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Dunn, Cole warn of impact of budget fight

Geoffrey Ritter
Carbondale Times

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."

Witthaus heading new accessibility coalition

Alex Haglund
The Nashville News

Jodi Witthaus is fighting for her independence and is seeking to get the city of Carbondale to help provide accommodations to her and others with disabilities so she can keep that independence. 

Witthaus, who is blind, is seeking to have a voice in Carbondale by organizing a coalition, formally known as the Carbondale Coalition for Accessibility. 

There was a coalition like this in Carbondale in the past, but “we’re probably a good 10 years past when that was last active,” said Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams, who has been talking to Witthaus about the coalition and its goals. 

After receiving her master’s degree in social work in May, Witthaus moved toward the next big thing — namely, finding a job. While she is still working toward that goal, her interest in leading an independent life despite her blindness had her attending a forum on disabilities put on by a professor at the university about a year ago.

Actually, the forum was just focused on disability-accepted housing, but Witthaus said, “I didn’t get that memo.” 

The mayor of Carbondale was at the forum, and Witthaus, diverging from the intended subject of the forum, sat up and asked, “What about this roundabout?”

The roundabout is a project planned for the intersection where Grand Avenue and South Lewis Lane come together — an intersection Jodi and Nika, her service dog, regularly cross. While roundabouts can be a boon for traffic flow, at best they can be problematic for someone like Jodi, who would be navigating the crossing with the help of an animal trained for regular crosswalks. At worst, they could be a deathtrap.

She asked to see the blueprints for the roundabout and to know what accommodations it would have for the disabled, but says she was met with an unfavorable response from the mayor, who she said told her, “The roundabout is going to happen.”

That forum was just the introduction Witthaus had to city government, though, and she has kept talking, largely with Williams, which has led to the reformation of a coalition in Carbondale. 

Earlier this month, Witthaus met with Williams; Development Services Director Chris Wallace, who oversees accessibility issues on private property; and Public Works Director Sean Henry, who covers accessibility issues on public property.

“I think that we’re completely supportive to reconvene or reform the group,” Wallace told Witthaus. “What do you want to do moving forward?”

Witthaus said that it was her plan at this point to act as the spokesperson for the coalition and then, after holding meetings its members, bring the issues that they have to the city. 

“I don’t want people to think that we’re going to ask for ridiculous accommodations,” Witthaus said. “We want to work together to come up with ways to make this accessible for everyone.”

Henry suggested the idea of bimonthly meetings with Witthaus or the coalition, which Witthaus agreed to. 

“We can just establish those moving out so that we can keep that view in mind in our projects,” Henry said, “And, of course, you can relay that information to us any time as well, just as you are now.”

One of the biggest issues for Williams, Wallace and Henry, as well as for Witthaus and the coalition, is not merely having the will to change things for the better, which they share, but to have the information and perspective on what is required for accommodations for the various disabilities that exist in the community.

One issue that comes up is that so often, accessibility comes down to making a place or street accessible for a person in a wheelchair — that being the default version of a disability in many people’s minds, due in no small part to a person in a wheelchair being the logo plastered on accessible bathrooms and parking spaces. 

“There’s such a hyper-focus on wheelchair disabilities or mobile disorders,” Henry said, “but it’s about access for anybody.”

So Witthaus, a blind person navigating with a service dog, brings a new perspective to things that all three city employees hadn’t necessarily heard before. Hearing more of these perspectives, and then bringing the issues attached to them to the city, will be her challenge.

Witthaus said she already has a small group of people with disabilities who have expressed an interest in the group.

“It’s not big,” Witthaus said. “People don’t want to identify with having a disability.”

Witthaus did say that there was a new registered student organization for accessibility at SIU, and said that the coalition would be reaching out to them.

Williams also recommended that Witthaus seek out the Jackson County Health Department, saying that they had assembled a community health coalition that met monthly at the Carbondale Township Office.

There’s plenty to do, both for Witthaus and the city, but “we’ll find time, we’ll make sure to find time,” Williams said. “The most important thing is to get it on the schedule.”

Witthaus also received some good news when Henry told her that the roundabout that had been planned is now being pushed back to 2020. 

“That’s a load off my shoulders,” Witthaus said.

Between the coalition and seeking a job, Witthaus seems to have her hands full. She still needs to seek licensure to practice social work, and is discovering that it is a challenge with accessibility issues all its own.

Witthaus’ target, though, is to work with the Veteran’s Administration in Marion. 

“When I first started, I really wanted to do micro work — so individual counseling,” Witthaus said, “but now I enjoy the macro stuff too: government, policy and all that.”