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Editorial: Tone-deaf university trustees test taxpayer patience

Editorial: Tone-deaf university trustees test taxpayer patience

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“As leaders of Illinois public universities, we strongly reiterate a commitment we made last spring to accept our responsible share of providing solutions to Illinois’ fiscal problems. We again urge you to act on a fiscal 2016 budget that provides public universities with a responsible, sustained and predictable level of support that would ensure all of our students can continue to progress academically.”

When university presidents sent that message to Gov. Bruce Rauner and lawmakers last year, we suspect many Illinoisans joined us in the cheering section. It was and is unconscionable that the state’s college students -- and so many other Illinoisans -- were so long held hostage to the political trench warfare between the Democratic legislative leadership and GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner.

As the budget impasse dragged on,  for example, at  least one public university faced the very real possibility of closure and at many others, teachers and staff were slashed to make up for the failure of the state to shoulder its financial responsibility for higher education.

Though lawmakers did at last endorse a stopgap spending plan, the damage done to many institutions will take many years to fix -- some may not survive. Meanwhile this year, enrollments took a hit or remained stagnant at most of the state’s public universities and many community colleges.

Some institutions will take decades to recover academically, if they ever do, from the brain drain experienced because of the budget impasse. Many students, without the financial aid they required to go to college, may never get back on track.

Many public higher education institutions still are doing what they can to soldier on in the face of continued political and economic uncertainty and to fulfill their presidents’ year-old promise to “accept our responsible share of providing solutions to Illinois’ fiscal problems.”

Huge bonuses in tough times

But there are notable exceptions. Consider, for example, the University of Illinois, whose president, Timothy L. Killeen, was the first to sign that October 2015 letter.

Recently, UI trustees awarded him a $100,000 performance bonus and gave University of Illinois at Chicago Chancellor Michael Amiridis another $75,000. That’s on top of their respective base salaries of $600,000 and $400,000. Ironically, trustees touted their leadership in responding to fiscal challenges which remain far from over in providing those huge bonuses.

At least President Killeen is expected to remain on the job. Over at Chicago State University, the board of trustees handed Thomas Calhoun Jr. $600,000 in severance pay as they showed him the door after just nine months at the university’s helm. The settlement agreement doesn’t allow either side to comment on why they parted ways, but the costly shake up comes as no surprise to those who are already footing the bill for the most expensive administration among Illinois public universities.

Adds the Illinois Policy Institute’s Mindy Ruckman, “CSU is the state’s leader in bloated university administrative costs, but this problem plagues state universities and colleges across Illinois. Between 2004 and 2010, the number of administrators in Illinois’ universities grew by over 30 percent, yet the number of students only grew by 2.3 percent.” Add the cost of generous administrative pensions, which also are boosted by bonuses like the ones mentioned here, and higher education administrative costs borne by taxpayers and students are staggering.

No, an extra $175,000 a year, or even an

extra $600,000 one-time payoff can’t fix what’s broken in the Illinois higher education funding. But the decision to provide bonuses to administrators already making huge salaries shows a disregard for taxpayers. It also suggests a disconnect between college leaders and the students and the people tasked with educating them. As Bob Bionaz, a faculty member who signed a  letter urging trustees to retain President Calhoun, said about the $600,000 settlement, “This university, I guess, can afford that, although we can’t afford a number of other things. It’s something I don’t think the taxpayers of Illinois will be happy about.”

The question is, when will they get mad enough to force state leaders to do something about it?


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