Southern Illinois needs its university to be an economic engine, and the new Carbondale chancellor sees agriculture as key. In fact, Chancellor Austin Lane holds ambitious goals for the university, its faculty and students.

“The university drives the regional economy. We want to help do our part with the economy, and we can’t overlook agriculture,” Lane told FarmWeek with a soft, southern accent. “We want to be a main player, to be the school to go to for agriculture.”

Appointed chancellor May 29, Lane became Southern Illinois University (SIU) Carbondale’s sixth chancellor, including acting and interim predecessors, in the past 10 years. The chancellor’s accent reflects his southern roots, most recently as president of Texas Southern University in Houston and education at universities in Oklahoma and Alabama. Lane’s appointment came only months after Dan Mahony was appointed president of the SIU system in March.

With a background in Texas education, Lane said he understands FFA’s importance and strengths and has been reaching out to FFA student leaders. “It is a passion to attract them (FFA members) to our program and to the beauty of our (research) farms.

Agriculture will “be one of our No. 1 areas we will recruit,” the chancellor continued. He explained students with agricultural interests fit with the demographic of students SIU seeks to recruit as well as demographic of the region’s students.

Another of Lane’s goals is more southern Illinois high school graduates to pursue degrees at SIUC. Since arriving in July, he has spoken with community college presidents in the region and listed those who are SIU alumni by name.

Lane said he’s also been speaking with area superintendents, principals and guidance counselors. “We will aggressively target” area freshmen and sophomores with SIUC information to create “a pipeline to SIUC,” he said.

This recruitment follows better-than-anticipated fall enrollment and retention numbers. Campuswide, fall 2020 enrollment declined 2.8%, and freshmen enrollment increased 31% with a 32% increase in freshmen from southern Illinois.

While pursuing southern Illinois students, the chancellor added he plans to recruit students around Illinois, outside the state and other countries.

Similar to other universities, SIUC continues to deal with COVID-19 challenges, but Lane praised students for wearing masks and following health and safety practices. “We’ve had no (coronavirus) outbreak on campus. Our students have done a really good job,” he said.

SIUC is testing about 100 students each week in free on-campus COVID tests. Last week, only four students tested positive. The community also offers weekly drive-up testing for students, faculty, staff and local residents.

SIUC classes are a mix of online, hybrid and face-to-face instruction. This semester, 40% of classes are fully online. A total of 30% are a hybrid of online and in-person instructions. And 30% of students are attending class in person with a 50-person limit per class.

Lane said spring semester plans are similar with 45% online and 28% taught face-to-face; however, those numbers may be adjusted.

Students will end fall semester Nov. 20 and not return until mid-January, according to Lane. “There will be no spring break. There will be a winter break” with the spring semester ending in late April or early May, he said.

Meanwhile, Lane and SIUC continue to drive home a new “It’s Our Turn” campaign.

“With 24,000 students and our programs, it’s our turn and our time ... with what we have to offer to help the region and the economy,” Lane said. “I am a competitor. I want the university to win. That means the region wins and the state wins.”