UI seems to be in a pinch

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Photo by: Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette

Skylar Sebens, left, and Chris Redisill bag feed at the University of Illinois Feed Mill in Urbana Thursday Dec. 8, 2016.

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Everyone’s heard the big picture — a $190 million budget hole over two years, faculty flight, no pay raises, pension uncertainties.

But what has the state budget crisis meant on the ground level at the University of Illinois, for professors, students and employees?

For emeritus Professor Hans Blaschek, it’s meant a state-of-the-art research facility he spearheaded won’t be completed until long after his retirement.

For Professor Matthew Ando, head of the Math Department, it’s meant scheduling nightmares as he’s tried to cram a rising tide of students taught by fewer instructors into outdated classrooms at Altgeld Hall.

For History Department chair Clare Crowston, it’s meant cutting teaching assistants and not replacing faculty members in key areas, including U.S. history, leaving holes in the curriculum.

For students, it’s meant larger classes and fewer choices. One casualty, at least temporarily: a 20-year-old “Freshman Discovery” program designed to give freshmen access to top professors in classes of no more than 20 students.

To be sure, the UI is better off than most state universities, with lucrative research contracts and donor support. It’s been able to manage so far mostly because its tuition income continues to rise (by $13 million this year) — a leftover from past tuition increases. But after two years of a tuition freeze for incoming students, that’s going’s to level off soon, says Interim Provost Edward Feser.

There’s been no need so far to close departments or academic programs — something that’s difficult to do quickly anyway because of the commitment to tenured faculty and students in those majors, Feser said.

The provost’s office and other units across campus have pulled back on discretionary spending, at least temporarily. The Discovery program was one casualty.

“Every recurring dollar we’re spending right now is in theory a dollar we don’t have,” Feser said.

Many departments had been setting aside reserves, which allowed them to weather the first round of campus-ordered budget cuts. But it’s been tougher this year.

And a third year without a full state budget will mean greater pain, Feser said. Private gifts can’t make up for a loss of state support and flat tuition income, he said.

When the budget crisis hit in 2015, the UI tried to prepare for a 30 percent funding cut, which is what Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed. It ended up getting a little over a quarter of its funding last year, and about 55 percent for the current year, so far.

“We’re now into our third fiscal planning cycle with no idea what to advise colleges,” Feser said. “It’s crazy. We’re in crazy world now.”

Most of the budget is wrapped up in personnel, and much of that is inflexible because professors hold tenure. So the campus ends up trimming in areas where it can — academic professional staff, civil service employees and teaching assistants, among others, Feser said.

The cuts aren’t evenly distributed across campus. The engineering, business and agriculture colleges have more outside income, with ties to industry and professionally oriented master’s degree programs that generate profits for those units.

So while the number of graduate assistants may have dropped in some humanities departments, in other areas it hasn’t.

History hammered

In history, to meet campus spending-cut targets, the department was forced to cut its teaching assistant budget in half, from 28 positions to 14. It’s diverted other money to make up some of the difference, as graduate students need teaching experience and the department needs them to cover classes, Crowston said. It gets income from other units when its professors run academic centers or programs, and from prestigious fellowships won by faculty.

But the overall number of teaching assistants has dropped, and there’s no money for receptions for visiting speakers or other extras.

It’s also “drastically” cut admissions to the graduate program, taking in six students rather than 12 or 15. That will continue until the budget situation improves, she said.

The number of history majors has been on the decline, so classes aren’t “noticeably bigger,” Crowston said, though the department also teaches students across campus through its general education courses.

But a half-dozen retirements have left gaps in high-interest areas, including the Civil War and Lincoln, women’s history, military history and Native American history. Some courses may be taught occasionally by retirees or professors in other departments, but there’s no money to hire new faculty, she said.

Crowston worries all of this “collateral damage” will affect the program’s reputation and its ability to recruit new graduate students and scholars — and hold on to its current faculty, ranked as one of the best in the country.

“That is in jeopardy right now,” Crowston said.

