President Kinzy: ISU starts new term with renewed energy
Illinois State University President Terri Goss Kinzy says people on campus can feel the difference in energy from the last two years that were dominated by COVID-19. She takes the high spirits among students on the first day of class, and among faculty during an opening reception, as positive signs.
“People weren't talking about their challenges; they were talking about their opportunities. And I think people have that real sense of optimism and future-looking perspective this year,” said Kinzy.
During a WGLT interview, Kinzy said she doesn't think much pandemic-related dispirit remains. The campus staff paid close attention to student stress last year and there was a lot of dialogue about the impact of isolation remote learning had on student mental health.
Kinzy thinks students have acclimated to the new normal with classes operating in person for the most part.
“We did not see major increases in complaints about student systems, about mental health emergencies, any of those things that we were tracking to make sure that we were not seeing an influx of challenges," she said. "We weren't having more student behavioral problems. We weren't having more academic problems. I think, last year, it was still a transition, there was still some unease. But in the end, I think our persistence is still good. I think that the outlook is good.”
She said ISU also is working on fast-tracking construction of a 1,200-bed residence hall with a 700-seat dining center on the south part of the campus. That $185 million project was delayed by the pandemic.
“Because we had already been working on this project before, we will have an accelerated design phase, and we're looking forward to opening it in the fall of 2025,” said Kinzy.
ISU staff did not have to scramble to make sure all first and second-year students got dorm rooms as the fall term began. That has been an issue in the past. Kinzy said this year they cut off student deposits in May as part of an effort to avoid housing disruptions.
"We're very full. We brought back space we had taken off line because of COVID. That allowed us to accommodate more students. I have not heard of any challenges," said Kinzy, adding the university also took a more relaxed approach to requests for off-campus housing from sophomores.
Student retention into the sophomore year for ISU is just over 80%, according to the provost’s office, though that number is preliminary pending 10th day of the semester enrollment figures. It was well above the national average in 2021, and above other public universities in Illinois, save for the University of Illinois.
- U of I: 93%
- ISU: 81%
- UIC: 80%
- SIU-Edwardsville: 76%
- SIU-Carbondale: 74%
- NIU: 74%
But ISU’s retention number is down slightly over the most recent three-year period.
- 2016: 80.6%
- 2017: 78.6%
- 2018: 78.9%
- 2019: 84%
- 2020: 83.2%
- 2021: 81%
- 2022: 80% (tentative)
Kinzy said all universities are trying to understand the impact of COVID and how much of any shift in retention is a true reflection of a change in student paths, or whether they will reconnect with their universities. She said ISU pays a lot of attention to who the non-returning students are and the reasons for their departure. She noted campuses received federal funds during the pandemic they put toward student financial aid and that money is now gone. She said there are a variety of influences on retention.
“Financial aid is a part of that. Student affairs is a part of that. Academic affairs is a part of that. They could be a student- athlete. The athletic department is a part of it. But we're looking at a holistic approach to surrounding our students with the services they need at the right time,” said Kinzy.
ISU also is piloting new programs.
“One is a program the provost is particularly excited about (is) called SOAR, which addresses the significant challenges in black male student enrollment in this country,” said Kinzy. "So, some of these smaller focus projects, including our TRIO project, offer a lot of different ways to meet students where they are because there's no one answer for every single student.”
COVID also was disruptive to university efforts to increase enrollment by international students. Kinzy said those pressures are easing, though precise enrollment figures in that category tend to come in even later than for the rest of the student body.
“It is looking like it's up slightly. The visa challenges are not as pronounced as they used to be. The financial challenges have changed. International students are less concerned about getting to the United States and being unable to go home for summer break. We've hired a new head for our international office and we're very excited she has joined us. She will be making sure those students have an excellent experience, that they're welcomed, and they get the support that they need,” said Kinzy.
The campus has a number of construction and infrastructure projects in progress. The Mennonite College of Nursing simulation lab replacement and relocation is done in what Kinzy called "record time." There also are improvements at the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts, and a nascent College of Engineering will be built.
“There are still supply chain and labor issues in areas of construction," she said. "These big construction projects come during a challenging time. Keeping those on track, prioritizing them, getting the materials we need, is a major focus for us. I mean, it's a great problem to have.”
Kinzy said she's pleased at the progress of work on a new indoor athletics practice facility. Moving athletes to the air dome north of Horton Field House will free up Horton for student organizations, reserve officer training corps activities, and kinesiology and recreation uses.
"I think that will make late winter here in Normal a little bit more productive for our students," she said.
The original completion date on the facility north of the field house was the spring of next year. It's now set for March.
College of Engineering
Recently, the board of trustees approved buying two properties on Raab Road in Normal. One of will be refreshed and take in facilities staff who are currently in space that will be converted into the College of Engineering.
“We're in the design phase for the building itself. We don't need it on day one, but we'd like to have it soon. And quite frankly, we'd like to get the dean in and have them be a part of the design project. So, that's a major accomplishment for getting those folks appropriately settled so we can keep moving,” said Kinzy.
A search also is under way for an engineering dean. And a curriculum committee has begun looking at the structure and content of courses.