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Undergraduate focus key to ISU success

Published: Monday, March 4, 2013 9:00 a.m. CDT

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BLOOMINGTON (AP) — Knowing when to say "no," rather than trying to be "all things to all people," has enabled Illinois State University to improve its standing and stability, President Al Bowman told members of the Bloomington Kiwanis last week.

The organization invited Bowman to speak to thank the retiring ISU leader for his years of service.

Finding and focusing on its niche — undergraduate education — has allowed ISU to devote its resources where they can be most effective, he said.

During his 10 years at ISU's helm, Bowman said, there were suggestions that ISU should add a law school and at least one board member pushed for ISU to have a branch campus in Chicago.

"I just screamed, 'Hell no; it isn't going to work.' And they didn't fire me," Bowman told the group at its lunch meeting at the DoubleTree by Hilton.

Asked what has been his biggest challenge, Bowman replied: "That's easy. It was the steep decline in state funding. We saw it coming, but we thought it would be temporary."

He said schools with multiple doctoral programs with low enrollment are facing severe funding problems.

Pointing to Southern Illinois University, which has had severe budget problems and declining enrollment, Bowman said, "Carbondale has an albatross around its neck because its administration never learned to say 'no.'"

He said ISU has only added programs or majors when it believed there was a societal need and adequate financial support, such as the nursing program.

The improvements to infrastructure at ISU — including housing, fitness facilities and academic buildings — will help it compete for high caliber students, Bowman said. The university tracks where students who were accepted to ISU go if they don't go to ISU, he said, and "our biggest competition" is the University of Illinois and University of Iowa.

Bowman is serving until his successor is named, which is expected to be in time for fall semester.

Bowman said his advice to the board in searching for his successor is to "hire someone who believes in what Illinois State is trying to do." He said the next president doesn't need to do everything the way he would, but "we need someone who will stay the course."

Several Kiwanis members thanked Bowman for his service and said he will be difficult to replace.

"The goal we all have is to leave an organization better than when we found it," Kiwanis member Becky Hines said, adding that Bowman did that and more for ISU. "You have propelled it forward."

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