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Baker Report: Weathering the political storm

January 22, 2016

Photo of the Illinois State Capitol in SpringfieldAs we return to our critical work of teaching and learning this week, national media attention is focused on our state’s budget crisis and its possible impact on Illinois higher education.

In spite of the severe challenges for some schools, let me reassure you that NIU will fully operate through the fiscal year. When I wrote similar words Nov. 4, they came with the optimism that our elected leaders in Springfield would finally resolve the budget impasse that now has stretched into a surprising seventh month.

My sense today is that there will be a workable state budget resolution sometime this spring. We hope the budget bill will pass fairly soon in advance of the March primary elections. If not, it likely will pass later in the spring as the impact of the political stalemate becomes more obvious and the continued operations of some of our fellow community colleges and universities is threatened.

I am confident that the members of the executive and legislative branches of our state government understand the importance of higher education. I also believe that Illinois will not cross into a second year without a budget. The consequences are far too dire to state and local economies and the social fabric of Illinois.

Last week, I joined my eight university presidential counterparts in sending an urgent letter to Governor Rauner and all of the members of the Illinois General Assembly. Our message issued a clear warning of the catastrophic results of prolonged gridlock while it also detailed the benefits of our shared purpose.

The benefits of higher education are abundantly clear at NIU where we proudly provide excellent academic experiences that include transformative opportunities for hands-on learning and mentoring; where we’ve held the line on tuition, fees and room-and-board for the last three years to remain an exceptional value; where our economic impact on the region is conservatively estimated at $900 million each year; where our outreach activities transform Illinois; and where our cutting-edge research and artistry transform the world.

Graduation Winter 2015In the case of NIU, we are well positioned to continue to fulfill our important mission in the face of the state budget standoff for a number of reasons:

  • We have carefully managed our money, and our austerity measures over the last few years have helped us to build the critical reserves that now sustain us.
  • We have adopted new budget processes over the last two years guided by transparency, clarity, strategic alignment and sustainability, and we are working to implement a five-year budget cycle to better plan for the future.
  • We have been implementing strategies to increase our student recruitment and retention, which are beginning to show early signs of success.
  • We also are undertaking program prioritization, which will help us to better align our resources with our mission for long-run success.

But the most important reason that we are well positioned to succeed is because of the loyal and hard-working faculty and staff who are dedicated to our keystone goal of Student Career Success. That dedicated work has been done over a period of years when our operating budgets declined and wages and salaries have been frozen. Our students have been well served in the face of significant challenges, and I’m deeply grateful for that. As soon as the state budget is clarified, we will address compensation challenges as best we can.

To address questions you might have about the budget, or other matters, members of my cabinet and I will host a town hall meeting in mid-February. We will announce the date and location soon. Please join us if you are able.

Thank you for your dedicated efforts on behalf of NIU.