Tom Kacich: Public universities remain in dire straits

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The presidents of Illinois’ public universities last week gave an ominous assessment of the state’s high education system and how badly damaged it’s been by not only the ongoing budget impasse but by years of neglect.

And the future doesn’t look much better.

Most of the university presidents addressed a state Senate committee last week and recounted unprecedented steps they’ve made in recent months to economize: layoffs, furloughs, cutting programs and majors, internal fund sweeps, delaying payments to vendors and more.

Illinois State University President Larry Dietz called the situation “the worst financial crisis in the history of higher education in the state of Illinois.”

Dietz, whose institution is in better financial shape than any outside the University of Illinois, said that the state’s university’s have been “severely, perhaps permanently damaged” by the two-year-long budget standoff between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic legislators.

He said students and their families have lost confidence in Illinois and have left the state “for other educational opportunities” and that universities see “their best faculty” and staff “abandon Illinois for more stable and predictable opportunities.”

And Southern Illinois University President Randy Dunn said entire academic departments are at risk.

“Not must majors, minors and concentrations — something we’ve been doing and I would guess most campuses have done — but saying that we’re going to close down major departments, potentially a college at the Carbondale campus. Stopping wholesale units of operation that our area depends upon,” he said. “If you get away from the fiscal analysis, we have a public university system here in Illinois that in the higher education marketplace is just about to go to junk bond status.”

It’s not just the university presidents who are offering dire assessments.

“Material programming reductions and staffing cuts, while necessary to keep the state’s public universities operations in the short-term, will further impair the universities’ abilities to sustain their strategic competitiveness and attract students for the upcoming fall 2017 class,” said a report by Moody’s Investors Services last week. “While universities can pull a number of operational levers including academic program elimination, mandatory employee furloughs and reductions in force, these actions will further weaken the universities’ strategic positions.”

Coincidentally, the Moody’s report was released a day before Gov. Bruce Rauner did a call-in radio show on WBEZ in Chicago and showed little sympathy for the plight of the universities.

“We need to get a balanced budget now so that we can have the resources to put into our university system, as well as to many of our social services,” Rauner said. “Our university system has not been supported for years and years. It’s one of the reasons that we have some of the highest in-state tuition of any state in American for our resident students.”

He launched into a familiar homily about higher education’s “very bloated administration and bureaucracy” and how “the money is not getting into the classroom for the students and the teachers. It’s being consumed by layers and layers of bureaucracy.”

There was no recognition by Rauner of the cuts already made — 24 percent of the employee headcount at Eastern Illinois University, according to President David Glassman — or Moody’s assessment that the university’s have been placed at a competitive disadvantage.

That disadvantage comes at a critical time, Moody’s said, because “Illinois universities and community colleges remain exposed to demographic challenges that will suppress long-term demand for higher education in the state.”

Already a net exporters of high school students to universities and colleges in other state, Illinois institutions will be fighting over a shrinking pool of in-state graduates.

The recent peak of 154,138 high school graduates in the 2011-12 academic year will drop to a projected 124,559 by 2031-32, according to a report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. That’s a 14 percent drop, significantly more than other states either nationally or regionally.

Most Illinois universities are in a weakened position to compete aggressively for students from other states and countries.

Gill announcement

Bloomington Democrat David Gill said there was no particular reason he announced for the 13th Congressional District seat last Tuesday, a day after House Republicans unveiled their replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act.

“I think it coincided well, but there was no particular reason,” said Gill, who hopes to defeat Republican Rodney Davis, just as he did in 2012. “We had reached a point where all of the infrastructure that needed to be in place was completed. So we decided to move forward.”

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-azette.com.

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March 12, 2017 at 12:07AM

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Tom Kacich: Public universities remain in dire straits

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