Campuswide staffing numbers don’t necessarily show a huge drop because other pressures have driven hiring — such as enrollment growth, which requires teaching staff and student support services, and state procurement rules that consume “ridiculous” amounts of staff time, Feser said. The campus is also investing in areas that bring in money, including fundraising.

But jobs have “contracted” as vacancies aren’t filled, he said. If a department’s secretary isn’t replaced, professors have to take on more administrative duties.

In the Math Department, Ando would like to add another position to manage its aging facilities, which require renovations every year, but there’s no money. Last summer, two classrooms in Illini Hall were shut down for two months because black mold was discovered under a wall covering. A three-month project to renovate badly deteriorating graduate student offices in Coble Hall turned into six months. That’s a lot for the business manager to handle, who already has a full plate with purchasing, grant management and other financial matters, he said.

‘Dribs and drabs’

The budget standoff has also cost the university, and taxpayers, money.

Each year, Ando has to spend $100,000 to $200,000 to renovate or reconfigure offices “because we’re bursting at the seams,” with the number of majors skyrocketing from 800 to 1,200 in the last five years. The building only has one room large enough for big lecture courses, and it’s full of chairs with broken desktops.

A $90 million renovation of Altgeld and Illini Hall has been planned for years, but no one’s holding their breath for the $43 million in state funding requested this year.

“If we could do a comprehensive project, we wouldn’t be spending all this money in dribs and drabs,” Ando said.

Donors are reluctant to invest in a project if there’s no guarantee the state will be able to supply its share of the funding, added Matthew Tomaszewski, associate provost for capital planning.

The relocation of the aging Feed Mill at Fourth Street and St. Mary’s Road was put on hold when the state took back its $14 million appropriation. Donors who had pledged to cover about a third of the cost then withdrew their money, Tomaszewski said.

When state funding for the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory was frozen in 2015, the college had to spend about $50,000 to protect the unfinished project from the elements, said Blaschek, a professor of food microbiology. The structural steel was in place, but only part of the roof and exterior walls were up. Gas lines had to be run to the site to heat the basement so the concrete wouldn’t crack. And when the state money came through, the total had risen from $23.2 million to more than $26 million, to cover inflation and remobilization costs.

“As a taxpayer … that’s the one number that really sticks in my craw,” Blaschek said.

“As former director, this personally was a huge disappointment. It would be completed now” without the delay, he said.

He and other researchers were turned down for one $1 million-plus federal grant because their proposal was tied to the unfinished lab.

The hybrid facility is designed to be used by faculty and industry to commercialize biofuels research, similar to the UI’s Enterprise Works but with wet labs, he said. Blaschek’s research led him to found a company called TetraVitae Bioscience, which developed bio-based chemicals, plastics and fuels and was later sold to Eastman Chemical.

“This is a unique facility. There’s really nothing like it in the entire United States,” said Blaschek, who is still doing research part-time and hopes to work with the facility once it’s completed next year.

‘Holding pattern’

Another cost of the budget standoff: more and more faculty are entertaining outside job offers, which the campus tries to counter with retention packages — promises of lab improvements and the like.

“We are winning fewer of the battles,” Feser said, as faculty lose faith in the university’s ability to support their research and teaching over the long run.

Faculty departures then require the campus to spend money recruiting new professors, which can take two years or more for top scholars. Incoming hires may require expensive startup packages for their labs. For assistant professors in the sciences, it can range from $400,000 to $800,000; for senior hires, $1.5 million to $3 million “would not be unusual,” Feser said.

“When you’re dealing with a top-quality scientist who is very happy where they are, getting them to move is a big effort,” he said.

Feser said the biggest detrimental effect of the budget standoff, long-term, is that it puts state universities “in a holding pattern.”

If higher education is going to be cut permanently, “the responsible thing to do is to indicate what that is and give us a glide path, so we can figure out how to adapt to it,” Feser said.

“I don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” he said, “but at least we can plan for it.”

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UI seems to be in a pinch

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