Column: Saving Illinois

By Josh Rohrscheib

Our University is approaching a turning-point. Future historians will mark the years ahead as the time the tide began to turn. We still have the power to determine the direction, but the price of that power is a rising burden, a duty of candor to take a hard look at ourselves and address our own failings as a University and a community.

We cannot deny the hard truth that public universities are in very real trouble. State legislatures nationwide are failing to fund higher education. We must become self-reliant. The three ways of filling the gap in funding are raising tuition, increasing out-of-state student enrollment, and substantially bolstering private donations. To have any hope of improving or even maintaining quality, we must do all three.

Illinois has the lowest annual alumni giving rate in the Big Ten, perhaps because for so many, Champaign-Urbana never felt like home.

To save Illinois we must evolve from a giant campus, to a close-knit community. We must make the big feel small, the impersonal more personal.

Upper level administrators and faculty leaders must set the example for student engagement by getting out from behind their desks and have more face-to-face interaction with students.

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The need to improve advising is widely recognized, but we are deluding ourselves if we deny the need to immediately hire more advisors. You can not have a personal relationship with an advisor if they are responsible for over 500 students.

University housing must become more responsive to students. Instead of providing a thoughtful and caring environment that allows students to grow and thrive on their own terms, housing staff dictates the terms for growth. An area coordinator once told me “we understand the needs of all our residents.” This is a terrifying assertion. When you think you see the whole picture, you stop looking.

Compartmentalization is also harmful. Pitting departments against each other for funding leads to the “that’s not my job” mentality. Far too often students seeking help are sent office to office, and once a student is out the door, it’s someone else’s problem. No one responsible takes responsibility, and everyone else is blamed.

Everyone has their own fiefdom. Innovations of others aren’t celebrated, and individual successes aren’t shared. Regarding fundraising, academic units are fighting over donors instead of developing strategies to maximize the total contribution to the campus. The result: small public wins dwarfed by immeasurable silent losses.

Other universities create a sense of class identity. Here classes get together only for convocation and graduation, nothing in between. Class events build pride in the campus by bringing students together to celebrate their common experience and their collective potential. This leads to increased annual giving, class gifts and more substantial contributions in the future.

College should be the place for students to shape their values and find their voices. This begins in the classroom, which is why we must take immediate steps to reduce class sizes. How can you be expected to find your voice in an 800 person lecture? It’s hard enough to find a seat.

Perhaps the most troubling change on the horizon is the shift in University policymaking from shared governance to a more corporate structure. Nothing could be more dangerous or wrongheaded. Our mission is creating knowledge, not generating profit. Shared governance is the principle that decisions that substantially affect the community should be made by the community. If we are all stake-holders, we all have a greater fidelity to the institution, the community, and ultimately, to one another.

Eliminating inefficiencies should not be confused with cutting services, or taking more power from faculty and students and giving it to administrators. We need students to feel like stake-holders, not mere consumers.

This is a time for bold leadership. There is an inherent tension between collaborative dialogue and decisive action. We must play in both arenas at the same time to dramatically change our campus culture from a faceless metropolis to an engaged community. We should start today.

Josh Rohrscheib is a third year law student, a guest columnist, and the President of the Illinois Student Senate. Billy Joe Mills only advocates for democracy in the Muslim world because the CIA refused to install him as the Shah of Iran. He can be reached at [email protected]