Strategic Plan Featured in Springfield Paper

Chancellor at UIS espouses lofty goals


Published Monday, March 27, 2006
State Journal-Register, Springfield, IL, page 1

Richard Ringeisen, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Springfield, thinks the school has made major advances in the last five years – but its biggest jump may be yet to come.

For much of its history, UIS – founded as Sangamon State University in 1970 – was an upper-division transfer school. The adult- and commuter-heavy student body did little to foster a campus atmosphere, and UIS lacked a strong identity.

But that has changed. The addition in 2001 of the four-year, residential Capital Scholars honors program sparked student life. Couple that with a boom in campus construction – including multimillion-dollar projects such as University Hall and the upcoming recreation center – and UIS is a much different place than when Ringeisen arrived in April 2001.

UIS officially becomes a full four-year university this fall, when an expanded class of traditional freshmen will enroll. To mark that step, Ringeisen has announced what the school calls a “bold vision” – to become one of the top five small public liberal arts universities in the United States within the next decade. According to U.S. News and World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges 2006” – one of the best-known annual college-ranking publications – some of the schools currently holding that distinction are St. Mary’s College of Maryland, the University of Minnesota-Morris and the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

The initiative is part of UIS’s new strategic plan – the first of its kind since 1992, when the school was still Sangamon State. The document, developed over more than a year by UIS faculty, administration, staff and students, calls for UIS to focus on six primary themes: academic excellence, enriching individual lives, making a difference in the world, strengthening campus culture, enrollment and retention, and resources and infrastructure.

“One of the most exciting things for me in my five years is looking now at how we’re viewed even within the University of Illinois, compared to how we were viewed before,” Ringeisen says. “It’s very clear that this niche of being premier small public is very good for us.”

In an interview last week, Ringeisen spoke about how the plans for UIS’s future will – and won’t – change life on campus.

(Portions of this interview have been edited.)

*  Q: The goal is for UIS to become one of the “top five small public liberal arts universities” in the country. What exactly does that mean?

*  A:There’s a group of universities in the country that are called public liberal arts institutions, and by and large they’re relatively smaller public schools. While they give people a good, broad general education in liberal arts, they have outstanding professional programs in business, education, public affairs or whatever. There’s usually about one of these per state. So we’re going to be small by intention.

*  Q: How will you measure that?

*  A:First of all, we sort of have to get on the radar. A lot of these national rating systems start with how your freshmen look. And since we haven’t had freshmen very long, we haven’t been badly rated or well rated – we haven’t been rated at all.

It’s a matter of just doing the good things that we outline in that strategic plan and other places: having our students be noticed, noticing our high-quality faculty, and having those things catch on and seeing that people know we’re attracting ever better students and ever better faculty. It’ll happen naturally if we keep our eyes on our major goal, which is academic excellence.

*  Q: This is a dramatic departure from the original vision for Sangamon State. To what degree will the campus culture change?

*  A:Sangamon State was dedicated to public affairs and good public citizenship. It’s important to notice that one of the three major goals for UIS in the future is “making a difference in the world,” which is a modern way of saying that very same thing. It’s not that big of a break.

We haven’t stopped doing those things that we did best as Sangamon State. We just decided a little more clearly what kind of institution we’re going to be.

*  Q: How will UIS go about achieving these goals?

*  A:It all begins with academic excellence. We need to consciously work to have some of our students recognized in, say, the USA Today outstanding students, or the Fulbright fellowships and scholarships that students can win, or perhaps a Rhodes Scholar some day.

Our faculty (must) become better known – which is already happening in their own fields of study, as well as new fields. I believe one of our goals is to have a center for research into how online education works. The Emiquon (Field Station) project up on the Illinois River and the restoration of the wetlands – these kinds of things draw national attention, and that’s how you start to make the ratings.

*  Q: These are tight budget times for higher education. Do you foresee a need for increased funding?

*  A:Well, now, that’s a great question. (Laughs.)

