Legislators question Easter over meeting costs, raises, tuition
SPRINGFIELD — There was no legislative honeymoon for University of Illinois President Robert Easter during his appearance before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Easter didn't testify before the panel last year; his selection as the UI's president came about 10 days after his predecessor, Michael Hogan, was grilled by the same committee about issues ranging from administrative costs and salaries to a "no-confidence" vote by faculty members.
Easter's first appearance before the committee wasn't as bracing, but it was less friendly than the receptions, also Thursday, given to the presidents of Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Governors State universities.
He was asked about the high cost of meetings by the university's board of trustees, about a $1.1 million increase in salaries for top administrators and about continued growth in university spending even as state appropriations are cut.
Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, noted that while state general funds support to the UI has plunged by $163 million since fiscal year 2002, the UI's income fund — composed of tuition and fees — has increased by $783 million, or 288 percent, during the period.
"Certainly some of that tuition increase is due to cuts from the state," Murphy said, "but I'm not sure it's fair to say that all of it is."
Easter said enrollment at the UI has increased by abut 10,000 in that time and part of the revenue increase "reflects the increased number of students paying tuition. There also are associated costs with that that have to be offset, so it's not necessarily a net gain."
Murphy also asked where the UI is making budget cuts this year.
"There are a number of areas that we are eliminating or shutting down," including the Institute of Aviation and a vice chancellor for public engagement position, both in Urbana, Easter said. He was unable to provide a dollar figure for the cuts. But he said that overall spending at the UI would increase about 2 percent for the year beginning July 1.
Murphy, who in the past has criticized the UI for spending about $20,000 for each board of trustees meeting, targeted that expense again on Thursday.
"Is that still about what you're paying per board meeting?" he asked Easter.
"The board has asked us to be very careful to reduce those costs," Easter said. "I think the number probably is about the same."
"It's a small line item," said Murphy, "but it's one of those things that when constituents are paying the tuition we're talking about look at that and they think 'I'm basically paying for a board meeting. If I'm scrimping and make this payment to send my kid to this school, are they scrimping for what is essentially a volunteer position at the board level?'"
Easter cited the cost of getting trustees to and from the meetings, producing minutes and supportive details, streaming video coverage of the meetings, and other expenses.
"I'm comfortable with what our board costs are. We do have an opportunity for donors to meet with board members at a reception prior to each meeting," Easter added. "We've found that that is important to building relationships that lead to additional funding. So yes, that shows up as a board cost but it's truly a part of our development and fundraising efforts."
Democrats on the committee focused on salary increases for top UI administrators, including raises from $430,000 to $512,000 for Urbana campus Chancellor Phyllis Wise and an increase for Easter from $388,000 to $450,000.
"I could go on and on but it is a $1.1 million increase, just for the top 10 salaries," said Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Manteno. "I was hoping, because you talked about the loss of faculty in certain critical areas, that those increases could probably pay for three additional faculty members."
Easter said his raise came because he had been an interim president. Some of the other raises, UI officials said, were either because of promotions, or were comparisons between partial-year salaries and full year salaries.
"There are good explanations," Easter said, firmly defending Wise's increase. "The chancellor at Urbana that was hired is a member of the National Academy of Medicine. We attracted her out of the interim presidency at the University of Washington. She is a national figure that attracts the kind of faculty that we need to have on that campus to be a world-class institution."
In his testimony to the committee, Easter said inflation-adjusted state support to the UI is now at 1965 levels, that the state owes the university $480 million, and that the number of tenure-stream faculty at the Urbana campus has declined 13 percent in the last 10 years.
He pledged to hold the line on tuition increases, to ramp up private fundraising efforts and to continue cost-cutting.
"But to maintain our excellence and our competitive position, we also need your direct financial support and help in cutting through regulatory red tape wherever possible, to be more efficient and better stewards of the state's assets," Easter said. "It has been said that it takes many generations to build a great university, but only a few years to bring it down."
Also Thursday, all of the university presidents said they would be willing to gradually take on the pension costs that historically have been borne by the state government. That — shifting the costs to local school districts and colleges and universities — is one of the controversial aspects of pension reform measures being discussed in the Legislature.
"The institution should have some skin in the game," said ISU President Al Bowman. "If the cost shift was phased in over a period of time so we could adjust, we could make it work."
Easter agreed, saying "that we will accept a cost shift if it is over time. It would be difficult for us to take a hard shift of that over a single year."
SIU President Glenn Poshard said, "We know we've got to have a stable pension system and it's going to require sacrifice from everyone across the board."