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Commentary: Illinois should fund an aggressive capital plan to help save its state universities

Commentary: Illinois should fund an aggressive capital plan to help save its state universities

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Editor's note: The following was submitted by University of Illinois President Timothy L. Killeen,  Northeastern Illinois University President Gloria J. Gibson, Chicago State University President Zaldwaynaka Scott, Northern Illinois University President Lisa C. Freeman, Eastern Illinois University President David M. Glassman, Southern Illinois University Interim President J. Kevin Dorsey, Governors State University President Elaine P. Maimon, Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas, and Illinois State University President Larry H. Dietz.

For too long, Illinois has been near the top of a list of states with declining population. Regrettably, many of our public universities are seeing the same outmigration as talented students go elsewhere for a college degree.

Nine of 12 Illinois public universities have declining enrollment, and nearly half of the state’s college-bound public high school graduates are enrolled at campuses in mostly neighboring states. Illinois is losing its future, literally. The impact is real, affecting not just our public universities, but also dragging down local and statewide economies.

To reverse the tide of outmigration by our state’s best young minds, lawmakers and the governor need to make a significant investment in higher education, including a “vertical capital,” or buildings, component. Our universities cannot be allowed to deteriorate further.

Funding to repair and upgrade existing buildings and to support new, state-of-the-art facilities is critical to ensure Illinois higher education remains at the forefront of the discovery, innovation and workforce development that drive a vibrant economy.

A capital plan would also create thousands of jobs and spur economic activity statewide. Projects supporting research and development would increase our universities’ prospects for new or additional federal and foundational research grants.

Illinois has gone without a funded infrastructure plan for a decade. Since then, the total backlog of deferred maintenance at our public universities has ballooned to $6.7 billion, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education. So while more than $2.1 billion in capital requests were submitted to the state this year for the most urgent needs at Illinois’ public universities, billions more are needed for repairs, renovation and construction.

This lack of a capital plan has forced some universities to shift funds away from their core educational missions to close the gap. Across the state, maintenance has been deferred, leaving buildings to deteriorate. Classroom and laboratory updates have not kept pace with changing technologies. Crucial projects have been delayed considerably or shelved indefinitely.

At Eastern Illinois University, faculty and students in the circa-1937 science building use tarps to protect research materials from leaky pipes and roofs, and the building’s outdated electrical system cannot support new, state-of-the-art equipment.

The University of Illinois System has more than $2 billion in deferred maintenance across its three universities in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield. The Southern Illinois University System has more than $1.1 billion in postponed fixes at its universities in Carbondale and Edwardsville. The majority of buildings at Chicago State University need complete roof replacement or major repair. An outdated heating system can’t compete with frigid temperatures at Governors State University.

And Western Illinois University is still waiting on appropriations for a performing arts center from a decade ago in Macomb, where they have not seen state-funded construction of a building since 1975 — the Malpass Library, in which book stacks are covered in plastic because the roof leaks.

Northern Illinois University has 10 academic buildings yet to undergo a first round of significant modernizations.

Illinois State University and Northeastern Illinois University each spend $4 million to $6 million a year from operating funds — money that otherwise could go to academics — to ensure buildings are safe and functioning. The fine arts complex at ISU has been waiting a decade for $52 million from the state for construction and renovations.

Facilities are a major factor in attracting quality faculty and students.

Without a capital plan, the crisis will only worsen. If you don’t routinely repair and renovate, the cost goes up. For our universities, that means continued disrepair, less funding for academics, sub-standard technology, higher tuition, and the unfortunate consequences of more students leaving Illinois for college.

As our public university buildings deteriorate, so, too, does the reputation for excellence these institutions have nurtured for over a century. The state should fund an aggressive capital effort.

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