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Students make their way to and from Schneider and Mae Smith halls on the SIU campus in 2016.

CARBONDALE — On June 4, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a full state budget for the first time since he took office in 2015, and leaders of Illinois public universities breathed a sigh of relief.

The $38.5 billion spending plan cruised through both chambers of the General Assembly with bipartisan support, offering public institutions secure appropriations and putting to rest fears of another state budget crisis.

But the unprecedented 2015-2017 budget impasse delivered a devastating blow to Southern Illinois University Carbondale at a time when it was already vulnerable, and the effects of the crisis are far from over.

Brad Colwell, now SIU’s vice president of student and academic affairs, was brought in as Carbondale’s interim chancellor in September 2015, a few months after the stalemate began in Springfield.

Throughout his term as CEO of the campus, he never saw a full state budget — his chancellorship officially ended June 30, 2017, just days before the Illinois House voted to override Rauner’s veto of a tax hike and get state monies flowing again.

“No one could have foreseen, and obviously no one did, that it was going to last this long,” Colwell said Thursday. “We kept looking at what we thought would be the appropriate predictive variables to when this might eventually fix itself, and it just kept going and going.”

The uncertainty proved increasingly difficult to navigate. He said his administration tried to prevent panic on the campus by dipping into — and ultimately depleting — Carbondale’s reserves and refraining from making “draconian” cuts whenever possible.

John Jackson, a longtime SIUC administrator and political expert, said the impasse came at a critical time for SIUC, as enrollment had already been suffering.

“We were both raising tuition and losing students, so it was a losing proposition both ways — that is, when you lose students, you lose that income fund revenue. We had already lost too many students at that point, and then the bottom sort of fell out and we started losing wholesale lots of students,” said Jackson, who is now a visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

By Jackson’s analysis, the two-year impasse left SIUC with about 41.5 percent of its normal budget.

“In other words, we lost 58.5 percent in higher ed over that two-year period. No big organization can reduce 58.5 percent of their base budget and not be hurt by it,” Jackson said.

Colwell said his administration worked to keep the public aware of the severity of the crisis while reassuring people that the doors would remain open and the crisis wouldn’t hurt students.

“How much do you share? It wasn’t a sense of trying to hide anything by any stretch — it was a matter of, do you tell the whole world just how bad it could be and is?” he said, adding that he had watched schools like Chicago State broadcast their fiscal woes publicly and suffer enrollment declines as an apparent result.

He expressed some regret about that strategy, saying that he didn’t feel the public understood the seriousness of the crisis by the time SIUC had to borrow $35 million from SIU Edwardsville near the end of his tenure as chancellor. (That loan could now be considered the germ of present conflicts between the two campuses.)

“I don’t know how many people were ready for that, prepared for that. We all knew it was coming, and we would show it to whoever asked. ... Yet I don’t know that the run-of-the-mill public, man-on-the-street kind of thing, fully understood that, you know, this was serious,” Colwell said.

‘Dollars and cents’

Last summer, days after Colwell ceded the chancellorship to Carlo Montemagno, the SIU Board of Trustees met in Springfield to go over a “financial sustainability plan” and chart a course forward in the aftermath of the budget crisis.

SIU had been allowed $178.8 million in state appropriations for Fiscal Year 2018, a 10 percent decrease from FY15, the last normal year before the budget crisis.

The university system’s state appropriations peaked at just shy of $250 million in 2002 under Republican Gov. George Ryan. After gradual state disinvestment in the 2000s, the FY18 payout was the lowest since 1994.

But after the grueling ordeal of the previous two years, university leaders weren’t complaining.

“No one cheers a 10 percent cut, but … we know where we are,” SIU President Randy Dunn said at the time. “It unfreezes things. It’s something we can work with. It’s sustainable. It’s predictable. We can do planning and implementation from that, and we’re appreciative of having it.”

The board-approved financial sustainability plan called for permanent budget reductions totaling $19 million. The biggest item was a strikethrough of all vacant positions, projected to generate $10 million in savings.

