Sunday, February 28, 2016



I’m really happy right now that I don’t work in Illinois.  

The governor there, a Republican, is locked in a stalemate with the Democratic legislature.  The result is that public higher education in Illinois, both community colleges and state universities, has been stiffed by the state.  Zero state support has reached campuses, even as promises to third parties and mandates from the state continue unabated.  Both sides want cuts, but they disagree on the magnitude, so they’ve “compromised” on complete funding collapse.  

That sort of thing happens for a month or so in many states, but this has gone on since last summer, and it shows no signs of a quick resolution.  Apparently, talk of backfilling foregone appropriations is being treated as a pipe dream; the money that hasn’t arrived, likely won’t.

For the record, I’d love to be wrong on that.

Unsurprisingly, the state universities seem to be in worse fiscal shape than the community colleges.  I attribute that to the presence of local funding for community colleges; as far as I know, there’s no local funding for the state universities.  (I might be wrong in the context of Chicago State; I’m open to correction on that.)  When you have three major funding streams, rather than two, the loss of one is cushioned a bit.  But if the stalemate goes on long enough, we’ll start to see community colleges doing what the state universities are doing.

From an administrator’s perspective, it’s a colossal nightmare.  Chicago State has sent out a raft of layoff notices to all employees, including the president, and cancelled Spring Break so it could wrap up the Spring semester (and stop paying employees for Spring) sooner.  Southern Illinois University is in “full-on fiscal triage mode,” according to its president, and looking to cut tens of millions of dollars from a budget that had already been cut badly.  

What makes it a nightmare, beyond the obvious, is that they have remarkably little agency, but will be held responsible for whatever happens.  Some have already declared “financial exigency,” which allows for the layoff or termination of tenured faculty and staff.  Even if the money comes through in enough quantity, and early enough, to say “never mind,” you can’t un-ring that bell.  Illinois is still heavily unionized, and I expect that the unions will be watching like hawks for any procedural irregularities.  

Worse, the funding shortfall is essentially collateral damage from a political battle, meaning there’s no way of knowing the exact size of the problem.  It may end tomorrow, or it may go into next year.  There may be some backfilling, or there may not.  It’s hard enough to make choices about where to cut when you know the target figure; when you don’t, it’s a shot in the dark.

The universities have consumed their reserves.  That’s a much bigger deal than many people seem to realize.  For most colleges and universities, payroll fluctuates much less over the course of the year than revenues do.  Full-time employees get paid over the summer, when tuition revenue is much lower than the rest of the year.  Colleges do great in August -- lots of tuition checks coming in, relatively little teaching going on -- and badly in June.  Reserves help to even out the cycles.  Take the reserves away, and even if the overall budget is balanced, there will be times when making payroll will take a miracle.  A certain level of reserves is necessary just to make sure the checks don’t bounce.

Even assuming that the governor and the legislature find their way to some sort of agreement, the damage already done will take years to undo.  (And that’s assuming they don’t make it worse next year...)  Employees who didn’t make the cut -- even if recalled -- will remember, and some will bear grudges.  Donors will be tough to court, since as a group, they tend to give to success rather than need.  Students may flee to safer, more stable options.  Star employees may do the same.  It’s likely that the employees who survive the cuts are facing a long term “new normal” of lower compensation.  

Adding insult to injury, everyone involved knows that at its root, the conflict is unnecessary.  This isn’t a natural disaster; it’s entirely voluntary.  It’s one thing to rally the troops around, say, a hurricane; it’s quite another to rally the troops around a battle of egos.  

My condolences to everyone in public higher education in Illinois.  In the short term, there’s no elegant way around this.  But thanks for making the rest of us feel better about our own states.  

Scary, scary stuff. The fear of this sort of eventuality in my state is why I never, ever publicly criticize the nutty elected officials who are willing to let this sort of thing happen. Their egos are only overshadowed by their vindictive nature. What have we become when fear of reprisal tamps down our willingness to speak out in opposition?
Illinois resident here. I am concerned that the governor is right, that the state needs to break its unsustainable habit of spending money now that it might have sometime later. The government has been spending dysfunctionally (and bipartisanly) for a long time. What is transpiring now might be better than Illinois waking up one day to find there's literally no way to obtain enough money to pay salaries, pensions, etc. Nevertheless, it is absolutely shameful that the most vulnerable populations are the first to suffer when these sorts of things transpire.

(And furthermore, I live in DuPage County. Do you want to place odds on whether my high-school sophomore will have a cc to attend, for dual enrollment in two years?)
I taught at Illinois State University for 7 years (1980-87), and, while this is extreme, the state legislature has been dysfunctional for decades. And so has the governor's office, with three or four (in my lifetime) having experienced periods of confinement with free room and board. I suspect a lot of people voted for Rauner on the reasonable expectation that he was rich enough not to be on the take. What has happened, though, is that he has tried to do exactly what he said he'd do--strangle state government spending. So I am, actually, unsurprised by this impasse. And I am glad that my retirement does not depend on the Illinois teachers' retirement fund.
Illinois has some Issues.
The overdue pension liabilities, which is a big part of why the budget is borked, are indeed decades in the making. There are very, very important lessons there about how things get incrementally rationalized.
A lot of the political gridlock is a feedback loop of hostility between Chicago and the rest of the state (some of which is the product of the Chicago elites looking down their noses on "bumfu*k" Illinois and some of which is plain old ordinary Midwestern hatred of urban black populations).

I think too, it's actually kind of counterproductive how cynical people are about Illinois Government. I realize having the Governors end up in jail will do that, but speaking as a current Michigander, I'd rather deal with someone who ended up in prison over attempting to sell a senate seat than have someone who is still in office despite poisoning kids with a potent neurotoxin.
To the extent that community college students receive the Monetary Assistance Program grants (MAP Grants, in usual Illinois-speak) the community colleges are having to advance money to their students. Community colleges get resources from local property tax collections, county by county. But that doesn't stop some community colleges from engendering ill will by administrators engaging in expense-preference behavior (College of DuPage is egregious.)

There's plenty of blame to go around, particularly where Chicago State is concerned, but several of the other state universities, including the one I used to work for, have done things that might antagonize legislators and voters.
Anonymous at 8:09: Illinois is already finding itself unable to pay its salaries and pensions. That's why universities and colleges have no money and the pension fund continues to be underfunded. The governor and legislators are exacerbating the situation with their ridiculous posturing and inaction. What was once a "problem" for the state is now a "crisis." Of course, the legislators still get paid and reimbursed for travel and have health insurance unlike the hundreds of dedicated higher education professionals who have lost or will lose their jobs in the near future. Don Coffin, Rauner also ran on a pro-education platform - not that I believed that he was actually pro-education. Like all politicians and corporate puppets (God help all of us in education in Illinois, because Rauner is BOTH), he does what he says he will do when it suits his purposes and doesn't do what he says he will do when it doesn't suit his purposes and then blames someone else (Madigan - who I stipulate is not blameless) for his inability to follow through on his "promises." Becca, thank you for your recognition of the Illinois that exists south of Chicago; we are tired of being ignored. To be clear, I don't blame Chicago area institutions for this situation. I do blame the governor and legislators for illogically attributing behaviors and characteristics of a few institutions/systems that happen to be in the Chicago area to a whole sector, especially when a large segment of that sector is in a geographic area with markedly different demographics and economics. Stephen Karlson, while some institutions may have acted antagonistically, many others - including my own - have not; and yet, we all pay the price. Yes, Illinois needs to do better; asserting that destroying higher education in Illinois is a necessary means to this end is beyond ridiculous.
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