State university presidents go back to Springfield for budget hearing

Cassie Buchman , News Editor

University Presidents went to Springfield for a budget hearing Thursday, this time in front of the House-Appropriations Higher Education committee.

According to an article in the News-Gazette, Eastern President David Glassman spoke on staff cuts at Eastern, as well as the interfund borrowing and deferred maintenance that has come as a result of the now more than two-year long budget impasse.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed budget for Eastern gives the university a $36 million appropriation, but the university’s trustees request about $10 million more, as stated in the News-Gazette, which would refill depleted reserves and pay for campus repairs and maintenance as well as laboratory and equipment purchases.
Eastern’s reserve fund is now down to $3 million, whereas it had $27 million two years ago.
Richard Wandling, chair of the political science department, said these budget hearings are a standard part of the political process, with legislators reviewing new recommendations the governor has made for the upcoming fiscal year-but this has not been a normal budget process.
“One thing that is true is that presidents of public universities are spending a lot more time in Springfield in the current cycle than what they traditionally would do,” Wandling said.
There are multiple reasons for this, he said, including the fact that regional public institutions such as Eastern have been experiencing challenges under the budget impasse.
Eastern took major hits last year, Wandling said, and while it is in the news less these days for fiscal challenges, the situation is “still quite dire.”

In the News-Gazette, Glassman was quoted as saying that Eastern started the budgetary impasse “extremely lean,” and has only made itself leaner.

“We are so efficient that we are inefficient at this time,” he said at the hearing. “We have cut beyond where we need to cut in order to have our services at the appropriate level.”
Glassman said in an email to The Daily Eastern News that the university will continue in this state until lawmakers and the governor return to providing stable appropriations to the university, which would allow it to recall employees to fill critical positions currently vacant on campus.

A cynical way of looking at these budget hearings would be that they are not much more than “political symbolism,” Wandling said, however, from a strategy standpoint, university presidents need to explore every avenue possible to get the word out on the severity of the budget situation.
These hearings provide an opportunity for universities to get this message out to the media or even legislators themselves and bring the issue to the attention of the broader public, he said.

Exposing these issues does not come without its own risks, though.
Wandling said by speaking on these problems, the idea that that public universities are experiencing difficulties gets picked up by the media and in turn, parents of high school and community college students.

However, if university officials do not speak on these challenges, there is an assumption that universities do not need as much funding.
“The unfortunate reality is it’s almost a no-win situation for public university presidents,” he said.
During the hearing, Glassman mentioned how “public relations issues,” i.e. the budget impasse, have hurt Eastern’s enrollment, as it has caused a lack of confidence with some parents of potential students.
“I and others continue to hear how some parents and their prospective students are looking more closely at possibly going to universities and colleges outside of Illinois,” Glassman said. “They are concerned about the state not funding their public universities and colleges at an appropriate level.”
Glassman said he has only heard from concerned parents a couple of times this entire year, though, which is substantially less than what he heard last year.
Parents have noticed that the state has been given Eastern and other public universities stopgap appropriation, he added, and they are reassured that Eastern will continue to provide an educational experience to its students.
Josh Norman, associate vice president for enrollment management, said while it is hard to keep track of perception, in a College Choice survey conducted last year, students cited the condition of the state of Illinois as a reason they were choosing out-of-state institutions for the first time.
“There isn’t the confidence when you have the sort of inaction that is taking place in Springfield, there isn’t the same confidence in education in the state of Illinois,” he said.
The inaction of the state does not impact the quality of education at Eastern, Norman said, which is a message they are continually relaying to prospective students.
This includes what sets the university apart and making sure when students visit the university they engage in a personal relationship with a faculty member or admissions counselor.
“The way you do change that perception is you make sure the positive narrative is heard over and over and over again,” Norman said. “All that’s in the air doesn’t matter when you’re able to make a personal connection with a student.”
The problem, he said, is that the opportunity for this personal connection is not always there because if a student decides they are going out of state and does not even apply to Eastern, the university will not even get the opportunity to tell that narrative.
To combat this and get the message out in a broader sense, Norman said they are working with the recently chosen advertising agency Thorburn Group to reshape the public perception and sharpen the university’s brand.
Admissions director Kelly Miller said families are concerned with what the state is doing to higher education in general.
However, she said families see that Eastern continues to serve students, so she has not been hearing those concerns.
“As crazy as it is, this is like the new normal, which we don’t want the state to think that that they can just not pass a budget for years,” she said.

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