Movement uncertain following higher education hearing

Cassie Buchman, News Editor

Though Eastern President David Glassman and other state universities testified Tuesday in front of the Illinois Senate about challenges they faced as a result of the budget impasse, it is questionable what progress, if any, will come of it in the legislature.

Glassman said in an email he does not know the impact the testimony of university presidents will have on the Senate.

After speaking with many of the other university presidents, Glassman said they all share the same thoughts and concerns.

“We are hopeful that the work on a grand bargain will continue to take place in the Senate, and we are all concerned about any additional cuts being made to our appropriations,” he said.

When in front of the Illinois Senate Committee on Higher Education, Glassman was asked what could be cut to fill a $4.6 billion deficit in a budget proposal by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

In response, Glassman said Eastern has already reduced employees, administered furlough days and swept local accounts other than those restricted by bond covenants.

The funds swept were ones designated for repairs and maintenance, sidewalk and parking improvements, and building improvements, Glassman said.

Paul McCann, interim vice president for business affairs, said these accounts are considered to be local funds because the university holds them in its bank account. They come from a reserve account, he said, used to cover the university in a budget shortfall.

McCann said the hearing is just a part of the political process.

“They’re trying to establish their position,” he said. “Who’s for doing something, who’s against doing something.”

Sen. Dale Righter, (R-Mattoon), said he does not know that there is any movement in Springfield resulting from the Senate hearing, but there has already been negotiation toward passing a number of bills to balance the budget and provide economic reforms.

“One of my concerns is not just getting the needed funds out to Eastern Illinois University, but also whatever package that’s passed has to be a good deal for the taxpayers,” he said.

If the General Assembly is not able to agree on a full-year budget, Righter said it is likely a stopgap budget will be proposed.

“We’re not going to get it solved today or tomorrow,” Righter said.

Righter called the hearing a “poor imitation of masterpiece theatre.”

“We need to have meaningful conversations, not this,” he said.

His expectation, he said, is that the legislature will be working with universities to help find additional savings if need be.

“Everyone’s going to have to take a hit,” he said. “…That’s why you have conversations, (to see) if you can reduce the budgets.”

Philosophy professor Grant Sterling, vice president of the EIU-UPI, said the idea that the university could take more cuts without harming its educational quality is absurd.

Looking at the history of the last several years even before the budget impasse, he said, Illinois had already cut spending to higher education.

“We’ve had our budget basically slashed year after year after year,” he said.

Because of the impasse, Sterling said, there have already been drastic cuts.

“There are very few organizations that could make those kinds of cuts without severely damaging the quality of what they’re doing,” he said.

Sterling said if all legislators want is for universities to hand out slips of paper to people saying they earned a degree, it would only cost a few pennies.

“If what they actually want is a university education for the students that come here, then we can’t take more cuts without damaging that,” Sterling said.

During the hearing, Glassman mentioned the vitalization project as a way Eastern is helping to guide future efforts.

He said it is in the process of eliminating some lower-enrolled programs and creating new ones.

Sterling said he could understand why a university president would tell legislators they are cutting programs with lower enrollment to save money, but what they really need to do is tell legislators that the reality is more complicated.

“They should be saying hey, we’re an educational institution, some of these programs are absolutely critical to the education of our students,” he said.

In the email, Glassman said no final decision has been made on any of the programs being considered for elimination.

Cassie Buchman can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]