Higher education is set to take a major hit in Illinois.
Following similar announcements by the Republican governors of Wisconsin and Louisiana, newly-sworn in Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner released what he called a “turnaround” budget, that would slash nearly $209 million from the University of Illinois.
“It’s time to make education our top priority again – and that’s what this budget does,” he told lawmakers Tuesday night, touting his plan to give about $25 million more to early childhood education. “With reform, we will be able to invest more in education and give our kids world class schools.”
But the “reform” in his plan would eliminate more than a third of the state’s contribution to the university system’s budget.
Art History Professor and United Faculty union member Therese Quinn at the University of Illinois at Chicago told ThinkProgress the cuts are kicking a school system that’s already down, as state funding has already declined by more than $37 million over the past 15 years.
“We’re already living in an uncomfortable and even unsafe environment,” she said. “Many of our buildings are in very bad shape. Scaffolding been around the administration building for years, basically holding it up. We have wonderful archives documenting the history of Chicago, but it’s so inadequately funded that the shelves are half empty and the place looks like it’s falling apart. Now we hear we’re facing new cuts, and the faculty and staff are wondering where is it going to come from.”
Quinn, whose own office has had a broken heater through three frigid Chicago winters, said she’s most concerned for the undergraduate students, a full third of whom depend on federal financial aid.
“That’s who he’s asking to take a hit: low-income people,” she said. “Some of my students work full time and go to school, and this will take opportunities away from them. There will be fewer scholarships, fewer TA positions. Fees will probably be raised, and they already can be in the thousands per semester. More of our students will graduate with obscene amounts of debt.”
As state support for the universities has declined over the past few years, tuition has gone up, applications have decreased, and fewer new students hail from Illinois. Programs and grants are already being eliminated, such as a doctoral fellowship at the Chicago campus through the Institute for Humanities.
Following the Governor’s announcement, University President Robert Easter wrote to his hundreds of colleagues: “We do not have the resources to overcome reductions of this magnitude without harm.”
But many on campus, including Jen Phillis with the Graduate Employees Organization, say they’re worried not just about the magnitude of the cuts, but how they will be distributed by the Governor’s hand-picked Board of Trustees. “The Board tends to balance its budget on backs of lowest paid employees while giving massive pay raises to administration,” she said. “This is largest cut we’ve ever seen proposed, and I’m sure it will disproportionately affect most vulnerable members of the community.”
Phillis, who is now in the 7th year of her PhD program in the English department, said the other parts of Rauner’s proposed budget will also impact students, especially a multimillion dollar cut to public transportation.
“Most of our students commute. We have a very small residential population,” she said. “These cuts will make it so much harder to make it to class, especially for those who help care for their families and have part time jobs. To me, it’s evidence that when Rauner put his budget together, he wasn’t prioritizing the needs of the middle class and and blue collar people who live in Illinois.”
Calling the university budget cuts one of several “difficult choices no one wants to make,” Governor Rauner stressed the importance of filling the gaping $6.2 billion budget hole the state faces in the coming fiscal year. His plan includes no effort to raise taxes, close tax loopholes or raise revenue in any way.
As the state legislature debates the Governor’s budget in the months ahead, the University of Illinois community is organizing itself to fight back against the cuts.
“The university is a fiscal engine, but it’s also a cultural engine and a social engine,” said Quinn. “People who graduate with better capabilities are able to better contribute to the state on all levels. When they are better able to earn a living and don’t have huge amounts of debt, when they’re working in better jobs and are more satisfied, those are the kind of people who make the state hum. That opportunity should be available to everyone not only the very rich, the children of the elite.”