CHICAGO — At what was supposed to be an appropriations hearing, University of Illinois officials were asked about a host of issues aside from the university's proposed $705 million general funds appropriation for the year beginning July 1.
President Michael Hogan and Chief Financial Officer Walter Knorr were grilled about administrative costs and salaries, graduation rates, in-state enrollment, tuition costs and tuition waivers, potential Medicaid cuts and overall affordability.
As difficult as the questions were, they weren't as tough as last year's Senate appropriations hearing in Springfield when Hogan, in his first appearance before a legislative committee, was asked to justify his $620,000 salary, and the UI was hit by senators for the high cost of monthly meetings of the board of trustees. That meeting went for well over an hour, while Monday's session, held in Chicago and with only a handful of the 12 committee members present, lasted less than 45 minutes.
No vote was taken Monday on the "no-increase" general funds appropriation recommended in Gov. Pat Quinn's budget.
"The governor's appropriation recommendation for the university for the upcoming fiscal year is for flat funding," Hogan said. "While we greatly appreciate the priority this shows for higher education, I continue to have concerns."
Those concerns, he said, include the $349 million owed the UI in unpaid vouchers — state payments are about six months behind schedule — and the possible effect of a $2.7 billion cut in Medicaid spending in Illinois next year. That would have an impact on the UI Hospital in Chicago where 39 percent of patients pay with Medicaid.
"The concern we have is that this is another uncertainty to add to our list," said Knorr. "It frankly puts us on the edge of our seat because there's not much detail yet on how that's being cut. But frankly any Medicaid cut, you can see by that payer mix to us, would be very detrimental in a very narrow operating margin at the hospital."
Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, asked whether the university was taking part in the "shared sacrifice" that other state agencies were experiencing.
Hogan said that administrative costs had been slashed $30 million in the last 14 months, and that faculty and staff had received their first raises this year in three years.
"I can only say that all of the salaries are benchmarked, they're compared to comparable positions at peer institutions around the country," Hogan said. "They're fixed to help us compete for those very talented people."
Trotter also asked Hogan to explain what he called "a no-confidence vote" given his administration.
"There hasn't been a no-confidence vote," Hogan corrected. "There was a letter written by 114 faculty dealing with certain issues as the university but not a ..."
"So 114, that's not a significant number?" Trotter said.
"Even one is too many for me," Hogan said.
Hogan was asked about his salary. He responded that he ranked 77th among top university presidents "even though I am partly responsible for overseeing one of the largest and most complex and I'd say most distinguished public universities in the country."
Although senators asked questions about a number of potentially controversial topics, such as tuition waivers and in-state enrollment, there was little followup discussion on any of them.
Sen. John Mulroe, D-Chicago, asked about the debt burden facing UI graduates. In 2010, Knorr said, the debt averaged $19,000 per student which was second-lowest among Big Ten schools.
"Something's gone wrong," Mulroe said. "When I was going to college you could work a job and actually pay for an education. There's no way a kid can get a job and pay for a college education now. Something went wrong at some point. I don't know what it is."
Asked after the hearing whether he had been tempted to remind Mulroe of cuts in state support to higher education, Hogan just smiled.
In earlier hearings with other university presidents, senators asked whether they would agree to take up some university employee pension costs. Hogan was only asked after the hearing.
"I don't think there's any way we can pick up that whole cost," Hogan said, although he added "we understand we have to do our share."
He acknowledged the "uncertainty with pensions is making it harder and harder for us to recruit faculty because they don't know what their pension is going to look like."