Editorial— Killing Illinois’s Universities: How Bruce Rauner Can Get Away With Murder
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2017 calls for a twenty percent reduction in funding for higher education. As SIU university-system president Randy Dunn wrote in his March 9 System Connection column, Rauner’s budget effectively will rip $46.5 million away from the entire SIU system, $22.856 million of which will come out of the Carbondale campus. (Dunn has revised these figures from his previous System Connection, which this writer cited in the last issue of Nightlife.)
In response, Dunn released a vision of what SIU will look like should Rauner’s budget pass the General Assembly.
In February, Dunn wrote in his System Connection column that state universities were in triage mode due to the budget standoff between the governor and Illinois legislature. The resulting financial stress has caused other universities to amputate rather than try to save limbs, and now SIU is forced to join them.
Dunn’s latest System Connection envisions leaving dozens of positions unfilled, cutting three-hundred student jobs, laying off 180 employees (including faculty), and eliminating the use of state funding for important university programs, including WSIU, the University Museum, Touch of Nature, the School of Law, and SIU Press. Dunn won’t even spare athletics— men’s and women’s tennis will get the axe.
By now all of SIU’s employees have looked over the details and tried to calculate whether they are on the layoff list. Those who think they’re safe are dead wrong.
It’s important to realize that Dunn’s plan deals with Fiscal Year 2017. This, however, is still Fiscal Year 2016, for which Rauner, a Republican, continues to refuse to sign a budget or appropriation bill until the legislature first passes his Turnaround Agenda, which largely consists of emasculating Illinois’s unions. So right now SIU isn’t facing a twenty percent budget cut, but a one-hundred percent elimination of state funding. And when the Democrat-controlled General Assembly kills Rauner’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget, as the governor has so far strangled this fiscal year’s, SIU will suffer a second-annual one-hundred percent cut in state support.
In other words, Dunn has designed the 180 layoffs mentioned above, et al., to deal with a far rosier scenario than SIU currently battles.
On the other hand, Rauner’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget remains only a proposal. With intense political pressure and outright electoral changes, the General Assembly can force a much kinder budget down Rauner’s throat, and none of those layoffs or other cuts will materialize.
In the last issue of Nightlife, this writer discussed the extraordinary levels of political involvement required to overcome Rauner’s vetoes. In particular, they required SIU’s unions to flex their considerable, but where the budget stalemate is concerned, thus far apparently atrophied muscles, and to do so in the political arena. (Nobody should gloat over the beatdowns that some of Rauner’s pet candidates took in last week’s primary— electorally Illinois is far from out of the woods. Complacency is for the doomed.)
Instead of rehashing that suggestion here, however, readers might ponder why Rauner thinks he can get away with gutting higher education. A recent SIU Paul Simon Public Policy Institute poll of Illinois voters generated stunning responses that offer some insights.
Only twenty-seven percent of poll respondents said they had lost jobs or that their jobs had been threatened by the state-budget impasse. Only ten percent said their local economies were hurt by that standoff. Only fifteen percent said they had been affected by cuts to higher education or cuts to the Monetary Award Program for low-income college students.
While eighty-four percent of Illinois voters say the state is moving in the wrong direction, only fifty percent disapprove of Rauner’s job performance. Somehow, the poll found forty-one percent who approve of Rauner. (Interestingly, Rauner’s approval and disapproval ratings both grew from last year as undecided voters came off on both sides of the fence.) In Southern Illinois, Rauner polled at only forty-nine percent disapproval and a stunningly high, clueless forty-three percent approval.
Those poll numbers indicate that a whopping number of Illinois voters live in complete ignorance about what state funds pay for and the impact of state-government activity on their jobs and daily lives, as well as the specifics of the budget standoff. The Simon poll further shows a public largely unaware of the damage caused by a governor who has held the budget hostage while trying to get the General Assembly to crush Illinois unions as ransom.
Clearly, the state’s university system— from civil servants and laborers to administrators and teachers— needs to do a far better job of educating not just its students but the voting public about what universities do, and the essential, beneficial services they and state government in general provide to all of Illinois’s citizens. (And that’s about to get far more difficult, since under Rauner’s proposed budget Dunn will need to cut the university’s marketing efforts.) Until they do so, the number of voters who care about the decapitation of higher education that Rauner has proposed will remain politically insignificant to him, and the governor will wield his scythe with impunity.