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WIU grapples with deficit while positioning for the future

Rich Egger

Weeks after Western Illinois University laid off three dozen faculty members, the administration is still working to eliminate a large operating deficit.

Meanwhile, faculty leaders say they want stronger communication from the administration and to be part of the decision-making process.

Interim President Dr. Kristi Mindrup’s goal is to present a balanced budget to the institution’s Board of Trustees this fall.

But there is a long way to go to meet that goal.

“Our deficit is right at about $20 million at this point,” Mindrup told Tri States Public Radio during a July 2 interview in her office.

The recent layoffs of 36 non-tenure track faculty will save WIU around $3 million. With a $20 million budget gap, and 80 percent of university expenses in personnel, TSPR asked Mindrup if that means more layoffs are in the offing.

“It’s too soon to answer that question because our team continues to evaluate and look at our financial situation,” Mindrup said.

“With the start of the fiscal year, we know that through those financial measures – including reducing costs, operational efficiency, looking for external funding, and focus on student retention – we know that we’re about 60% of the way there with the plans that are ever-evolving. And so probably within a month or so I would have a better answer to what degree these additional measures will affect personnel.”

She said they’re looking across the entire university to reduce costs and make operations more efficient, and that universities across the nation are doing the same thing.

Mindrup said Western can save money by not filling positions as workers retire or leave for other jobs.

She said they’ve also reduced the number of administrative positions. There are now four vice presidents instead of five, and she’s streamlined duties to reduce the number of assistant vice presidents.

Mindrup said the administration will continue to evaluate where it makes sense to consolidate programs, plus they’re reviewing various contracts.

“For example, previously we had looked at an outside consultant to look at our academic programs. We decided to discontinue that for a total savings of around $400,000 that we’ll be saving over the next two years,” MIndrup said.

That consultant was brought in under the administration of Western’s previous president, Dr. Guiyou Huang. He resigned after three years on the job. Mindrup took over as interim president in April.

‘They are suffering’

Merrill Cole, President of the WIU Chapter of the University Professionals of Illinois, which represents faculty, said he knew layoffs would be coming.

But UPI is not happy about them.

“We do not like what’s happened. We do not want our members to suffer, and they are suffering right now,” Cole said.

Cole said, for example, some who’ve lost their job are wondering how they will pay for their prescription medicine. He said UPI is doing what it can to help.

Cole Is not sold on the $20 million deficit figure.

“There are different ways of defining what a deficit is. There are different ways of defining how far behind we are. There are different ways of seeing what needs to be done,” he said.

Despite those differences, Cole believes he can work with Mindrup, and he is feeling some hope after the administration and UPI leadership met following the layoffs announcement.

“I think that everybody in that room is committed to building a better WIU. We don’t agree on a lot of things, and we certainly don’t agree about the layoffs. But I want to believe – I have every reason to believe – that we’re all trying to make WIU a better place, most especially for our students,” he said.

“For me, the most important takeaway is that we all need to be in communication, and that the administration needs to do a better job in communicating to our local communities.”

He said the WIU and larger communities should have been told cuts were coming.

“A lot of the economic activity, especially in Macomb, is based on the university. So, this is going to have a big impact. It’s already having a big impact,” he said.

Growing, not cutting

Cole and Julia Albarracin, Chair of the WIU Faculty Senate, both worry about students who are losing their favorite faculty members because of the layoffs.

Both said Western has a long-term mission of lifting up students and improving their social mobility.

“We are ranked nationally for providing an opportunity for social mobility. I think this unique niche that we serve will keep us in business for a long time,” said Albarracin.

She also said that even though overall high school graduating classes are smaller, some groups are seeing an increase.

“One example of that is the Latinx population. For a few years we’re going to see a growth in high school graduates of that population. Other immigrant background populations are also growing before they start declining,” Albarracin said.

She said WIU could benefit from working to attract students from those groups. She said in west central Illinois, Beardstown, Rushville, Monmouth, Galesburg, and Moline all have sizeable immigrant populations that WIU could draw from.

Albarracin also believes WIU should also try recruiting from families of asylum seekers coming to Illinois. Some of those families might have college-age children.

