CARBONDALE — If the budget stalemate in Springfield goes on any longer, Southern Illinois leaders warned, the consequences will be dire.

Southern Illinois students, administrators and community leaders gathered Tuesday morning to urge Illinois lawmakers to fund public higher education as soon as possible. February marks community colleges and universities’ eighth month without state funding.

The group of speakers represented The Coalition to Invest in Higher Education, a recently formed advocacy group whose organizers plan to host similar events across the state in the coming weeks.

“We know what’s ahead for all of us if this doesn’t get figured out,” said Randy Dunn, president of the Southern Illinois University system. “This is the dark side of this, and we see school after school coming to the precipice of that cliff.”

The event came on the heels of grim news from some of the other state institutions. On Monday, officials at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston announced 198 layoffs of civil service employees. Macomb-based Western Illinois University is firing 30 faculty members in an effort to save $2 million.

And at Chicago State University, lack of funding may force the university to shut its doors as early as March.

Dunn said he doesn’t anticipate any additional cuts at SIU this year (the university announced $13.5 million in reductions at the start of fall semester), but if a state budget doesn’t come through soon, that may change.

“We’re about ready, as this great state system, to start walking off the edge of the cliff,” Dunn told about 80 community members, reporters and staffers who had gathered at the Stone Center.

Gov. Bruce Rauner’s upcoming budget address on Wednesday, Feb. 17, will prove telling, Dunn said. If the governor again proposes a 31.5 percent cut to higher education, more cuts may be on the horizon at SIU.

Rauner has said he hopes to root out overspending in the public-university system and arrive at a balanced budget in advance of an appropriation for universities and community colleges.

At John A. Logan College in Carterville, leaders have announced a series of layoffs that staffers fear could leave 1/4 to 1/3 of faculty without a job. Larry Peterson, the community college’s interim vice president for administration, has said cuts and layoffs must total $7 million if the college has any hope of keeping money in the coffers past January 2017.

To much applause from the audience gathered Tuesday, Ron House, JALC’s interim president, urged Springfield lawmakers to do their duty. “Destruction,” he said, quoting another administrator, “is not an acceptable method of reform.

“The first thing that we do to be accountable is follow the law,” he said. “We adopt a budget. It’s required by law. The governor would do well to follow the law.”

Still, House and Dunn said funding MAP grants, state-sponsored aid for low-income students, should be top priority for lawmakers. While both SIU and JALC have pledged to front students’ grant money this semester, other institutions can’t afford to.

About 130,000 students statewide were set to receive MAP, or Monetary Award Program, funding this year, with the average award hovering at about $2,700.

Abigail Tochalauski, an SIU sophomore from Peoria, was one of several students to speak Tuesday morning in support of MAP grant funding.

Growing up, Tochalauski said, “The only certainty was uncertainty.” Her parents split when she was in first grade. Her mother passed away several years later. Even with MAP grant funding, Tochalauski works 19 hours a week to help pay her way through SIU.

Still, it’s worth it. Higher education, she hopes, will lead to a life of financial stability.

“I am proof that the tax payers’ dollars are not going to waste, that through funding the MAP grant, the state government is making it possible for students like me to achieve a future where dependency is unnecessary and uncertainty is left to the lottery,” Tochalauski said.

Dunn echoed her sentiment. An “incremental dismantling” of the state’s university system, through year upon year of cuts, does a disservice to Illinois’s future.

“We’re an investment, not a cost,” Dunn said.

sarah.graham@thesouthern.com

618-351-5076

@SHalaszGraham​

0
0
0
0
0

Sarah Graham is a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan covering higher education and Union County.

Load comments