The following article about the University of Illinois at Springfield appeared in the Friday, July 14, 2006 edition of the Chicago Tribune newspaper:
U. of I's newest kid a big little school
Striving to grow while staying small
By Jodi S. Cohen
Chicago Tribune higher education reporter
Published July 14, 2006
SPRINGFIELD -- When Chancellor Richard Ringeisen looked out his office window here five years ago, he saw lots of prairie, but few people.
The grounds at the University of Illinois at Springfield seemed so desolate, he joked about a plan to hire pedestrians. There was no basketball team, no student theater performances, no dormitory. Not even a coffee shop.
It was a place for juniors, seniors and graduate students, where transfer and commuter students went--usually at night--to finish a bachelor's degree or get a master's.
Now, when Ringeisen looks out his window, he sees the beginnings of a traditional university, with a central colonnade and fountain and, occasionally, students playing cricket. One dormitory has been built, and another, a $15.8 million project, was approved by the U. of I. Board of Trustees on Thursday.
The campus' strategic plan, unveiled earlier this year, is clear about the university's ambition: to become one of the top five small, public liberal arts universities in the country.
"We're the new kid on the block," Ringeisen said. "We're creating something that Illinois can really be excited about."
That won't be easy, officials have learned, as they struggle just to get noticed. High school guidance counselors still look puzzled when they find out that the university has an undergraduate program, and students joke that even some Springfield residents don't realize the university exists. Students don't mind the ignorance, saying they were drawn there by the small classes, professors who know their names, and relatively light tuition and fees at about $6,700 a year.
"I told my friends that I was going to U. of I. Springfield and they said, `What? That doesn't exist,'" said senior Sarah Doyle of La Grange Park, the student representative to the Board of Trustees. Earlier this week, Gov. Rod Blagojevich gave Doyle the single student vote on the board, the first time the Springfield representative has been given that honor, which historically has rotated only between the Urbana-Champaign and Chicago campuses.
But even as officials push for a lively campus, they are in the seemingly contradictory position of guiding a university that is considered a national leader in online education, a notion contrary to bringing people together. In fact, the university offers more for-credit classes online than any public university in the state, with more than one-quarter of the credits earned last semester coming from online courses.
The university has received more than $3 million in grants to develop online education, growing its program from 30 students in fall 1998 to 1,830 last semester and offering 175 courses in subjects as diverse as graphic design, human resources and environmental law. Fourteen degrees can now be earned entirely online, and full-time faculty members teach nearly all the online classes.
Administrators, however, seem almost reluctant to talk about that success, worried that too much attention on the online achievements will detract from the goal to build the so-called "on ground" programs.
"We don't want to be known as the online institution in Illinois. We won't have a vibrant campus without focusing on growing the on-campus enrollment," said Marya Leatherwood, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management.
Founded as Sangamon State University in 1969, the campus has for most of its history been an upper-division transfer school with a focus on public affairs. It became part of the University of Illinois in 1995, joining the Urbana-Champaign and Chicago campuses. Five years ago, the university accepted its first freshman class, a small group of honors students. This fall, traditional freshmen will be accepted for the first time, and 280 are expected to enroll.
U. of I. President B. Joseph White, who oversees all three campuses, refers to UIS as the "adolescent," the one teeming with energy and on the verge of something big.
That energy mostly has come from the growing number of freshmen, whose desire for a traditional college atmosphere has begun to transform the university. About 900 students now live on campus, there are about 70 clubs to join, and the new basketball team won a spot in a national conference tournament this past spring.
With a current roster of about 4,500 online and on-ground students, the university's goal is to have about 6,000 students five years from now, including about 500 freshmen. New students have created a need for an increased faculty, and about 40 new professors will start this fall, a considerable boost to the 160 now there.
Non-academic services also have changed to accommodate more students. There are now two doctors, two nurse practitioners and several counselors on staff.
"If we are going to be what we want to be, it's important that we have the services for traditional students," said Christopher Miller, vice chancellor for student affairs, who previously worked at Arizona State University and South Dakota State University.
Some, however, feel that the non-traditional students--the reason the university was founded--are getting shortchanged. Others worry that the university's public affairs mission will be de-emphasized in a push for a more mainstream liberal arts education.
"It's all about the freshmen. I have yet to hear that we are doing something for the graduate students," said MBA student Mahreen Chaudhary, who complained that grad students can have a hard time getting the classes they need
Doyle, meanwhile, worries about a perceived decline in the university's public affairs mission. "They need to find a way to not lose the traditions," Doyle said. "Even in the strategic plan, they don't say that much about public affairs."
Administrators say they've heard that concern but that it's unfounded. The Graduate Public Service Internship Program, which pairs graduate students with paid internships at government agencies, for example, is as strong as ever, they said.
As the university strives to become one of the top small public colleges in the country, administrators hope it will one day become a member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, a group of nearly two dozen institutions nationwide.
To get accepted, the university will have to show that it offers "a very broad education that allows creative thinking," said Susan Finkel, the group's executive director.
While embracing that goal, retired philosophy professor Larry Stiner cautioned about being too focused on joining the mainstream. The university historically has had liberal requirements for faculty research and scholarship, for example, allowing more time for teaching and public affairs activities.
"I wouldn't want it to be just another Eastern, Western, just another anywhere, second-tier state university," said Stiner. "The university has to pay attention to ... the things that make it different from other places."
With all the changes, it can feel like UIS has two divergent identities--not only academically, with dual online and on-ground initiatives, but also physically. The original campus is a clustered lot of single-story metal trailers, nestled amid pine trees. More than 30 years after they were built, they are still referred to as "temporary."
Meanwhile, up a short hill, there is a more traditional-looking university, with a grassy quad and fountain, where students sunbathe while studying.
Recent graduate Brad Ward, who helped found the Blue Crew student spirit squad, is excited about the transformation, although he hopes the university retains the small atmosphere that drew him there.
"You get to know everyone really well," said Ward, 22, who graduated in May and is now a marketing specialist for the university. "The people in the cafeteria know you want biscuits and gravy for breakfast."
Ward said he decided to take a job at the university after graduation in part so he could be there "to see how it all turns out."
If he stays long enough, he'll see a $16 million recreation center open next spring, perhaps the biggest indication that the university is catering to traditional, amenity-seeking students.
But to attract more students, Ringeisen knows he'll need to bring in more than a fancy student center. There are currently no shops or restaurants within walking distance of the university, which is surrounded instead by about 600 acres of university-owned prairie.
"We have issues with having enough to do, no doubt about it," Ringeisen said, adding that he'd like to see a "campus town" with at least a pharmacy and coffee shop.
During his first year on campus, Ringeisen asked for proposals to build commercial space on the university's property, but nobody responded.
"I've had trouble getting developers to spend money here because there aren't enough of us yet," he said. "It's getting so much more likely now that we're growing."
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University of Illinois at Springfield:
Founded: 1969 as Sangamon State University. Joined the University of Illinois system in 1995.
Enrollment: About 4,500 online and on-ground; 57 percent undergraduates, 90 percent from Illinois.
Online impact: About 42 percent of students took an online class last semester.
Average student age: Undergraduate, 30; graduate, 35
Average class size: 15. Classes rarely have more than 40 students.
Top five majors: Business administration, computer science, psychology, accountancy and educational leadership.
Noted programs: Graduate Public Service Internship Program, Illinois Legislative Staff Internship Program.
Tuition and fees: $6,700 a year.
Source: University of Illinois at Springfield
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