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Bowman: 'Difficult Conversations' Coming For Illinois Higher Education

Al Bowman at podium
Illinois State University
Former Illinois State University President Al Bowman during his 2009 State of the University address.

When Al Bowman was president of Illinois State University, he liked the freedom and flexibility that he had to run his campus. Now that tables have turned.

Bowman was recently appointed executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education. He’ll now be advocating for funding and scholarship money on behalf of all Illinois public universities. And he’ll also be pushing for better coordination in decision-making among those same public universities—a move away from the freedom and flexibility he enjoyed as ISU’s president.

“For the state, that autonomy is probably not as helpful,” Bowman said on GLT’s Sound Ideas. “The state has certain needs, and I think it’s essential for the state to better coordinate the activity of its college campuses so that they work together and meet the workforce needs of the state.”

Bowman will face some big challenges in his new position. With few exceptions, most state public universities saw their enrollment decrease this fall. High school students continue to leave the state for college—a potential long-term brain drain for Illinois. And state funding continues to decline for public higher education—and that’s only when lawmakers bother to pass even some funding.

Bowman, who retired from ISU in 2013, said he took the job after being asked to consider it by Tom Cross, a former state lawmaker who is now chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

“In my mind, there’s some advantage to having a spokesman for the Illinois Board of Higher Education who’s had extensive campus experience,” Bowman said. “I can talk about college life in a way that a typical state agency bureaucrat can’t. I felt like in a small way I could use my skills to represent the very important needs of public higher education in the state.”

Those needs may lead to some difficult decisions. During the last budget standoff, some lawmakers questioned whether the state had too many public universities and too few students. In other words, should one of the state’s public universities close?

“We have to have that conversation,” Bowman said, noting the decline in 18-year-olds across the Midwest as one factor for enrollment problems. If Illinois’ regional public universities can reverse their recent enrollment declines, “life can probably go on,” Bowman said.

“But if we continue in a downward cycle, then we’ve got to stand back and look at overcapacity and make some tough decisions about what to do about it,” he said.

Higher Education Strategic Centers of Excellence Plan

State Rep. Dan Brady of Bloomington and state Sen. Chapin Rose from Mahomet, both Republicans, recently introduced legislation that overhaul the state’s higher education system, called the Higher Education Strategic Centers of Excellence Plan. It would create a uniform admissions application for all public schools in Illinois, among other changes. But it also proposes changes that may concern university leaders, such as ranking the quality of academic departments against similar departments at other schools.

Bowman said the proposal has some good ideas but others that are concerning. He said it’s not likely to pass in its current form, and its intent is to “start a conversation.”

“When it comes to ranking academic programs, that’s not easy for a college dean to do, much less to do a ranking across institutions, as broad and diverse as they are across Illinois,” he said. “I do think it’s important for us to have difficult conversations about where we are in the state with our public universities.”

You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Bowman:

GLT's full interview with Bowman.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.