; SIUE was more prepared for it, and they were fortunate to have that kind of leadership…. How do you develop a budget model for the future? You have to continue to look at enrollment, and find success stories to show to the state. Work really hard on partnerships with businesses and nonprofits, grants and creating an environment for faculty to pursue grants, and to promote the university. One of the jobs of the chancellor is to talk to people about donating, and I’ll be talking to those individuals about their areas of enthusiasm: ‘Do you see a way that SIUE can be a part of that?’”
Q: Due to financial constraints, SIUE has recently begun leasing or outsourcing some of its assets it has maintained for decades, such as the community pool and the Gardens at SIUE. What are your thoughts on that?
A: “We start with the question: if you have to make choices, what do you start with? There’s the student experience and enhancing that, within the academic environment. Then the things that support the academics, and finally things that don’t directly relate to it — the three-tier system. They’re wonderful assets and we don’t want to lose them. But are there creative ways to bring others to the table to help support them? You have to have those conversations.”
Q: As you know, the faculty at SIUE are undergoing a unionization drive. What are your thoughts?
A: “I understand why those conversations will take place. I think that is a faculty decision. There are pluses and minuses with being a union member or not being a union member. Trying to clarify the role of the faculty is one of the things the union process does… There is more flexibility without a document that spells out every single thing and some decisions can be more complicated. Ultimately it’s up to the faculty.”
Q: Nationally there has been a rise in nontraditional student enrollment — students over the age of 25 returning for higher education. We see more of it in community colleges, but quite a bit in four-year institutions as well. What can SIUE do to encourage nontraditional students?
A: “Nontraditional students have a focus on an enhanced education or on a new career path. They may be married; they may have children; and they may need to get their training in the shortest period of time. Some of the things we can do would be prior learning credits for experience, and testing for that will be expanded. You’ll see people asking for different formats of learning…. The academic calendar has been around for a very long time, but (nontraditional students) may need something besides the traditional 15-week semester. They may want four hours every Saturday, or online classes. Student life for an 18-year-old may be intramural sports or activities in the student union, but for someone in their 30s, it may be food services available between work and class, or childcare.”
Q: You mentioned online learning, which we’ve seen growing extensively at SIUE. What are the advantages and disadvantages of an online class?
A: “In the last data I looked at, it was interesting. They took two extremes: all online and all face-to-face. Where do they learn more? They found it was people who had some face-to-face class time augmented by online experiences — the hybrid model. Even in face-to-face classes, I think the lecture model will continue to evolve; I’m not sure the pure lecture class will exist in the future.”
Q: In a perfect world with unlimited funding, what would be your vision for SIUE five or 10 years from now?
A: “I think that HICE (community partnerships) gives the community engagement, and gives the students practice in a real-world environment. The average person changes careers seven times in a lifetime. For some people, the job they will be doing doesn’t exist yet. That’s why a solid liberal arts foundation is critical, because people have to be able to ask the right questions…. to be critical thinkers.”
Q: You’ve been on the job a week now. How are you settling in?
A: “August is our transition month, so everything is up in the air. We’re closing on our house at the end of August, and buying our new house on Sept. 1. In the meantime, I’m living in my brother’s basement in Bunker Hill. Every time you go to a new place, it’s different. It’s exhausting, but it’s also energizing.”