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.