A “crisis of confidence” at Illinois universities brought on by the lingering state budget impasse stands to do long-term damage, SIU’s president said this week — and the destruction will surely spread to the communities those universities serve.
Speaking Tuesday at the Illinois Board of Higher Education meeting in Normal, SIU President Randy Dunn said the university has navigated the year-long budget battle thus far by concentrating on the preservation of core academic programs.
Those programs, he noted, constitute the center of a series of concentric circles, with the outermost circles representing outreach programs that affect entire regions. Those places are where cuts have been felt thus far, Dunn said.
“What we’ve tried to do in our own cost reductions is work from those outer rings in,” Dunn said. “We’ve lost many of those things that we do for our regions. That’s what’s being dismantled right now, and it will be a long time to get that back.”
Dunn and other leaders shared their insights as Illinois prepares to enter its second year without a budget as a war of attrition grinds on between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats led by House Speaker Mike Madigan. Although lawmakers and the governor approved a temporary funding bill in April that provided SIU with about $57 million — a fraction of the university’s usual annual appropriation — there are few outward signs that another deal benefitting higher education is coming in the near future.
Dunn said that declining confidence in the university’s fiscal strength is making it more difficult to recruit students, noting that the previous university he headed up, Murray State University in Kentucky, is reporting a 40 percent increase in Illinois applications this year. Also, Dunn said the university is fighting to hold on to in-demand professors, who may use the climate in Illinois as the reason to embrace opportunities elsewhere.
Of prime importance, Dunn said, is the lack of certainty about funding for MAP grants. Over the past year, the university has floated millions in financial aid funding to students, but the insecurity of the system threatens to limit access to education to those who most need it.
“We are an access institution,” Dunn said. “If you think about some of the challenges that can exist for some of those families, it just takes one thing like this — uncertainty about the MAP dollars or questions I know all of my colleagues get about the sustainability of programs — that causes students or families to go a different direction.”
Also speaking before the board Tuesday was Illinois Municipal League Executive Director Brad Cole, also a former mayor of Carbondale and a current member of the Carbondale Community High School board of education.
Cole said ongoing uncertainty at universities such as SIU trickle down, possibly leading to more deferred maintenance on the campus itself, damage to the housing market as faculty members depart for other institutions, and decreased municipal funding as cities that rely on students to bolster their census counts grapple with dwindling populations.
“The students have such an impact in the community they attend school in that it’s not just as a spender or as a student,” Cole said. “We have to connect all of the dots."