Southern Illinois University Carbondale is facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis.
The school, the largest employer in our coverage area, is in the eye of the perfect storm: A state budget impasse (which hits the 672-day mark today) the likes of which the country hasn’t seen in 80 years, competition from two-year colleges and tech schools (which are cheaper than a traditional four-year university experience), an uncertain future at the federal level under the leadership of a horribly inexperienced Secretary of Education. Not to mention a fluctuating reputation as party hotspot turned killjoy.
And lest we forget the revolving door of chancellors, some beloved and some beguiled, but none sticking around long enough to become truly invested in the future of SIU, and by extension, the city of Carbondale and the Southern Illinois region.
It’s a complicated, layered situation that does not have an easy answer, but we believe the best candidate for chancellor is right under our noses.
Over the past month, the university has hosted a series of interviews and open forums with the four candidates — Jeff Elwell, George Hynd, Carl Pinkert and current SIU Carbondale interim chancellor Brad Colwell.
And after attending the forums, we can tell you what our least favorite answer to SIU Carbondale’s woes: Optimism.
Being an optimist may help two of the remaining finalists sleep at night, but it’s not clear how that attitude is going to help SIU Carbondale.
Hynd, who is the current president of Oakland University in Michigan, called himself an “unapologetic optimist” and said of Illinois’ budget impasse: “I have an unabiding faith that the budget crisis, currently created by others in this state, will be resolved to some extent, so I’m looking for that tsunami to reach some high point, and then start to retreat. So I have some confidence that, probably next year, the budget challenges that are causing the greatest concern at this time will recede a little bit. That may be too optimistic … but at the same time, I have an abiding faith that will happen.”
When asked how he would lead SIU through the state’s financial crisis, he talked entirely about shared governance, and little about how his leadership would carry SIU Carbondale through a time of immense struggle.
Pinkert, who is vice president for research and economic development at the University of Alabama, said he wanted to boost enrollment and get alumni more involved. Continuing with the theme of unbridled optimism, he said, “There are a lot of strengths that exist on this campus.”
While Pinkert said he’s dealt with financial issues at Alabama and Auburn, he never really got into specifics about how the university could generate more income.
“We have to start by having that sense of opportunity, inclusion and the quality education that will propel our students to that next level wherever they might want to go,” Pinkert said during his forum.
The outside candidate with the highest potential, an affable and dynamic candidate, Elwell, took a job elsewhere, taking himself out of the running for chancellor for the Carbondale campus.
So that brings us to Colwell, who has been the interim chancellor for SIU Carbondale since September 2015.
Colwell, a native of nearby Bluford, understands Carbondale, having essentially done a two-year practice run in the job he seeks. Colwell is thoughtful, and has already begun leading the charge for change on the Carbondale campus. When asked about the budget crisis, where other candidates offered polished peanuts, Colwell acknowledged there was no simple solution, and painted a detailed picture of what the future would look like for the university.
He admitted the university can’t be all things to all people, and pointed out that the university is no longer state supported (it’s state assisted, at best, he said).
It may sound grim, but Colwell is realistic. He understands things can’t just be put back to the way they were in what are considered SIU’s glory days.
Colwell also has the best background, which includes a bachelor’s degree in political science from Anderson University in Indiana and a master’s degree in educational administration, a juris doctor degree and a doctoral degree in educational administration, all from the University of Illinois.
Bottom line, it’s time for stability at SIU Carbondale. The revolving door of chancellors has to stop, so why not now?
As a Board of Trustees, it may feel like an outside candidate is the best fix. But, that’s not always the case. In this particular case, the in-house candidate is best.
“With an interim in front of my name, there were certain things I could not do,” Colwell said.
Take the interim tag off his name — Colwell is the person to take SIU Carbondale into the future.
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May 2, 2017 at 07:06PM