CARBONDALE — We can’t do any more with any less: this was the takeaway from Monday’s Illinois House Higher Education Committee meeting at SIU.
The committee made the stop at SIU Monday to hear testimony about the effects of potentially shifting more than $5 million in funding from SIUC to its sister campus in Edwardsville. Controversy over this and his involvement in the decision is part of what set the dominoes in motion leading to Randy Dunn’s resignation as system president earlier this summer.
The brass tacks were laid out by Carbondale Chancellor Carlo Montemagno and many others. The Carbondale campus is fundamentally different than Edwardsville in many ways, but primarily because of its research institution status. This simply means it costs more to educate students, and seemingly fewer of them, than other campuses. There are other trade-offs though, they said, that elevate Carbondale and it’s faculty and students, making the added cost worth while.
Then there is the school’s age: at more than 100 years old, it simply costs more to maintain the facilities and deferring maintenance much more, Montemagno said, which could be detrimental to an already struggling infrastructure. Less money coming in would just simply not work was the overall consensus.
Committee chair, Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, D-Westchester, asked Montemagno when the last time the school was “adequately funded.” This drew a chuckle as Montemagno explained that there likely isn’t a university in the country that feels it is or has ever been adequately funded. With that said, he explained that in 2001 is “when things really changed.”
“We have disinvested in higher education in this state when we should have invested,” Welch said.
Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, doubled down on this. She said while the General Assembly has focused recently on fixing the K-12 funding model, it hasn’t kept its eye on colleges and universities.
Montemagno explained to the committee that it’s not just more money, but stable money. He said hiring an employee is a multi-year commitment, and it’s hard to do living budget-to-budget.
Toussaint Mitchell spoke during the student government panel — he the president of the SIUC Undergraduate Student Government. He gave an impassioned address to the committee about his love for the university and the SIU system. He, like the others, urged the committee not only to stop the funding shift but also not to push legislation that would actually split Carbondale and Edwardsville.
Mitchell said something is wrong when a budget is stretched so thin that sibling campuses are “at each other’s throats.”
When asked what specifically could help students feel more supported, Mitchell drew from his own experience. He said when he came to SIU he was on academic probation, but because of the Center for Academic Success, he was able to get on track with his classes and is now enjoying success at the school.
That program doesn’t exist anymore, though. He said bringing back things like this to help the disenfranchised students and applicants achieve greatness is something the school needs — and it needs money to do that.
Anthony Travelsted is president of the Civil Service Council and he was kind but did not hide some hard truths. He said in four years, because of a $31 million overall budget reduction, the university has lost 500 employees. He said currently there are 1,300 civil service employees at the school and this number is dropping. He reminded the committee that these layoffs affect not just one person, but entire families.
A panel of three local business leaders was next to provide testimony. They impressed on the committee how integral SIUC is to Southern Illinois.
George Sheffer said that while one company going under in Chicago is regrettable, it couldn’t even touch the impact of SIUC's continued decline, and certainly not its closure. He said this goes for separating the two campuses as well.
“If we separate it, we are not as strong,” he said of the university system.
James Karayiannis, owner of Pinch Penny Pub, went back to funding. He said consistency is key, not just for the school, but the community of businesses it supports.
“Uncertainty is like cancer,” he said, adding that now that the budget has been resolved, there is this looming question of whether the two campuses will be split or if the Carbondale campus will again have to find a way to absorb further blows to its budget.
Karayiannis likened the decision to siphon funds away from Carbondale based on its enrollment struggles to parenting. He said if one of his children is struggling more than the others, he should give that child more attention, not less.
The meeting was concluded with an opportunity for community comment. Likely the most poignant came from a student, Sean Cooney.
Cooney said he believes in SIU, the entire system, not just his campus, and he credits it for the man he has become.
“I think this university has given me everything,” he said. But, if things don’t change much, he’s not sure if he’ll get to remain a part of the SIU community after he finishes school.
“I don’t want to leave the region, but we will see how it goes,” he said.
The committee will visit SIUE Tuesday.