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Bradley University wants community feedback before moving forward on Avanti's site redevelopment

Peoria County Assessments

When Avanti's closed its restaurant at the corner of Main and University last spring, it marked the end of the Italian eatery's longtime presence on Peoria's West Bluff. That came as a shock to some. So did Bradley University's announcement it had purchased the building and planned to demolish it to create green space.

Bradley University President Stephen Standifird said he's gotten a lot of questions.

"In some early public announcements, we talked about a green space, I still think that makes a lot of sense in different ways. But please know that before any final decisions are made on that, we plan on opening up a number of community conversations, to really talk about what makes sense there," he said.

From Bradley's vantage point, Standifird said it's important for the university to have some control over what happens at the prominent intersection.

"A lot of our visitors from out of town are going to come through that intersection, and we want them to feel welcome, that we want them to really feel like Peoria is a great place and that they can be happy here," he said. "And so that's part of what we're thinking about as we look at that particular property and trying to decide what to do next."

Standifird said initial talks to begin redevelopment of the property this summer are paused to allow for community input into what happens on the land.

"I mean, I've already gotten some really interesting ideas on different things we could consider. And I want to make sure we're completely vetting that and having those conversations before we move forward," he said.

The overall goal, Standifird said, is to create a space that has energy, generates enthusiasm, and creates a welcoming environment for the campus and city. He said Bradley University is still working out the details on what shape those community conversations will take.

As artificial intelligence gets smarter, how does higher ed adapt?

Artificial intelligences like ChatGPT and Google's Bard are bringing brand-new variables into the equation on questions of academic honesty.

Standifird said there's a balance to be struck.

"The dance for us is academic integrity. Of course, we want to make sure students are giving the right level of reference and identifying sources of information. And we have to help them understand how to do that better. On the other hand, we also as an organization, as an institutional environment, need to recognize that these are our resources to be leveraged," he said.

It comes down to acknowledging when artificial intelligence is playing a role in a student's work and how it was used, Standifird said.

Bradley University President Stephen Standifird delivers his second annual State of the University address at the Dingeldine Music Center on Oct. 3, 2022.
Tim Shelley
Bradley University President Stephen Standifird delivers his second annual State of the University address at the Dingeldine Music Center on Oct. 3, 2022.

"I've seen this happen a couple times where a student is shocked that what they did was somehow inappropriate, because they thought they were just leveraging technology in a useful way. They're right about that, by the way. And what we have to do is we have to help them understand and when you do that, just make sure you're acknowledging that what you're doing, and understanding your creative input to the process as well," he said.

There may be times where an instructor tells students not to use a chatbot for a particular assignment so as to assess a student's ability to create or compose without that assistance.

"It's a little bit of educating students on how to use this technology appropriately. And it's a little bit of us getting comfortable with them doing that. And I think that's where the happy medium needs to come together," he said.

Digging into the root causes of the growing trend of 'stopping out'

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, more students are putting a pause on seeking a higher education or never going after a degree to begin with. Standifird said the industry generally uses a six-year graduation rate to assess overall student success. Last year, he said the rate was 62%.

"Try to find another industry where a 38% failure rate is okay. And would you be okay if your doctor was wrong 38% of the time, if the airlines as a service industry underperformed 38% of the time? How many people would be okay with that? And yet, that's where we're at in higher education," he said.

Standifird set a goal to get Bradley University to a 90% six-year graduation rate. The institution currently sits at 77%. He's also created a new position specifically focused on retaining students through graduation.

"Sarah Glover's taken on that position for us and she's really digging in to identify what are some fundamental changes we can make to assure that our students are successful, and that's become a major emphasis for us moving forward," he said.

Standifird said there are three major reasons students say they give up on their higher education journey before completing it.

"It's financial, grades, and basically, I didn't fit in. And in surveys students will tell us those are equally spread out," he said.

For financial issues, Standifird said the university has some leeway to work with students on accommodations. There's also help for students struggling academically. But he said the third category is a little trickier.

"I think it's that third category of 'did I fit' in that really is the make or break piece. And so not surprisingly, that's where a lot of our attention is in terms of really trying to figure out how to make this a more welcoming, inclusive and successful environment for everybody," he said.

In some exit interviews, people leaving Bradley said they felt like an "uninvited guest." Standifird said this is one of the reasons the university is putting a big emphasis on beefing up its diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. There's also an ongoing campus climate survey for students, faculty, and staff to weigh in.

He said Bradley also has to get better at helping students identify the path that's right for them. Using himself as an example, Standifird said he originally set out to become a geologist. But after getting into classes, he realized it was a poor fit.

"One of the things we've got to do a much better job off is early on is helping students identify the life path that is right for them. And once we identify that, help them identify the academic path that matches that," he said.

That includes a major facet of Bradley's developing strategic plan, which will place more emphasis on "life design." It's based on wayfinding models created at Stanford University. Standifird said by having students work with a life design consultant who can help them find their path, that will also help them be more successful in their higher education journey.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.