Editorial: Brad Cole’s Solution for State-university Funding

Editorial: Brad Cole’s Solution for State-university Funding
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Former Carbondale mayor Brad Cole is now working as the executive director of the Illinois Municipal
Chris Wissmann

Former Carbondale mayor Brad Cole is now working as the executive director of the Illinois Municipal League, an organization that lobbies state government on behalf of cities. Judging from a leaked memo from Cole to the leaders of Illinois’s largest public universities, the IML director is taking an appropriately expansive view of what is good for his local-government constituents: state funding of public universities.

After electing a succession of fools and knaves to the governor’s mansion, the state wound up dead broke. Republican Bruce Rauner, a vulture capitalist, beat the hapless Pat Quinn in the last gubernatorial election and has refused to sign a budget into law unless the General Assembly first approves his so-called Turnaround Agenda, which will gut union rights in Illinois and give huge windfalls to large corporations and the state’s most obscenely opulent. A detailed list of the casualties of the ongoing fiscal stalemate isn’t immediately pertinent to the following, but one item certainly is: Public universities in Illinois don’t know what, if any, appropriation they will receive from the state, which is now seven months into the fiscal year without a budget.

After serving two terms as mayor of a college town, Cole understands the economic ramifications of a budget war that has crimped off higher-ed funding. College towns, especially those with less-diversified economies like Macomb, Charleston, and yes, Carbondale, could quickly and irreversibly crumble if the state forces the universities in their boundaries to shutter, even for a short time.

Rich Miller’s Capitol Fax blog obtained and published sections of Cole’s memo, and stated, “I’m told the proposals received a ‘mixed’ response.”

Little wonder. First, Cole tells university leaders, who are used to getting their way, to push for only a partial allocation, because “The chance of getting a full twelve-month budget at this point seems very slim, and the fact that schools have managed thus far doesn’t help them in saying they need the full appropriation.”

He also calls for quick, decisive action, “without a university-style committee to slow it down forever.”

University types needn’t like the realities that Cole describes, but they reject them at their own peril— and, as the former mayor knows, that of their surrounding communities, too.

For all the good that Illinois universities do every day— more than it’s possible to enumerate in any human lifetime— politically, they are in a position to demand absolutely nothing.

And they’re out of time. If they don’t move now, they’ll die where they stand, and they’ll take their host communities down with them.

Cole, after asking universities to push for a partial appropriation for this year, along with full Monetary Assistant Program grant funding to soften the blow and help their least-affluent students, calls on state universities to flood Springfield with thousands of students to lobby the General Assembly and governor.

“I would do this a few days before either the State of the State Address or the Budget Address, but not too close prior or immediately after either,” Cole writes. “Put the story in the news about three days before the Governor gives his speech and make him and the legislative leaders react or account for it in all of their remarks. Timing is important and having the capitol under siege by students is critical; one busload of students from every university campus and community college would be overwhelming. The local chambers of commerce could pay for the buses and the student-government associations can coordinate from each campus; give everyone a T-shirt or hat or sign or something and set them loose in the capitol with the name and office location of their home district legislators.... [T]he organized chaos would be quite interesting and better than any AFSCME rally (and they know how to rally).”

Funding for some state functions continues to flow despite the lack of a budget, and that’s largely the result of court decisions that compelled Illinois government to pay up. Cole encourages Illinois universities or the unions that represent their employees to follow suit, as it were, and en masse, to at least get the state to reimburse universities for payroll and benefit expenses.

Cole concludes with two great suggestions. State universities, he writes, need to pitch in cash toward a public-relations campaign that promotes how higher education funding benefits Illinois residents. They need to make certain that, for example, every coal miner in Franklin and Perry Counties knows how their tax dollars have funded research at SIU that has made their jobs easier and safer. Every farmer in Bureau and La Salle Counties needs to know how tax-funded research at Illinois State and the University of Illinois has improved crop yields. And the state residents who hear those messages must feel motivated to call their legislators to support additional university funding.

“If every school, through their private foundation funds and not with state funds obviously, would contribute $20,000 or $50,000 or $100,000, there would easily be a couple million dollars to launch a comprehensive and immediate press/media campaign throughout the state and in targeted legislative districts to get attention on this issue. Radio, television, print, and social-media advertisements bombarding the issue would be impressive. That amount of money to contribute to this effort is minimal considering the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars the campuses are losing. Have everyone contribute, pick a major firm to handle it, and then let them go (without a university-style committee to slow it down forever) and get it done.”

(A suggestion that naturally follows, although Cole didn’t make it: Universities must inspire their alumni networks to apply political pressure by strategically applying or withholding campaign contributions according to the support they get.)

Last, Cole exhorts universities to look ahead to approaching budgets. Political realities being what they are, and universities being in no position to alter them (certainly not without implementing Cole’s public-relations suggestion), state schools will face large-scale funding reductions during coming years. Schools may prefer, Cole writes, to suffer the significant cuts they are willing to accept and not what the state forces down their throats. Meanwhile, universities must build the kinds of lobbying efforts and coalitions (such as the one Cole is attempting to forge between municipalities and universities) that in the future can exact state funding and not just beg for scraps.

Most of this talk, particularly about budget reductions, is not fun for any university official or employee— or Carbondale resident, for that matter. Perhaps not every one of Cole’s ideas is worth carrying out all the way, either.

But it’s go time. Before this issue hits the streets, Rauner will already have delivered the State of the State Address, and another major opportunity will pass.

Universities need to change, and now, because their present trajectory leads toward immediate, catastrophic failure. Those that bog themselves down in Judean People’s Front-style indecision might as well lumber off to La Brea for fossilization. (Monty Python fans might instead cite the People’s Front of Judea or the Judean People’s Popular Front.) And if they fail to hang together, our universities shall hang separately.

 

Those of us who live and die by the universities in our cities, meanwhile, would prefer options beyond the tar pits and the noose. Cole at least suggests a path toward a different future, and unless universities can immediately chart an equally effective alternate course, they must hop on board now.