OUR VIEW: EIU can move ahead even as state sputters

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If the condition of Eastern Illinois University is to improve, in the short-term as well as the coming years, two things seem clear.

First, state legislators and the governor must craft a budget, something they have failed to do for almost 23 months. Yes, it is maddening. Second, EIU officials must find ways to bring back some of the thousands of students who in recent years have found other campuses on which to pursue their university educations.

For sure, a state budget that adequately funds all public universities in Illinois would help restore young people’s, and their parents’, confidence in EIU and the other 11 state-assisted universities of Illinois.

But EIU’s enrollment issues began even prior to state lawmakers fumbling their political football in the spring of 2015 and grasping ever since at a state budget as though it was a greased pig.

EIU enrollment hit a high-water mark of more than 11,000 students in the late 20th century. Ten years ago, on-campus enrollment was more than 10,000 students. The official 10th day enrollment in spring 2011 was 9,549. According to the JG-TC “State of the University” series this week, the current spring enrollment at EIU is 6,673 students.

That is a decline of almost 3,000 students since 2011, well before Gov. Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton began playing “chicken” with state funds.

According to the JG-TC series, EIU officials get it.

Josh Norman, fairly new as the associate vice president for enrollment, said EIU is hosting more events to build stronger relations with prospective and current students. Administrators and faculty need to drive home that personal connection that always has been a strength at EIU.

Paul McCann, interim vice president for business affairs, who has had to track the university’s lack of finances under the Rauner-Madigan-Cullerton funding fiasco, acknowledged that many of the challenges EIU faces could be eased by enrolling more students.

Lack of adequate state funding and less tuition/fee revenue from a declining enrollment have resulted in about 20 percent fewer employees at EIU. It is a challenge to maintain personal relations when there are fewer faculty/staff to assist students. Layoffs, early retirements and unfilled vacancies have contributed to the fewer number of employees.

Across campus this academic year, faculty, staff and administrators have been engaged in a “revitalization project” designed to focus on the best ways to move forward that will meet students’ needs and provide the best stewardship of funds.

Katie Anselment, EIU’s legislative liaison at the Capitol, summed up the “state of the university” very well in one installment of the series.

Area legislators, she said, are “very receptive” to working on adequate funding. Lawmakers from other state university regions also see higher education as a priority. But representatives and senators in other areas of the state? It seems they “don’t feel the impact,” Anselment says.

It’s a variation of the “Not in My Back Yard” dilemma. But higher education affects the back yard, the front lawn and the entire state of Illinois. Especially when thousands of students leave Illinois each year to enroll in other states’ universities.

EIU officials have much to work with. The university’s reputation, since the days of Livingston Lord, the first sitting president, has been excellent. U.S. News & World Report’s 2017 college rankings listed EIU as the best regional public university in Illinois and the sixth-best in the Midwest.

But, even the best regional public university needs public funds. State officials need to end this two-year-old budget stalemate and move Illinois forward again. But it’s up to officials, alumni and friends of one of the top public universities in the state and Midwest to show prospective students how EIU continues to be a wise enrollment opportunity.

— JG-TC Editorial Board

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April 21, 2017 at 06:28PM

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OUR VIEW: EIU can move ahead even as state sputters

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