“I just can’t begin to tell you how it pained me — it was one way of trying to soften the blow by not laying people off, to great extent, but yet the number of positions that were left unfilled was fairly significant,” Colwell said. “... In a very short period of time, we had a lot of people scrambling, doing extra work, extra jobs without extra compensation, just being asked to do a lot more, and it took its toll.”

An April blog post by Montemagno stated that the university has about lost 500 employees and cut $31 million from its budget since 2014.

Colwell said the loss of faculty, staff and administration, in at least a couple of cases, “literally decimated an entire department because they all either left or took retirement, and they all choose to do it at the same time and go different places, and we weren’t in a position to do anything other than to just do the best we could to cobble it together.”

Colwell said the impasse prevented him from pulling the trigger on projects — sometimes board-approved ones — that needed to get done, such as the demolition of dilapidated buildings or purchase of airplanes for the aviation program.

Then there were other projects that never had a chance.

“That was probably the other thing that hurt more than anything, is that we wanted, obviously, this campus to grow and prosper — who wouldn’t? But yet there just wasn’t resources to make it happen. So the outside world wouldn’t have known a lot of that, but there were a number of good ideas that people would bring to us that did get shelved. Those aren’t cuts, that’s just, ‘Man, that could have taken this place to the next level,’” Colwell said.

He characterized the lack of state budget as a major distraction for SIUC administrators and staff: It consumed officials’ time and kept them worried about their jobs.

“There wasn’t a day, and usually multiple hours within a day, when it wasn’t ‘budget.’ It wasn’t sitting down to try to do forward-thinking, strategic thinking about the next academic program ... we were literally trying to figure out dollars and cents and making sure we had payroll, and when would the reserves run out,” Colwell said.

Next year’s budget

The FY19 state budget saw general fund appropriations of $182,372,400 for the SIU system, a 2 percent increase from last year.

In an emailed statement, Dunn said he was “deeply appreciative of the vote of confidence for the Illinois public university system” represented by the increase.

“And the importance of also getting a capital bill this time, to finally start moving forward on some badly needed state-funded campus projects which have been backlogged for years, cannot be overstated either,” he said.

Dunn also had praise for the new AIM HIGH program, a $25 million merit-based aid initiative, and for the boost to the Illinois Monetary Award Program, known as MAP grants — now they’ll be funded for four years instead of one.

But SIU and other state universities are still “playing catch-up” in recovering from the budget crisis, he said.

“As we think about the need to build back our unrestricted reserves, ensure that we can properly maintain our physical and building assets, compensate our employees appropriately, and get our bond ratings back to investment grade — it is clear we cannot go back and repeat that history again,” Dunn said.

He said he was optimistic about the changes in the “narrative and dialogue” that took place during the spring legislative session.

“Specifically, a group of a dozen legislators led the way in effectively redefining the higher education discussion and viewing it more as an investment for the state — growing the economy and jobs, and better addressing the state's workforce demands — instead of just one more cost center or state function,” Dunn said.

State Rep. Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro, is a member of the House Higher Education Committee and cited SIU among her top concerns when she broke ranks with her party during the override vote last year.

“We’re working with limited funds, so it’s a step in the right direction,” Bryant said of the 2 percent increase Thursday, adding that the state still has a huge backlog of unpaid bills and pensions.

Bryant said she was excited about the AIM HIGH program and the changes to MAP grants.

“I think besides pouring money into higher ed, which we definitely need to go a little further with, we also have to start to focus on programs within those colleges and universities that meet the needs of Illinois students,” Bryant said.

Jackson said this year’s appropriation sets a new base for state funding, and although it’s in keeping with the general trend of state disinvestment, universities will have to learn to adapt.

“I think it will be the new normal, and we’re all grateful for the stability it provides ... so we’ll move forward, and if it keeps on being stable, we and other institutions will build on that new normal and make a go of it. And I’m certain that we will, unless we have another one of those crazy budget impasses or unforeseen economic catastrophe,” Jackson said.

janis.esch@thesouthern.com

618-351-5082

On Twitter: @janis_eschSI

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Janis Esch is a reporter covering higher education.

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