Defending EIU: We are not your Whipping Boy

On March 11, Dr. Kai F. Hung of Eastern Illinois University spoke about the importance of funding Illinois public higher education.

You can view his comments here:

Below, Dr. Hung writes about the current challenges faced by Eastern Illinois University.

Currently, EIU is facing 2 separate, but inter-connected sets of problems. The first one is the threat of having to close our school due to a lack of appropriated fund from our state. The second one is the crippling consequences to our institution as we continue to be deprived of state support.

The first problem is entirely a political problem, unrelated to money or revenue. We are facing the possibility of having to close our schools even after eliminating over 250 positions at EIU because we have not received any appropriation from the state. This is happening because Governor Rauner refuses to compromise on a budget without forcing his Turnaround Agenda items through. Since part of the agenda is to eliminate the bargaining rights of public employees, I support the Democrats for standing firm against it and not letting Governor Rauner kill public employee unions in Illinois.

The second problem is structural and persistent, starting in the early 2000s before Rauner was even a factor. Both Democrats and Republicans contributed to the creation of this problem. To wit, the bill sent to Rauner for signature, which he vetoed, contained a 6.5% cut to higher education. That is the structural and persistent problem. The current crisis at EIU is often attributed to the budget shortfall in Illinois, where we are taking in less revenue than we need. The reasoning goes that the whole state is suffering, and public higher education needs to do its share of helping the state find a way out of the financial crisis. In addition, the declining enrollment at EIU is cited as justification for the lack of funding.

Both of these notions are wrong.

Divestment is the opposite of investment, i.e., it is the withdrawal of support from an enterprise. Divestment is what the state of Illinois has done to EIU in the past 12 consecutive years. After adjusting for inflation, the state of Illinois is providing 68% of what it appropriated for EIU in the year 2000 (Figure 1). This decline began in 2004, and has continued apace relentlessly, regardless of enrollment level during those years. For instance, the highest enrollment of student FTE (full-time equivalent) for EIU was 11,002 in 2006. That year, Illinois appropriated 15% less than the 2000’s budget, even though the enrollment was 14% higher.

Figure 1

 

The state did not respond to the rise in enrollment in the following budget year (2007), either, and in fact appropriated only 84% of 2000’s budget level. Without a doubt, Illinois’ policy in funding EIU has been to reduce its contribution without regards to our enrollment numbers.

When taken as a percentage of total revenue for EIU, the state’s contribution declined over time, going from 33% of EIU’s revenue in 2000 to merely 17.5% in 2014 (Figure 2). At 17.5%, the state is paying a little over 1 part in 6 of EIU’s operation. This is what passes as supporting a public university in Illinois. Despite the falling state support, EIU stabilized the percentage of tuition and fees in our revenue to make sure that the state’s divestment will not further impede Illinoisans from attaining a college education. We even managed to lower the percentage of student contribution to our operating cost in the last two years.

Taken together, we can see that EIU has been buffering the decline in state appropriation and managing to provide affordable education to Illinoisans. We believe in our mission and we believe in the future of our students. We put that belief into action by absorbing the cuts and divestment while still delivering quality and award-winning education. This is the picture that the public does not see, because our politicians are busy convincing them that we are inefficient and unproductive. The truth is the opposite. Since we refuse to let our students bear the crippling burdens of these political decisions, we ended up shielding the politicians from being held accountable for abandoning public higher education. Instead of being rewarded for this, EIU is suffering in public opinions because most people do not know the full extent of the state’s appropriation policy.

Figure 2

This set of facts also puts to rest the notion that public higher education has not done our part to help with the budget problems. The data showed that EIU has been using less and less public resources, while still delivering quality education. We have done more than our share in helping Illinois recover.

It is unfair and unwise to balance the entire budget on the back of public higher education. It is unfair because we have already contributed much to the solution and it is the politicians who squandered our contribution.

It is unwise because destroying public higher education will eliminate an important factor in bringing well-paying jobs to Illinois. The destruction of public higher education will have immeasurable rippling effects on local communities and our state’s economy.

In addition, to adjust for declining enrollment, EIU has been making cuts before Rauner’s creation of the budget impasse in 2015. The number of faculty and civil service employees has both declined, following the enrollment numbers (Figure 3). If the Administrative and Professional staffing level had decreased by the same percentage as civil service and faculty staffing level, EIU would be very close to keeping a constant ratio of total staff per student FTE throughout the years. Worth noting is that despite this trend in A&P staffing level, according to the Auditor General’s report in 2013 on the entire University System, EIU has the second best ratio of FTE students served per Administrator and the lowest cost of administrators per student when compared to all the other state universities. This means that EIU is responsive to the enrollment numbers and that we have taken steps to adjust our staffing decisions accordingly. Therefore, low enrollment is not a valid reason to impose further cuts to the EIU budget.

Figure 3

What we can take away from these facts are:

  • Illinois has been paying less and less to support EIU over the years, dropping its support by nearly 50% when compared to the year 2000.
  • The drop in state support is not tied to enrollment numbers.
  • EIU has shouldered and absorbed most of that cut while keeping the tuition and fees for students balanced and steady.
  • EIU has kept pace with enrollment figures in terms of staffing level.
  • EIU has done our part to help solve the budget imbalance throughout the years.

What this means is that further cuts to EIU’s budget, whether it is 30% or 6.5%, are unreasonable. Illinois does have a budget imbalance issue, but we cannot, and should not, solve that imbalance on the back of public higher education. We have done our part and more. It is time for Springfield to own up to the accumulative effect of their past mistakes.

A whipping boy is someone who is punished for the mistakes of others, with the notion that the original culprit is too precious to bear the consequences of their errors. Springfield, listen to us: EIU is not your whipping boy.

Sources:

  1. Student FTE enrollment figures and EIU staffing figures are obtained from the Office of Institutional Research at EIU. Link: https://www.eiu.edu/ir/index.php
  2. Annual revenue, state appropriation level, and tuition and fee figures are obtained from the Illinois Auditor General’s reports. Link: http://www.auditor.illinois.gov/Audit- Reports/EASTERN-ILLINOIS-UNIVERSITY.asp
  3. Comparison of staffing level to other Illinois public institutions is taken from the May 2013 report by the Illinois Auditor General titled “Illinois Public Universities: Management Structures, Expenditures, and Salaries.”
  4. Adjustment for inflation was performed using the Consumer Price Index from the U.S. Department of Labor.
  5. All charts are prepared by the author using Microsoft® Excel.