Town hall meeting examines Springfield stalemate

Al Phillips
Al Phillips

NIU can survive through the fall semester without a resolution of the Springfield gridlock that has caused an eight-month state budget impasse, NIU President Doug Baker told a town hall meeting audience Tuesday.

But Baker doubts the “epic battle” between the governor and the legislature will last that long.

“They’re locked in this, and we’re stuck. We’re stuck in the middle,” Baker said. “Higher education, and many of the human services, are kind of caught in the crossfire.”

Elected officials in Springfield value higher education but are “struggling to reshape how the state is governed,” he added. Compromise will gain urgency when lawmakers begin to see programs in their local districts “fail” and “crumble in front of them,” he said.

“We’re in good shape,” Baker said. “We’re OK through the summer and the fall, and we’re going to get a budget. I can’t believe we won’t have a resolution by then.”

However, Baker and Al Phillips, vice president of Administration and Finance, made it clear that NIU’s current position has come only through careful preparation and management of the local budget as well as changes in the way the university operates.

At some point, they warned, a prolonged deadlock will mean that none of the state’s public universities can move forward.

For NIU, the difference in state dollars between today and year ago is $113 million, said Baker, who is adding in NIU’s $20 million crediting of MAP grants to the 5,700 Huskies who rely on them.

Yet cuts in spending, “vacancy control” measures, a cautious approach to using “our ever-more scarce resources” for “funding and doing those things most important to the university” and process reengineering have helped to save millions of NIU’s dollars, Phillips said.

The university already has trimmed spending by $15 million this year and is on track to slice another $15 million by the end of the year, he said.

Mike Mann
Mike Mann

“We’re scrimping and saving,” he said. “We’re doing all the right things. We’re taking all the right steps. We’ve actually been doing this for the last two years. We didn’t talk about it much.”

Administrators are working to implement a five-year budget planning process, Phillips added, and recently held a midyear budget review to keep everyone on the same page.

Meanwhile, as the Program Prioritization process moves forward to best align university resources with its mission and goals, he said NIU is “well-positioned and better-positioned” to provide student career success once the Springfield freeze finally thaws.

Baker and Phillips expressed gratitude to students, faculty and staff for their perseverance during difficult times and their dedication to the institution.

Recent surveys show that satisfaction levels regarding an NIU education are high among current students and alumni; many students who took part in the survey indicated they think better of NIU now than before they arrived, Phillips said.

“You’re doing a ton of stuff right here,” Baker told the audience, which numbered around 165 in person and nearly 150 online. “We’ll be a better institution when we come out of this on the other side.”

“Thank you for bearing with me while we tighten things up considerably,” Phillips added. “We are still supporting all of our operations. Things are getting done.”

Asked about increased compensation for NIU employees, Baker said his administration “will do whatever we can with whatever budget we get.”

“President Baker has made it very clear to me that it’s a top priority,” Phillips said.

Doug Baker, Al Phillips, Mike Mann, Lisa Freeman and Vernese Edghill-Walden
Doug Baker, Al Phillips, Mike Mann, Lisa Freeman and Vernese Edghill-Walden

Mike Mann, associate vice president for State and Government Relations, told the audience that he is monitoring the Springfield situation closely and keeping NIU’s voice in the conversation.

Senate Bill 2043, which is heading to Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk, would fund MAP grants but contains no money for public universities. SB2269 would provide all public universities with flat funding, Mann said, while House Bill 4539 would lower support to public universities by 20 percent.

We are all doing everything we can to advocate for all of you, for all of our students and for the university,” Mann said.

Vernese Edghill-Walden
Vernese Edghill-Walden

Executive Vice President and Provost Lisa Freeman and Vernese Edghill-Walden, senior associate vice president for Academic Diversity and chief diversity officer, also addressed the town hall audience.

Provost Freeman offered an update on Program Prioritization: Task force recommendations are expected by April 30. Those recommendations then will enter a review phase by a committee of students, NIU’s various shared governance groups and members of the university community.

Freeman said Program Prioritization, which Baker called “neither a reaction nor a solution” to the crisis in Springfield, will ensure that NIU is a “good steward of the public funds” through data-informed decisions.

Edghill-Walden said she plans to begin presenting NIU’s diversity plan to various groups soon as she thanked members of the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force for helping to shape that blueprint.

Upcoming initiatives include a Presidential Commission on Interfaith Initiatives, dialogues on diversity, a changed focus of the Committee on Multicultural Curriculum Transformation and campus climate surveys.

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