Dunn pushes for higher education funding

By Bill Lukitsch, @Bill_LukitschDE

SIU President Randy Dunn made dire predictions Tuesday about the future of the state’s public universities if Illinois’ budget impasse does not end.

During a press conference at the Stone Center, members of the newly formed Illinois Coalition to Invest in Higher Education urged state lawmakers to provide funding for public universities and community colleges, which have received no state money this fiscal year.

Dunn, who is a member of the nonpartisan coalition, said it was a clarion call for higher education funding and the first drumbeat in a series of meetings that will span the state in coming weeks.

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“We’re at this position right now where we’re seeing the dismantling of a great university system,” Dunn said. “The time has come for the talk to be over on this and to get a budget passed.”

While Dunn wants to avoid slashing an already-reduced budget, he said the university may consider layoffs before the end of this fiscal year if the governor continues to push deep cuts to higher education, or does not mention a solution of the impasse during his budget message on Feb. 17. If no state appropriation is received before July 1, the university will likely be forced to make another big round of cuts, Dunn said.

The university already cut nearly $14 million from its budget after Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed a 31.5 percent spending reduction for higher education nearly a year ago. Additionally, administrators have borrowed internally against reserve funds, slowed vendor payments and depleted balances in special funds and accounts to stay afloat.

The eight-month budget impasse recently prompted an audit of the state’s 12 public universities that could result in the loss of accreditation at institutions with the least liquid capital. 

SIU is not yet in danger of losing its accreditation, but the warning means the Higher Learning Commission is closely watching the situation in Illinois, Dunn said.

“We’ve not seen this before,” he said of the audit. “It’s new ground.”

Institutions that are not accredited cannot receive federal financial aid. A letter sent to members of the Illinois General Assembly and Rauner by Barbara Gellman-Danley, the president of the commission, warned that students may have to transfer to in-state private institutions or leave the state if the budget stalemate is not resolved.

“It is also probable some students may drop out of college,” Gellman-Danley wrote.

In an email Tuesday, Rauner’s press secretary, Catherine Kelly, wrote the governor “cares deeply about the fiscal health of all state universities” and added they “could all be funded tomorrow” if the Democrats would support a Republican-backed appropriations bill that reduces spending and gives the governor special powers over the budget. 

Chicago State University officials declared financial exigency last month, allowing them to lay off tenured faculty. The nearly 150-year-old institution on Chicago’s South Side could close as early as March 1 without state money. Layoffs and furloughs have been announced at Eastern Illinois University and Western Illinois University as well.

As the stalemate in the General Assembly continues, programs for low-income students such as the Monetary Award Program, which provides grant aid to nearly 125,000 students in the state, cannot be funded.

Abigail Tochalauski, a sophomore from Peoria studying anthropology and communication studies, said she “would be stuck in a cycle of poverty” without the MAP grant.

“Uncertainty; that’s the overwhelming feeling I associate with the lack of funding toward the Illinois MAP grant,” Tochalauski said, adding she is living proof of the program’s success.

Democrats in the Illinois Senate moved a bill through both houses last month that would provide funding for MAP and operational costs for community colleges statewide. Although the bill did not include operational costs for public universities, Dunn applauded the measure for putting higher education front and center.

“We think [MAP recipients] need to be in line first as this crisis gets resolved,” he said.

Dunn said it is still unclear whether or not students who were awarded MAP grants for the previous school year will have to repay them out of pocket. SIU fronted about $15 million for MAP grants through fall and spring, but it is unlikely the university would be able to do so again.

“I think we would be hard-pressed to do one more semester of full funding,” he said.

Dunn said he will be in Springfield next week for Rauner’s next budget address. 

Bill Lukitsch can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 536-3329.

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