Colwell addresses financial crisis with graduate students
Interim Chancellor Brad Colwell met with members of the Graduate and Professional Student Council on Thursday evening to answer questions about SIU’s financial situation and address concerns amid a state budget crisis that is approaching the two-year mark.
Illinois public universities have received no appropriation outside of stop-gap funding during the Springfield stalemate between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and a Democratic-controlled assembly.
The conversation focused on several of the university’s recent announcements that have the potential to affect the university’s faculty, staff and students — including questions about graduate assistantship positions, student fee restructuring and the possibility of administrative pay cuts.
In SIU President Randy Dunn’s March 29 System Connection — the column he emails to faculty and staff — he said the Carbondale campus should cut at least $30 million in spending with the assumption a state budget would not be forthcoming soon.
In response, Colwell’s office identified $19 million in immediate, permanent budget reductions. Of these cuts, Colwell said about 4 percent would come from the office of interim Provost Susan Ford, who coordinates and prioritizes academic programs.
Many attendees raised concerns about funding for graduate assistantship lines, and whether Colwell would commit to ensuring those positions are not cut.
Colwell said he took the amount spent on GA lines in the last fiscal year and reserved it in the provost’s budget.
“I made a promise — that money is absolutely untouched,” Colwell said. “How it filters down through individual units, we’ll see. I certainly sent my message that we need to protect graduate education.”
Individual units could still recommend cutting those positions once they receive their budgets from the provost, Colwell said.
Lauran Schaefer, a teaching assistant in communication studies, asked Colwell if he could guarantee graduate assistantship positions wouldn’t be eliminated.
“It sounds like you’re saying you protected some funds,” Schaefer said. “Earlier you said you protected graduate students, but what you’re really saying is you protected money.”
Colwell said he wants the decisions made at the lowest levels, and he does not intend to tell the deans how to distribute their budgets. He said he and interim Provost Susan Ford would have the final say on the budgets deans recommend.
“So yes, you will protect us if other people decide to move that money around that you intended for graduate students?” Schaefer asked.
“I’m not going to make that commitment,” Colwell said. “At this point, it’s too early in the process.”
Schaefer asked who would teach undergraduate students if assistantships were cut, since graduate students teach many required courses.
“I have basically done what I need to do at this point,” Colwell said. “I want to see what’s going to happen.”
GPSC President Brandon Woudenberg asked if GA positions could be treated like faculty lines, in which funds for vacant positions are returned to the provost’s office and reallocated to other positions.
David DiLalla, the associate provost for academic administration, said this is not something the university has ever done before but he intends to explore the idea and bring it to the provost’s attention.
“However, what we’re doing is going to be painful no matter where cuts are made,” DiLalla said. “Any group we sit with would say ‘Don’t let it get me.’”
Reallocating student fee money
The Carbondale campus has 10 years to pay back funds it borrowed in September to maintain operations. For each year, Colwell said he expects the campus will have to pay back between $8.3 million and $11 million.
Kevin Horn, a teaching assistant in the zoology department, asked if Colwell would be willing to restructure student fees to help cover that loan repayment.
He said Colwell and other members of the administration continually say cutting units like athletics wouldn’t be lucrative because they are primarily funded by student fees, not state dollars. Fee money can only be used for its intended purpose, meaning the athletics fee can only go toward that unit.
However, Horn said any given fee can be reduced or eliminated and another fee can be added or increased by the same amount without changing a student’s overall bill.
“Looking at the athletic fee — you figure students are spending, on average, $300 a semester on that,” Horn said. “Multiply that by 17,000 students and that’s over $5 million a semester — that’s $10 million a year.”
Colwell said changing the fee structure would have to be a careful policy decision.
“You’re basically shutting down Division I Athletics — for some that’s perfectly fine, and for others, it’s not at all,” Colwell said. “Even so, most of those decisions are not mine to make.”
Colwell said the SIU Board of Trustees has the sole authority to pass and allocate student fees, but it could be done.
“Then you should all stop acting like it’s not an option,” Horn said. “Up until now, I’ve never heard anyone in the administration even pretend like it’s an option.”
Regarding cost-saving measures and budget cuts, Colwell said everything is on the table.
Administrative pay cuts
In the fall 2016 semester, SIU enrollment hit its lowest point since 1965. Overall, there were 15,987 students enrolled, a drop of 1,305 from 2015, and campus enrollment continues its steady downward trend that has, at best, stagnated or seen slight increases over the past 20 years.
Donald Chamberlain III, a master’s student studying social work, asked if there had been any discussion about scaling back administrative positions to mirror the declining student population.
“Our faculty, our graduate students, the people we actually need for this university are being cut,” Chamberlain said. “We are not the campus we once were — do we still need five vice chancellors?”
Colwell said statistics from the Illinois Board of Higher Education show that SIUC and SIUE have the lowest number of administrators compared to other public institutions, and since Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Kevin Bame will retire at the end of April, every vice chancellor position will be interim.
DiLalla said the administration would be “crazy” not to consider the possibility of administrative cuts, but couldn’t say how probable it is that those cuts would actually happen.
“Let’s hire a vice chancellor of budget cuts to look into it,” Horn said.