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Public universities lobby for state investment in higher education

May 27, 2015
Presidents, board chairs, chancellors and provosts representing the state's nine public universities met with state leaders in Springfield Tuesday, May 26.

Presidents, board chairs, chancellors and provosts representing the state’s nine public universities met with state leaders in Springfield Tuesday, May 26.

Presidents and board of trustee chairs representing each of Illinois’ nine public universities met face-to-face with top legislative leaders Tuesday to urge support for higher education funding in the state’s fiscal 2016 budget.

University of Illinois President Timothy L. Killeen arranged the afternoon of meetings to make the case that proposed funding reductions for public universities would damage a key engine for the state’s economic growth and competitiveness.

“We understand the difficult decisions that legislators face this spring to put Illinois on the road to recovery,” Killeen said. “But investing in public universities is an investment in solutions – and in the future of our state.”

Public universities are large-scale incubators of the human capital that is essential to drive progress, presidents and board chairs said during a series of meetings with House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno and Michael Zolnierowicz, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s chief of staff.

Northern Illinois University Board of Trustees Chair John R. Butler was pleased to participate in the discussions with state lawmakers, noting, “competing budget proposals offer different levels of state investment in higher education and other important priorities.  It was important for representatives from each institution to join together at this critical time to promote the advantages of public funding of higher education.”

Combined, public universities in Illinois enroll nearly 200,000 students and send about 50,000 graduates into the workforce every year, “each and every one an economic engine for the state and beyond,” presidents and board chairs wrote in a letter that also was shared Tuesday with members of the General Assembly.

The letter cites a recent Economic Policy Institute study that found high-wage states are overwhelmingly those with a highly educated workforce. According to a 2014 U.S. Department of Labor report, workers with a bachelor’s degree earn 65 percent more than workers with a high school diploma. The earnings gap is nearly double for workers with a master’s degree and almost 140 percent more for workers with doctoral or professional degrees.

Universities also leverage state support by attracting more than $1.2 billion in external funding that supports the state’s economy today and fosters groundbreaking research-based innovation that creates the new businesses and jobs of tomorrow, the letter says.

The benefits go much further, higher education officials said. Public universities also provide the broad-based education in liberal arts and humanities that produces well-rounded, civic-minded citizens who go on to lift their communities and the state.

A budget proposal by Gov. Bruce Rauner would reduce funding for higher education by $387 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and legislators are working to approve a new budget before their scheduled adjournment on May 31.

“We must not compromise on the excellence of our institutions and of the education we provide to the citizens of Illinois through damaging and precipitous cuts in funding,” presidents and board chairs wrote in their letter to legislators. “We believe that maintaining a robust, sustained, and predictable level of state support for our universities is absolutely essential for the future wellbeing and economic prosperity of our state.

University officials attending Tuesday’s meetings with legislative leaders were Killeen, Chicago State University President Wayne Watson, Eastern Illinois University Acting President Blair Lord, Governors State University President Elaine P. Maimon, Illinois State University President Larry Dietz, Northeastern Illinois University President Sharon Hahs, Southern Illinois University President Randy J. Dunn, and two board chairs representing university presidents–Northern Illinois University Board of Trustees Chair John R. Butler, representing NIU President Douglas Baker, and Western Illinois University Board of Trustees Chair Cathy E. Early, representing WIU President Jack Thomas.

Last week, NIU President Doug Baker visited a number of legislators in Springfield, including State Representative Bob Pritchard and State Senator Dave Syverson.

“All are are deeply concerned about ways in which to balance the state budget situation and still meet the critical needs of the state,” Baker said. “In that context we discussed the higher education budget and critical state investment in students who will drive our future economy and build a strong state.”