Presidents of three state public universities told lawmakers Thursday that GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposal to cut higher education funding by nearly $400 million would lead to significant setbacks at campuses that would reverberate for years.
The officials from Western, Southern and Eastern Illinois Universities told a Senate panel that the cuts — a 31 percent reduction in state funds to each school's budget — respectively, to each of their could not be offset by drastic tuition increases, a move they feared would drive down enrollment and essentially force the schools to function as private entities.
"We will not put this on the backs of our students," Eastern Illinois President William Perry said. Calling next year's proposed $13 million in cuts for the university "too much to swallow all at once." Instead, he urged lawmakers and school officials "to reason together for the fiscal year 16 budget."
If such a budget was passed by lawmakers, Perry said the school would do its best to adapt — paring down student programs and services and cutting as many as 250 faculty and staff positions.
"It's going to be tough, but the key is that the long term effects of this are going to be the most significant," he said. "Four or five years from now, you would see some more difficult effects in competing for faculty, competing for professional staff."
The $400 million in higher education cuts — roughly 31 percent — are part of the governor's $32 billion budget proposal presented last month. The plan aims to bridge a $6 billion budget gap — next year without raising taxes. Along with higher education, Medicaid would see a $1.5 billion cut under the plan, and state aid to child welfare programs and local government funding would be significantly reduced, among other areas.
Rauner has said that universities will need to look at their own budgets and have built up staff, along with bureaucracies over the years, noting he will give them flexibility with the cuts. But the university officials said Thursday that the plan would cut the institutions to the bone marrow.
Southern Illinois University President Randy Dunn said a proposed $44 million cut to the Carbondale campus and another $20 million cut to the university's Edwardsville campus would jeopardize some of the school's "signature majors" including its flight school and pharmacy program. Dunn said the reductions could also force as many as 1,000 course sections to disappear.
"If we don't see a mitigation of what has been proposed, this budget will roll back our state support to a level we haven't seen in 30 years," Dunn said.
Western Illinois University president Jack Thomas said a $16.5 billion dip in funding for the school would not only prevent the school from keeping pace with other competing schools, but would also blunt the university's role as an economic engine for the 16 county region, which he said provided roughly $377 million in revenue annually. He urged lawmakers to "recognize the unintended consequences of such a drastic cut."
Rauner's proposal is merely a starting point in what is expected to be a months-long negotiation with Democrats who control the General Assembly, and top Democrats have signaled that it may be a difficult battle.
"From everything that I've heard from all the university presidents they think this the wrong way to go. These types of cuts will only lead to raising tuition, cutting classes or devastating the economic productivity of the regions where they're located," said state Sen. Dan Kotowski, one of the chamber's two appropriations committee chairs. "I agree with them. I think it's the wrong way to go. It's very damaging."