We’ve had these bad budget times – probably what most people would say are the worst budget times for higher education in Illinois’ history over the past five years – and yet all these things happened here at UIS: University Hall, the townhouses, the recreation center is going to be built, (we’re) adding more freshmen next year. By next fall, 39 percent of our faculty will be in their first or second year. It’s a phenomenal number of things.

More directly to your question, yes we (are analyzing) the resource needs to implement the strategic plan. It will take some money. Do we believe we can find the necessary funds? The answer to that is yes as well.

*  Q: Any idea how much we’re talking about?

*  A:I think that probably … our annual budget would have to increase something on the order of $4 million.

The state must do its share. Even with all the budget cuts now, we have about a $20 million allocation from the state of Illinois. It would take a $400 million endowment to generate that much money annually. Our hope is the state will give us some incremental funding.

(Also), we in the administration will have to do our best to keep the budget tight. The faculty and staff have to work together to find more external funding (through) grants and contracts. We must have the support of private individuals – this institution is more dependent on community than any I’ve ever seen.

And our students and their families are going to have to do more to help pay for their education, there’s no doubt about that.

*  Q: Will Springfield and the larger UIS community – beyond students and employees -benefit?

*  A: Something I’ve been saying since almost the first day I arrived on campus is that there’s no great city without a great university, and there’s no great university without a great city.

One thing everybody involved in economic development knows is that when you are trying to get new companies to come to town, better teachers, whoever you’re trying to recruit, it’s nice to say we have a first-class university here in Springfield. As we get better and better, it will make that sell easier for the city.

*  Q: You have talked in the past about increasing the number of students living on campus. What is the goal in that regard?

*  A: Right now, we have about 800 students living on campus. Overall, the strategic plan sets an enrollment of about 6,000 students (UIS’s current enrollment is about 4,500), and that is not including completely online students. I think eventually we go to 2,000 or so residential students.

Plans are being made right now for the next residence hall and for how many more townhouses we’ll be building.

*  Q: How do you reassure transfer students that their interests are not being sacrificed for the sake of this plan?

*  A: If you look at the goals of the strategic plan, they are not specific to when a student comes in. In fact, one of the things that’s proposed is a program for first-year students. That part of the strategic plan specifically doesn’t say “freshmen.” It’s talking about all students who are first-year at UIS. We hope to be a national model in the way you help students transition from high school or community colleges.

*  Q: What advantages and disadvantages does UIS have in recruiting?

*  A: You know the greatest one? I heard a student say this, and I’ve been using it all the time – “My faculty know who I am.” That’s a tremendous advantage for a public institution. This idea of being intentionally small is a big deal. It’s a place where you can go and not only be educated, but have an effect on the institution.

If you look at the data on class size, or the number of classes over 50 students, things like that, we’re clustered with the private institutions. Talk about a competitive advantage – tuition at UIS is about $6,000 for a full-time student. You’re getting a $30,000 education for $6,000 at UIS, because that’s about what the tuition is at comparable private institutions.

Then there’s Lincoln. There’s the state capital. This is the most vibrant state capital in the nation. What a wonderful, interesting place to go to college.

*  Q: So you see UIS competing more against private schools than other state schools?

*  A: If I look back in five years and see that we’re competing on the national level with all kinds of schools, I’d like that.

An interesting thing has happened with transfer students the last few years, and it’s that everybody wants them. Urbana’s strategic plan calls for them to reach out more to community-college transfer students. What we need to remember is we’ve been doing this for 36 years, and we’re probably the best in the state at transferring students in and seeing that they get their degrees.

*  Q: You’ll soon celebrate your fifth anniversary here. How close is UIS to what you envision, compared to what it was when you arrived?

*  A: I sense we’ve really moved a long way in that direction. If you would have asked me five years ago where we might be in five years, I don’t think I could have been much happier. Even on my bad days, to look around and see what has been accomplished and think about what can be accomplished in the future is pretty exciting.

Daniel Pike can be reached at 788-1532 or