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ISU Leaders Eye Launching College Of Engineering

Screenshot / Illinois State University
Illinois State University's Board of Trustees heard the first part of a proposal to launch a College of Engineering at ISU during Friday's meeting.

Illinois State University administrators are hoping to open a new College of Engineering.

On Friday, ISU President Larry Dietz and Provost Aondover Tarhule presented the first half of a proposal to launch new engineering programs to the board of trustees.

Dietz said it’s a chance to attract more students during the so-called enrollment crisis as high school graduating class sizes shrink, meaning fewer prospective college attendees. Currently, he said those interested in engineering programs tend to look to out-of-state colleges.

“We're looking for new opportunities for new markets for students, and the engineering program clearly gives us access to new students,” Dietz said. “The other part is that there's a huge demand (and) Illinois universities aren’t meeting it. There's a demand from the companies that hire engineering graduates that much exceeds the supply of the existing engineering programs.”

Dietz said he’s talked with companies like Cabot, Caterpillar, Rivian and Toyota, among others. All expressed interest in developing engineering talent in Bloomington-Normal, he said.

Dietz said the university can afford to launch the program using tuition dollars alone, but he expects the state to kick in some money, in addition to private donations.

The proposal would put the College of Engineering in the old John Green Food Service building near Cardinal Court. Administrators said they weighed creating an engineering department, or a school that would report to an existing college, but ultimately decided the program warranted its own college.

Tarhule said the inaugural class for the College of Engineering could be about 520 students, with cohorts growing by about 150 students each year after that. He said ISU anticipates the need for 21 faculty members and 11 support staff, in addition to a dean and program directors.

Tarhule said the soonest the plan could come to fruition is about three years.

Administrators also want to bolster existing STEM and nursing programs. Tarhule said demand is high for those programs, as well, but the university doesn’t have enough lab space or clinical partnerships to support more students.

“Every year, the state of Illinois is experiencing a shortage of about 5,100 nurses. We’re simply not producing enough nurses to meet the demands of the state. At the same time, every year, we reject about 1,250 students who apply to ISU for the nursing program … We have a highly reputable program that students want to come to, but we're forced to turn them away, mostly because our simulation lab is simply not large enough.”

With some “modest” investment to expand these programs, Tarhule said the university could bring in another 276 nursing students and about 350 STEM students over the course of four years.

He said it’s not a question of whether the university can afford to do it--it’s if the university can afford not to.

Based on current projections, he said, ISU is set to lose about 2,000 students by 2025, adding that’s a loss of about $19 million in tuition alone, not to mention income from housing and dining contracts.

In order for the College of Engineering proposal to move forward, it must be approved by the Academic Senate and the board of trustees before going to the Illinois Department of Higher Education.

But some trustees expressed concern over how ISU would differentiate itself from existing engineering programs.

“We're already behind this,” said chair Julie Jones. “This is a trend that has been going on. Other universities have this established. I would hate to think that we're doing something that they're already five light years ahead of us, and while we're starting off at the beginning they’re moving onto something else.”

Trustees Rocky Donahue, Mary Ann Louderback, and student trustee Jada Turner expressed similar concerns.

Provost Tarhule reiterated the gap in demand for engineers and the number of engineering students graduating into the workforce, noting about 400 jobs go unfilled each year. He said prestigious engineering programs at other universities have extremely high standards for the students they admit, shutting out applicants who are perfectly qualified, but didn’t have the highest test scores, for example.

ISU could offer another option, Tarhule said.

He also said ISU has an opportunity to be at the forefront of new fields in engineering, where other schools might be too set in their ways.

“In some ways, if you are an established discipline, you're kind of traditional,” Tarhule said. “We know that there are new areas emerging--renewable energy, assistive technology--there's new areas coming up all the time that established disciplines can't even accommodate because that's not how they were set up. We have an opportunity to set up the degree that then takes into account the needs that are emerging now.”

Friday’s presentation did not cover the financial or budgetary implications of the proposed engineering program. Tarhule said those components will be presented to the board during April’s meeting. He said administrators would like to see the proposal sent to IBHE around May.

If approved by all agencies, he said, ISU could hire a dean for the College of Engineering within about a year and a half.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.