Chancellor finalist asked about campus diversity at student forum


Jeff Elwell, a finalist for the university’s chancellor position, speaks during a public forum Tuesday, April 11, 2017, in Guyon Auditorium. Elwell, who is one of four finalists for the position, currently serves as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. (Branda MItchell | @branda_mitchell)

By Marnie Leonard

Diversity was a primary concern among those attending a student-only question-and-answer session Tuesday evening with chancellor finalist Jeff Elwell.

The student forum was part of a three-day interview process for Elwell, the current dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and one of four finalists for SIU’s chancellor position. Elwell addressed the concept of racial diversity in the campus setting earlier in the day at a separate forum, saying he was surprised all the finalists are “older, white males.”

Jada Kelly, a sophomore studying political science and Africana Studies from Chicago, said the programs in which minority students often enroll are usually the first to receive cuts.


“How do you decide what is a need and what is a luxury?” Kelly said. “It seems like, from the point of view of an underrepresented student, that we have wants and other students and colleges have needs.”

Elwell said the level of university support for programs should align with the level of demand from students enrolling in those programs, adding the metrics and recommendations are ultimately deliberated by prioritization committees.

“Still, diversity is important,” Elwell said. “You can’t eliminate things that diverse students want to have — programs they come here for.”

Brandon Kyles, a junior from Chicago studying political science, asked what Elwell would do to make LGBTQ students have faith the administration can adequately handle homophobic incidents on campus.

Elwell said his immediate action would be to publicly condemn the act and hold those responsible accountable.

“Then you continue to talk about why that’s inappropriate, offensive and idiotic,” Elwell said.  “Let people know by your actions you will not tolerate that kind of behavior on your campus.”

Asked what he thought about the Black Lives Matter movement, Elwell said he thinks it is important and considers himself an advocate for social justice.


“I’ve tried to diversify faculties where I’ve been,” Elwell said. “I would say I’m devoted to diversity and inclusion.”

Abdulsamad Humaidan, a curriculum and instruction doctoral candidate from Taiz, Yemen, asked what Elwell would do to keep SIU an inviting environment for international students in the face of budget cuts and President Donald Trump’s recent executive order that bans travel to and from several Muslim-majority countries.

Humaidan, an SIU student for nearly five years, said he always saw the campus as welcoming but worries that budget cuts will reduce graduate assistantships for international students, many of whom need those positions for their visas.

Elwell said prospective international graduate students should research which programs are strongest and have the most resources to ensure they are supported during their time at the university.

“You can’t be everything to everybody,” Elwell said. “No university can. But if we accept you we need to support you for the length of time you’re here.”

Addressing the university’s financial crisis, Elwell said the state budget impasse is only part of the problem. Also at issue is SIU’s declining enrollment, he said.

“Enrollment has been declining for years,” Elwell said. “I’ve asked administrators, ‘Why did nobody see the trend?’ Nobody made any adjustments.”

Elwell said now that the university has opened in-state tuition rates to out-of-state students, the best course of action would be to aggressively market itself to students from other states.

“Once they get here, we need to keep them,” Elwell said. “We need to make sure the people we recruit are happy and successful and they stay here.”

The next student-led forum will be for chancellor finalist George Hynd from 5 to 6 p.m. April 19 in the Student Services Building room 160/170.

Staff writer Marnie Leonard can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @marsuzleo.

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