CHAMPAIGN — Faced with Gov. Bruce Rauner's surprise plan to cut their state funding by almost a third, Illinois' public universities are preparing to argue such drastic reductions would be a mistake while also mulling what to do if they're enacted.
The 31.5 percent cut Rauner proposed as part of his budget address Wednesday is part of the Republican governor's starting point in what will be months-long negotiations with Democrats who control the General Assembly. But university administrators fear big cuts, even if they are successful at pushing back.
"It's so Draconian that to walk it back some still leaves you in a bad place," said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and an expert on public university funding.
After his address, members of Rauner's budget team said the Republican governor believes public universities are better situated to absorb deep cuts than many other state agencies because they have other sources of revenue. Though they are state institutions, state funding for universities been dropping for years. Most of their funding comes from other sources, such as tuition, donors and federal research grants.
School administrators point out that that most of that money comes with a requirement that it be spent on particular research projects or in a specific academic department.
A STARTING POINT
Illinois State University President Larry Dietz sent a message to his campus in which he called Rauner's plan "disturbing news." The state signaled earlier this winter that universities should prepare for cuts of about 20 percent. But in an interview, Dietz stressed that he believes schools can negotiate more manageable cuts.
Next month leaders from the state's public universities will formally make their cases during hearings in Springfield, but lawmakers who hope to push the governor's proposal back have started talking, too.
"I think there is some common ground we can find here," Sen. Scott Bennett, a Democrat whose district includes the University of Illinois' Urbana-Champaign campus, said Thursday. Bennett said he had already started talking to other lawmakers, Republicans among them, with public universities in their districts.
What university administrators said they'll stress to lawmakers is their economic role — as educators of a workforce but also creators of jobs themselves through research that leads to new technology and new companies.
"Those research dollars are jobs," McPherson said. "That's key to drawing industry and economic activity to the state."
It's a role Rauner himself has emphasized, as recently as Jan. 29 in a speech at the University of Illinois. But at the same speech he said universities will need to look at their own budgets and "deal with the bureaucracies."
The schools, while saying they're already looking for places to cut, argue the cuts they made during the recession limit what's left to trim.
"There's not a lot of low-hanging fruit left," Western Illinois Budget Director Matt Bierman said.
If Rauner's proposed cut does survive the budget process, it would mean a 3 percent bite out of the University of Illinois' $5.6 billion budget, but smaller, less-affluent schools would be hit harder.
The $52 million Western Illinois University gets from the state this year makes up 39 percent of the Macomb school's $132.5 million instructional budget — the money that actually pays for classroom instruction, Bierman said. Rauner's budget would cut Western's appropriation to $36 million, taking away about 13 percent of the money the university uses to educate students.
And Western, he added, isn't in a good position to raise tuition — something some schools say would be inevitable under the governor's plan — without locking lower- and middle-income students out.
WHAT COULD BE CUT?
Most administrators said that at 31.5 percent, they'd have to cut beyond Rauner's idea of bureaucracy and are already planning for it.
At Southern Illinois University, President Randy Dunn suspects some academic programs might have to go, in humanities and social sciences, areas that don't heavily generate grants and other outside funding. Extension-type programs that work with small businesses and local schools could be cut, too.
At the University of Illinois, larger class sizes are one possible way to save money, University of Illinois Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre.
At Illinois State, just about everything, including job cuts, would have to be considered, Dietz said.
"If we're looking at this 31 percent reduction, clearly employment here would have to be considered," he said.