Just three and a half hours into his new job as SIU Carbondale’s interim chancellor, Brad Colwell took a seat, caught his breath and reflected momentarily on what has changed at SIU since he last saw it five years ago. Some buildings have come down, he noted. Others have come up. As he would see just a few moments later, there’s now a Chick-fil-A in the Student Center. Change is constant.
Some things, however, have remained pretty much the same — and not just the on-campus deer population he and his wife have observed. The financial throes now rattling the university aren’t necessarily new, but they have hit a more fevered pitch in the time since Colwell left in 2010 to become a dean at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Returning to serve as the head of the campus through 2017, Colwell said he is acutely aware of the challenges ahead.
“Misery may love company a little bit in the sense that we are not unique in this situation,” Colwell said. “That’s sad. I wish the state didn’t have these issues, but it’s beyond our control. The legislators have to get together with the governor, and they’ve got to get this thing figured out.”
Colwell, whose 15-year career at SIU included stints from assistant professor to associate dean in the College of Education and Human Services, says he is still reacquainting himself with campus — a task that so far has included tours, meetings with constituency groups and a lunch with student leaders.
Facing him as he begins his job in earnest are potentially steep reductions in state funding to the university, a continuing decline in student enrollment, and total across-the-board budget cuts to the tune of $13.5 million for departments across campus.
SIU President Randy Dunn said last month that one of Colwell’s major tasks will be working with faculty and staff to recruit and retain students. Colwell said the university has much of which it can be proud, but new attention must be shifted toward what sorts of programs will “make a difference.”
“There are certain academic programs and certain majors that just seem to make sense,” Colwell said. “We can be entrepreneurial about this in meeting people’s needs. As we look down the road, what are those majors going to be? What is going to make a difference, and what do we need to do to move forward? It doesn’t mean that we’re all things to all people. I’m not saying that. What I’m saying is we can be smart, we can be strategic.”
Colwell said that during the 21 months he is under contract as interim chancellor — he has not ruled out applying for the permanent job, which has been vacant since Rita Cheng left in mid-2014 — he hopes to be highly visible within the campus community and help promote an image of the university that makes prosepctive students want to attend. While he was short on details, Colwell said he grew up in nearby Bluford looking forward to trips to Carbondale, and that same enthusiasm needs to be communicated to potential students and their families.
“We’ll be fully devoted to SIU,” Colwell said of himself and his wife. “We’re really beyond thrilled to be here. Ohio was nice. We had an opportunity to see other things, but this is coming home.”
As the university continues to grapple with financial pressures from both within and from outside, Colwell said he is committed to working with the campus community to figure out how to best proceed on the most urgent issues. He complimented the work that has been done up to now.
“The thing is, we can’t surprise people,” Colwell said. “They have to know what process we went through, and they need to know what the next steps are. I’m very proud of these folks. They made some tough choices. I just ask for everyone’s patience. This is not ideal, and it’s not necessarily an issue of our making. We’ll be prepared.”
He said if he has any bucket list item of his own for his time at the head of the campus, it’s simply letting as many people as possible know about what the university has to offer.
“We have a unique story to tell,” Colwell said. “We have to tell that story. These are not challenges that can’t be overcome. They’re doable. We have to work together, and it’s going to take the Carbondale community, it’s going to take Jackson County, it’s going to take Southern Illinois to pitch in … for me, that’s actually very exciting.”