Town Hall meeting glimpses ‘vibrant future’

16-townhall-0922-rb-05Despite significant challenges in state funding and enrollment, NIU President Doug Baker expressed optimism Thursday for a “vibrant future” at the university.

Baker’s hopes are buoyed in a campus-wide commitment to improve recruitment and retention, to transforming the undergraduate experience and to the Program Prioritization process to align mission with resources.

Speaking to in-person and online audiences at a town hall meeting, Baker first outlined the tremendous financial pressures on NIU and other public universities in Illinois.

“Last year, our budget was reduced in the appropriation category to $26 million. That’s a 71 percent reduction. Not good,” Baker said.

“The legislature called that $26 million a stop-gap budget. We got through it. I guess it stopped the gap. But it was not the budget we needed. You cannot sustain higher education anywhere in the state with that level of budgeting.”

Another $48.3 million was appropriated for NIU as a partial-year budget for the current fiscal year; those funds carry through December.

While some statehouse observers are optimistic about November elections and a fresh legislative session with new lawmakers next spring, Baker acknowledged that many uncertainties remain in Springfield.

“Here’s what we’re telling the legislature: ‘Seventy-one percent is not good. That’s harming all of higher education, and it’s going to have an impact that’ll echo for many years. Why don’t we take the 2017 budget – that half-year budget – and count it toward ’16, and you give us a full-year budget?’ That’s our story,” he said. “The odds of that, I think, are probably not very high right now.”

Illinois lawmakers must “shift the grand bargain” of the state budget, Baker said, by cutting expenditures across the board – not just in higher education – while boosting revenue.

“Everyone know we’ve got to do it,” Baker said. “We’ve just got to find the ground and get them to say ‘yes’ to each other.”

NIU clearly sees the need to make “some serious changes” and plan for the future, he said, and is doing just that. Baker asked all cabinet members to offer 5- and 10-percent scenarios of strategic spending cuts that protect the university’s core mission.

“Over the last three years, we’re reduced our expenditures by about $45 million. We probably have another $20 million that we need to have contingency plans for for further reduction so that we can get through this cycle and sustain us in a long-term way,” he said. “Enrollment is one of the places that we can effect our revenue.”

Creative ideas are working to grow admissions among freshmen, transfers, non-traditional students and international students as soon as next fall.

Projects under way include a stronger presence of transfer admissions counselors at six nearby community colleges, an NIU baccalaureate engineering program at Rock Valley College, talks with business and other organizations to offer in-house degrees and certificate programs and even thoughts of NIU recruiters overseas.

“We’ve got huge opportunities,” Baker said, “and I think we have a very vibrant future in front of us if we pursue them effectively.”

Related: Provost Lisa Freeman explains NIU PLUS during town hall

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