Easter gets civil reception from state House
SPRINGFIELD — It was supposed to be a hearing about state appropriations to the University of Illinois for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
But that was among the things that weren't discussed by members of the House Appropriations-Higher Education Committee in their unusually early (7:30 a.m.) meeting Friday with UI President Robert Easter and other top university administrators.
While there were questions about faculty and student diversity, aging buildings and infrastructure, the future of UI's medical center in Chicago, how the university trustees are selected, and economic development efforts in Chicago, there were no questions about the UI's budget or about the issue that will most affect the budget this year: the state's pension funding problem.
The only mention of the budget came when Easter, in opening remarks, called state support "fundamental. It is the core upon on which we build everything else. This year it was $662 million and we simply ask that you continue to provide that level of support for us,"
Gov. Pat Quinn's budget recommends a $30 million cut. But neither the House nor Senate budget-makers have established their own spending levels.
And no one at Friday's hearing mentioned pensions.
"I think there's some sense that everything that could be said about pensions has been said," Easter said after the hearing. "Getting the pension issue resolved is important to so many things, and it's important to us being able to have a stable financial platform and to be able to recruit and retain faculty and staff."
Easter also said he was "optimistic" the issue would be resolved, although little progress has been made and the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on May 31.
Unlike the Senate appropriations hearing last month when senators grilled Easter on issues such as administrators' salaries, tuition and fee increases, the costs of trustees' meetings and whether the UI was being aggressive enough in cutting costs, the state representatives were polite and deferential to the UI group.
Among other issues:
— The UI's work on economic development projects in Chicago should not be viewed as a threat to the Urbana campus, he said in response to a question by state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana.
"There was a sense that there was a need for another platform for our faculty to engage more directly with private sector firms, and the notion emerged of something similar to AT&T Labs of the last century, where basic scientists were in conversation with people who had problems to solve," Easter explained.
Jakobsson said there were concerns locally about "moving more to the Chicago area," and asked, "Do you think this will have any effect on our campus research?"
Easter replied. "That question has been asked a number of times and ... as a longtime citizen of the Urbana campus, I think we can honestly say that we expect it to be a complementary program to what we have at Urbana, not a competing program."
— The university has "no position," Easter said, on legislation proposed by Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, that would allow the UI alumni association to appoint some members to the UI board of trustees. "We will be pleased to work with the board however the Legislature decides the issue," he said.
— The president said he was concerned that the UI's ability to "deliver quality education and conduct the kind of research that's necessary in the 21st century will continue to erode unless we address some of the deficiencies in our physical plant."
— There is no plan to abandon the UI's commitment to operating its medical center on the west side of Chicago, Easter said. "A number of our peers around the country have, in a sense, spun off their hospitals," he noted. "The question we continue to ask is how critical is the direct ownership of the hospital and the associated exposures, with changing medical reimbursement to us. I'm not prepared at this point to recommend any change in the model that we have."
— The future of higher education in Illinois will mean that "online delivery is something that will be used increasingly," he said.
"And I think there is some sense of a need for a very serious conversation about how and where higher education is going, and how we can support it as the state has less capacity to do that," said Easter, who added that the Illinois Board of Higher Education would be the appropriate agency to lead the discussion.
— The number of "underrepresented students" at the UI increased by 268 last fall, said Christophe Pierre, the UI's vice president for academic affairs.