“In my research, I have seen that a major motivation for immigrants to come to the U.S. is not just better salaries, but a broader definition of improving the quality of life, and also improving the education of their family overall,” Ablbarracin said.

She said the current administration has been good at communicating with the Faculty Senate, but added senators were not invited to participate in the decision-making process.

Albarracin would like to see WIU have a mindset of growing instead of cutting, though she added that’s easier said than done.

A decade of struggle

Data from WIU’s FactBooks show how the university’s enrollment and workforce have dropped through the last decade.

Mindrup said the projected enrollment for the upcoming school year is between 5,500 and 6,000.

The drastic decrease in administrators between Fall 2018 and Fall 2019 is due to a reclassification effort by the State Universities Civil Service System.

WIU also saw decreases in its General Revenue Fund Appropriations from the state during the past 15 years. Western received more state funding in 2009 than it did this past fall.

The 2014-15 and 2015-16 FactBooks said FY2015 General Revenue Fund state appropriation would be $52,629,300. The 2016-17 Factbook said WIU received $51,445,200 in FY2015. Factbooks for the next couple of years said WIU received $51,465,200 in FY2015.

State funding for the new fiscal year

The General Revenue Fund Appropriation will increase 2% for WIU this fiscal year.

There might be other assistance coming from the state, according to Democratic State Senator Mike Halpin, whose district includes both the Macomb and Moline WIU campuses.

Halpin said for the first time in more than ten years, the state is funding a grant program that pays for Illinois veterans to attend college.

He said the state requires public universities to accept veterans tuition-free, but for many years it has not reimbursed universities for the associated tuition and fees.

“This year we put $6 million into the budget to partially reimburse those costs. And institutions like Western Illinois University are going to disproportionately benefit because of the number of veterans that we serve here,” he said.

Halpin said Western will also receive a $500,000 grant this fiscal year for recruitment and retention programs.

Further down the road, Western could benefit from a change in the way the state funds higher education.

Halpin said the state’s Higher Education Funding Commission is recommending something akin to what the state has done for K-12 education with an Evidence-Based Funding formula.

“Where we take into account more of the size of the school, the makeup of the student body, the needs of underrepresented students, rural students, and put those into a formula to make sure that we’re giving universities enough money to meet the mission, as determined by (the makeup of) the student body,” Halpin said.

He expects a lot of debate about the details once legislation is introduced, but he believes universities and other student advocates will support this type of approach. Halpin thinks it will result in more reliable and consistent funding.

The Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act for K-12 schools was signed by former Governor Bruce Rauner on Aug. 31, 2017.

The challenge is now

The evidence-based funding formula won’t help WIU with its current budget shortfall.

Interim President Mindrup said there are state and regional institutions across the country that have turned the corner. The administration is looking to them for ideas while recognizing it has until the end of September to present a balanced budget to the Board of Trustees.

“There are plans that you make when quick action is needed, and there are plans that you make when you have five years to plan. We want to do those simultaneously. While we need to address the immediate budget situation, we also want to position ourselves for a healthy future as well,” Mindrup said.

While the administration’s plan continues to evolve, they have not looked at furloughs as a way of saving money.

“We would like to look at measures that tend toward more sustainable practices. Furloughs really tend to be a more short-term solution,” Mindrup said.

“They may be something that we need to look at. It depends how our numbers shake out. But ultimately, what we’re interested in is decisions that are sustainable into the future that we can repeat year after year.”

WIU required non-negotiated administrative employees to take furloughs in the spring of 2016 during the state’s budget impasse, and furloughs were also required during Fiscal Year 2017 and Fiscal Year 2018.

Mindrup said the administration is looking to ensure sustainability within the reality of the enrollments that can be expected with a population decline.

“I think that’s one of the biggest nuances between our approach this time as in the past, is that we’re honestly and openly and realistically looking at what size Western Illinois University will be in the future,” Mindrup said.

She said they’re also looking to expand to new markets, such as adult students and workforce development.

Like Cole and Albarracin, Mindrup also emphasized the role Western has played and can continue playing in social and economic mobility for students.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.
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