University officials hope enrollment, fund-raising rises after

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- When Southern Illinois University senior Martin Obst visited home, neighbors used to snicker about what his life was like at the "party school," famous for Halloween street riots rather than for strong academics.

Not anymore. "It's amazing what one thing can do for the reputation of a university," said Obst, 21, of Robinson.

That one thing was Southern Illinois' Cinderella-like success at the NCAA basketball tournament, when the Salukis emerged from a history of obscurity to play in the NCAA's Sweet 16 before losing to the University of Connecticut on Friday.

Students hope that the school's time in the national spotlight will help not only counter its reputation as a party school, but also boost its enrollment and help fund-raising efforts, two things Southern Illinois needs even more than a winning athletic team.

Word-of-mouth advertising

"I learned in P.R. class that the best advertising is word-of-mouth," said Carrie Titus, 21, of Arcola. "This has got to help us."

After all, NCAA success helped Gonzaga University.

The private Jesuit school in Spokane, Wash., saw its applications jump 63 percent from 1999, right before the school's surprising NCAA success, to this year, when the Bulldogs lost in the first round of the tournament, said Dale Goodwin, a spokesman for the school of 5,200.

That translated into a 17 percent rise in enrollment, he said.

Gonzaga has also seen its bank account swell over the same period. The school raised $9.7 million from donors the year before its 1999 win, an amount that rose to $16.5 million two years later, only to drop off when the economy slumped, Goodwin said.

The school is on track to better last year's $11 million in donations this year, he said.

"There's no question, (the NCAA success) has been great for us," he said.

Pushing enrollment

But whether Southern Illinois will see that kind of bounce is unclear. The Salukis' tournament success was the first piece of good news the beleaguered school had had in a long while.

The school, located in Illinois' poor rural south, started last year with a push to boost enrollment, which had been steadily falling.

A special task force recommended spending millions on advertising and other changes to increase the school's numbers, which, at 21,500 students, is still under capacity.

The campaign was also supposed to address Southern Illinois' image as a premier party destination for college students, particularly at Halloween.

For most of the past 30 years, Halloween revelers have flooded the streets around campus after local bars close. Last year, the school sent students home for a strategically timed "fall break" and the city forced the bars to stay closed over the holiday.

While all was quiet, few expect the peace to last forever.

So far, enrollment hasn't changed, and instead of planning an expensive marketing campaign, the school has been grappling with $7.4 million in budget cuts, which were announced late last year by Gov. George Ryan and blamed, in part, on the state's increased expenses stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks.

Last month, the university laid off 30 maintenance workers, and officials are discussing raising tuition and making other cuts to fill the gap.

Chancellor Walter Wendler said the school's basketball success may help solve these problems.

"I think (the exposure) has real potential of assisting us in addressing some of the complicated issues we face," said Wendler.

But they're not a panacea. "I don't want to say the white knight has ridden in, and our problems are over," he said.

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