SIU president describes changing ‘covenant’ between Illinois, public universities
SIU President Randy Dunn on Monday used broad strokes to describe the future of the university and its branch campuses during his State of the System address, speaking generally about a reshaping of the “covenant” between Illinois and its public universities.
The speech strayed from an action plan like the one Dunn announced in 2015, when he outlined tactics that would allow the university to “limp through” a stagnant session in Springfield. Instead, he suggested ways for the university system to continue its core mission despite a departure from the perception of higher education as an investment in the state’s workforce.
“As we move away from that, the tactics aren’t going to work,” he said.
Dunn pointed to the possibility that the state could dictate the number of degree programs offered at public universities, the level of state support matched with tuition costs and, possibly, how many higher learning institutions continue to exist.
That the “dismantling” of some public universities has been allowed to persist is indicative, he said, of such change. He added that the uncertainty of a state budget and whether progress will be made during a lame-duck session following the General Election keeps the fiscal future of the university unpredictable.
“We have no more clarity today than we did a year ago on how this gamesmanship is going to play out till the bitter end,” he said.
However, he clarified that SIU will continue to maintain its core mission of education.
Public universities have struggled to continue operating at previous levels following a drop in state funding paired with lower enrollment. The two stopgap budgets passed by the state Legislature in 2016 totaled $83 million in state support for the university. The operational funding loss amounted to an $18 million cut from the previous year at SIUC.
Dunn described the situation of higher education in Illinois as “traumatic” and said the impact has taken a toll on university system employees, particularly non-tenured professors and those who receive grant scholarships.
“We have lost them, and we hope that we are able to bring them back,” he said.
Dunn referenced his 2015 speech a number of times Monday, highlighting what he then called an era of retrenchment. He said he regretted the use of the word because it created a narrative of retreat, but also acknowledged the university system has to some degree experienced those effects.
“That is not the thing we could do at this time,” he said. “It’s the biggest mistake we could make.”
Referencing a 2001 address delivered by then-President James Walker, Dunn pointed to remarks made regarding the duty of a university to examine which academic programs should be expanded and which should be curtailed. He said those proposed changes were never enacted, and the current financial situation means the university might have to “heed the words” Walker used 15 years ago.
Also referenced was interim Chancellor Brad Colwell’s plan to reduce administrative costs by 5 percent, which was announced during a speech in August. Dunn said he wants to assess so-called administrative overlap in addition to that initiative. The overlap, he said, is loosely defined as having too many administrators who deal with the same problems, questions and answers.
“It gums up the system, and I daresay we have some of that at SIU,” he said.
Dunn also proposed cutting red tape to expedite decision-making among lower management levels so that necessary changes can be made in a timely manner.
“One thing we’re not great about is taking risks,” he said.
Moving away from implementing across-the-board changes, Dunn said it was not his intention to assign marching orders during the speech. Any changes, he said, need to be tailored to the individual campuses and occur organically.
He did suggest the possibility of changes to the organizational structure of the universities; for example, separating large colleges and creating smaller individual schools.
During a press conference following the speech, Dunn reiterated that the university system will remain open regardless of the decisions made at the state level. But he said large cuts could force the university to take aggressive actions concerning academic programs that have low-enrollment and retention.
“I think we’re going to have to get pretty aggressive on making tough choices,” he said.