William Bradley Colwell to return from Bowling Green

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By Bill Lukitsch, @Bill_LukitschDE

William Bradley Colwell may have just moved into town, but he’s no stranger to SIUC.

Colwell officially starts his new job as the university’s interim chancellor Thursday, an appointment effective through June 30, 2017. He will make $295,000 annually without benefits. But for Colwell, being interim chancellor of SIUC is about more than a promotion and a pay increase.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” he said on the phone Sunday morning, as he drove a 26-foot rental truck toward Carbondale with all of his worldly possessions in tow. “This is coming home.”

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Colwell hails from Bluford, a town of 700 residents nestled in the eastern ridge of Jefferson County. His family roots in the area span three generations.

Education is a part of the Colwell family backbone. His father taught at Webber Township High School for 49 years, where he was known for exemplary skills in basketball and as a coach of the Trojans basketball team. His uncle served as the district’s superintendent. 

After graduating from Webber, Colwell enrolled in Anderson University, a Christian college located about 50 miles northeast of Indianapolis, where he received his bachelor’s degree in political science in 1990. He said the small liberal arts school was fitting for what he wanted from his undergraduate student experience and education.

Colwell gained his first leadership position in a higher education setting at Anderson, serving as the student body president for two years.

In 1993, three years after finishing his undergraduate degree, Colwell earned both a juris doctorate and a master’s degree in educational administration from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. During that time Colwell first met his wife, Mary, a native of Sullivan and a graduate of SIUC’s early childhood education program. 

As a doctoral candidate, Colwell spent his days practicing education law as an attorney for Miller, Tracy, Braun & Wilson, Ltd. in Monticello and his nights studying to complete his Ph.D. He married in 1994 and had the trying experience of balancing a job, his education and marriage.

“Those were interesting times,” Colwell said. “I enjoyed it though. I loved being in the campus community — there’s just something about higher ed that I love.”

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Colwell began his career in academia as an assistant professor in SIUC’s department of education administration and higher education in 1996, with an office across the hall from now-SIU System President Randy Dunn. 

From there, Colwell and Dunn collaborated on published works and public lectures concerning issues in university administration, education and law. It was the beginning of a professional relationship founded on trust and mutual respect. 

During his 14-year career at SIUC, Colwell worked as an associate professor, a professor, the chair and director of graduate studies in the department of educational administration and higher education, and served as the associate dean for academic and student affairs for the university’s College of Education and Human Services. 

Colwell left the university in 2010 to become Bowling Green State University’s Dean of The College of Education and Human Development and a professor in the school of educational foundations, leadership and policy. Bowling Green State had a 14 percent freshman enrollment increase in fall 2015 and an 85 percent retention rate.

He fancies himself a fairly well-liked guy there, too.

“‘Student-friendly’ was the term I heard over and over, and that does make you feel good,” he said. 

Caldwell says the overall financial state of SIUC isn’t pretty, but is also not worse than other publicly-funded institutions because of national disinvestments in higher education. Enrollment numbers have continued to drop in the past 10 years, but he’s staying optimistic about the future while remaining realistic about options. 

“I’m not going to be Pollyannaish about it — I understand I can’t print money,” Colwell said.

Illinois’ budget impasse has waned on nearly four months past the end of fiscal year 2015, and it is something Colwell says must be resolved soon for the sake of the state’s citizens. 

“It’s time for state legislators and our governor to come together and get this thing figured out, because people are suffering,” he said. “We have no choice, we have to figure this thing out.”

He said he plans to clock a minimum of 60 to 70 hours per week on campus managing day-to-day operations and working to formulate strategies for improving enrollment, retention and financial efficiency.

Colwell said he thinks the university is too often overlooked by students in the region. He hopes working closely with superintendents of local school districts — some of whom studied with Colwell nearly 20 years ago — can reinvigorate southern Illinoisans and remind them of the nationally acclaimed research university in their backyard. 

“We’ve got to continue to tell that story and let people know that here, in little old Carbondale, we’ve got a diamond in the rough.”

Colwell can apply for the permanent chancellor position when a national search begins in about a year, but his employment contract only guarantees a tenured professorship at the university.

Colwell said that’s not a concern and he is focused on the task at hand.

“I’m acutely aware that I’m interim — I get that — but I can’t let that deter us; we’ve got to turn things around and we can’t wait for two years,” he said.

Now that he’s returned to the region, Colwell said he wants to give back to the community he came from and see SIUC succeed.

“I will do my best to make sure everyone understands the rules of the game and feels like their voice was heard,” he said. 

Bill Lukitsch can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter @Bill_LukitschDE.

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