Wednesday, March 02, 2011

U of I and SIU consider flat funding levels

By Jamey Dunn

The presidents of the state’s two largest public university systems told an Illinois Senate committee today that their schools could live within Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget plan. Lawmakers still questioned them, however, on the costs of faculty and staff salaries, staff sabbaticals and tuition waivers.

Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard said the university system is not asking for more than the $220 million Quinn called for in his budget, which is the same amount of general revenue funds appropriated for the schools during the current fiscal year. That number is down from $234 million for fiscal year 2010. Poshard said at that finding level, the school would have to raise tuition rates. He said the cuts to state spending on higher education over the last decade have led to tuition increases and an erosion of SIU’s standing versus other schools nationally. “We have fallen into the second or third tier now.”

Poshard said some expenses, such as increased energy costs and pay raises built into employee contracts, cannot be controlled. “Spending has increased in some ways because we are required to pay our bills. … We’re not at liberty to just say, ‘We’re not going to pay our bills,” he said in what was likely a reference to the about $145 million the state owes the university for the current fiscal year.

Poshard said he anticipates more cuts to SIU’s budget before the end of this fiscal year, and he says if the state does not pay the money it owes, some cuts could come in the form of layoffs, which have been avoided so far. “About the only thing significant left for us are layoffs.”

Republican Sens. Chris Lauzen from Aurora and Pamela Althoff from McHenry both said the university should evaluate its sabbatical program, which offers faculty paid time off to conduct research.

Althoff said that although she thinks research is important, she questions whether SIU should be giving professors paid time off when the university is considering layoffs. Poshard said the sabbaticals are standard practice in higher education, and not offering them would put SIU at a competitive disadvantage with other schools in terms of research and recruiting faculty. “We think that that is worth it in terms of the products that these people come up with.”

University of Illinois President Michael Hogan said the budget the school system submitted asked for more than the $697 million in Quinn’s plan. However, he said he realizes that the U of I will not get more than Quinn recommended, which is the same level of general revenue funding appropriated for the current fiscal year and less than the $743 million in the budget for fiscal year 2010. “We’ll be happy if the governor’s budget is fulfilled. We’re grateful that he asked for it.” The state still owes the university system about $500 million for the current fiscal year.

U of I’s board plans discuss tuition rates at the March 23 meeting. Hogan said the trustees set a policy not to raise tuition above a cost of living increase, though they still have to decide how to determine a cost of living rate in terms of tuition costs. Hogan said if the legislature reduces the university's appropriations from Quinn’s proposal, a tuition increase may be larger than the cost of living number the board comes up with.

A plan to cut about $68 million from the U of I's budget could actually Substantial savings would come from consolidating some functions, such as information technology and human resources, that are handled separately across U of I’s three campuses, he said. The university does not plan to lay off staff in such consolidations, he said, though it may trim numbers through attrition. “[Students will] feel [these cuts] in some ways. We may have colder temperatures. We’ll have some trouble processing issues as fast as we want. But we’re picking those areas first and foremost because they’re business functions.”

Lauzen called into question Hogan’s salary of more than $600,000 and benefits such as a home and driver paid for by the university. Hogan said his salary and benefits are comparable to what other schools of U of I’s caliber offer. “I operate in a market, and in my market, that’s sort of the going price,” he said. “I didn’t come here for a pay hike. I came here because it was a challenging job at a challenging time, and I wanted to make a difference.”

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