Kim Coble is among scores of professors fleeing Illinois because of the state’s precarious fiscal condition and erratic funding of higher education. After years of climbing the academic ladder, she’s decided to take a chance in California, even if it means giving up tenure and descending a rung.
“I felt that an untenured position in another state was more secure than a tenured position in Illinois,” says Coble, 45, a Chicago State University astrophysicist headed to San Francisco State University and trading a full professorship for an associate one. That’s not the only blow: She’ll pay $3,400 for a two-bedroom apartment (before a one-time $6,000 stipend), two and a half times the $1,350 a month for her three-bedroom co-op in Hyde Park.
Higher ed is in turmoil across the country as states cut support and pressure builds to slow tuition increases. But debt-ravaged Illinois is a special case. Gov. Bruce Rauner wants to chop funding by 20 percent and shift some pension obligations to schools; the stopgap budget approved in June means higher ed will get less—$1.6 billion—over 18 months than the $1.9 billion it got in the 12 months through mid-2015. Hundreds of university employees have been laid off.
More students are heading out of state, too, compounding the professorial brain drain. The exodus could take years to reverse, further threatening the long-term health of the Illinois economy.
“Nobody wants to touch Illinois with a 10-foot pole right now,” says Tanya Cofer, 42, a Northeastern Illinois University math teacher who, with her husband and colleague, Isidor Ruderfer, is leaving to join the faculty of the College of Coastal Georgia in Brunswick (population 15,383).
Out-of-state institutions are poaching faculty members before they even start looking. Simon Cordery, 56, thought he had capped his career in 2012 when he joined Western Illinois University in Macomb as chair of the history department. Then, he says, Iowa State University came calling with an offer to chair its history department. He took it. Two other department chairs are vanishing voluntarily from Western’s College of Arts and Sciences and a third is looking, he says.
“I hadn’t planned to go anywhere else, but the budget was such it was clear everybody was at risk,” says Cordery, a native of England who moved to Arlington Heights at age 15. His wife, Stacy, a history professor at Monmouth College, not far from Western, also is joining the Iowa State faculty in Ames this month.
Though universities now have funding through year-end, ratings for six of seven Illinois public institutions followed by Moody’s Investors Service have been downgraded to junk or barely investment grade.
BEST PEOPLE ‘PICKED OFF’
The University of Illinois is the lone exception, though hardly unfazed. Allocations from the state’s general revenue fund fell $179.4 million, or 76 percent, for the fiscal year ended in June for the flagship Urbana-Champaign campus, according to interim provost Ed Feser. The cut wiped out 20 percent of the university’s unrestricted funding. The school made up most of the shortfall with cash reserves but had to reduce its annual budget by $49 million.
“What’s happening is our best people are being picked off—one by one by one by one,” he says. In Urbana, 50 professors quit this past academic year from a tenure-track faculty of roughly 1,929, versus 23 the previous year. “We fear that will accelerate in the next academic year.”
Thomas Overbye, 55, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, is departing after the fall semester for Texas A&M University in College Station. “There are other places that are up-and-coming,” he says. “It’s nice to go to a place where you feel the state is behind you and not treating its universities as an afterthought.”
Sharon Hahs, who is retiring as president of Northeastern, says she advised trustees to delay a search for her successor until the state has a full-year budget. A number of “strong candidates” have turned down faculty job offers, she says.
Among the vacancies at the Northwest Side school is the job that Cofer held. “I feel that I was trying to get out in front of a tsunami,” she says. “What the state doesn’t quite understand—academics are free agents. We’re used to national searches.”
Brian Small, a fish physiologist at the University of Idaho, left Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where the number of tenure-track teachers fell 15 percent in the four years that ended last fall. “Lots of phone calls asking about the budget” came his way from potential successors, he says. Jesse Trushenski, a former Southern colleague now at Idaho’s Fish and Game department, says, “The climate on campus didn’t make it hard to leave, and there was no attempt to keep me.”
In Urbana, Feser says approval of a stopgap budget after a year without any budget at all was a blow to morale. Larry Schook, systemwide vice president for research, says: “We’re losing good people, and the good people help you recruit good people. . . .They’re leaving because they think they can build a better competitive program.”
Lisa Moyer is taking a $20,000 pay cut in exiting an associate professorship in family services at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. Landing at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and echoing Chicago State’s Coble, she says, “I feel it’s better to move down the ranks and have a job rather than wonder if I’ll have a job.”
Meanwhile, Robert Colombo, an associate professor of biological sciences making $72,000 a year, hopes Eastern matches an $87,000 offer from Washington State University. “I love it here,” he says. “It’s really a travesty what’s going on.” His leverage: Colombo brings about $500,000 in funding grants to Eastern. Even so, the university would be hard-pressed to give him a 20 percent raise after cutting its headcount by almost 25 percent in the past year and losing 71 percent of its state funding.
Coble says that once San Francisco State made a pitch, which included a promised fast track to tenure, she asked for a year’s leave from Chicago State, in case she felt like returning. Her request was denied. “She’s going to be hard to replace,” says Edmundo Garcia, department chair in chemistry, physics and engineering studies.
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July 30, 2016 at 07:06AM