Brady: University privatization bill not ready for hearing

 

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SPRINGFIELD — A former Republican candidate for governor has proposed turning Illinois' nine public universities into private, not-for-profit universities, and using the state appropriations they now get to make tuition grants to eligible Illinois students.

But state Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, admitted that his amended bill (SB 1565) is not ready for a scheduled hearing today before the Senate Higher Education Committee.

"It's not going to come up now. We're still working on it," Brady said Monday. "It's the last week to get it out of committee but it doesn't mean the issue is dead."

Brady, who was the Republican nominee for governor in 2010 and also sought the nomination in 2006 and 2014, said he wanted to "elevate the discussion" about higher education funding in Illinois.

"What is really the genesis of this bill is that when I was the Republican nominee for governor, I obviously spent time with university presidents, public and private, and really found two things that we're really trying to solve here," he said. "One is that the public universities told me how burdened they were by regulations from the Legislature, as compared to their private counterparts. My personal position is that we really ought to look at this because it may be the only way some of our universities thrive. I'm not saying survive, but thrive. We need to give them tools that would allow them to do a lot of things they just aren't equipped to do now.

"It also would hold students more accountable," he said. "If you get a (Monetary Award Program) grant today and you just quit after your freshman year or flunk out, we've essentially wasted taxpayer dollars without any accountability. So what this does is it takes the same amount of money that we spend on higher education, which has been depleted, and invests it in Illinois students to go to a place and holds them accountable. And it offers them an incentive to stay in Illinois."

'It elevates the discussion'

In budget hearings last week in Springfield, Republican lawmakers pressed university presidents about the value of winning relief from burdensome requirements, such as the state procurement code. But none had suggested making the universities private institutions.

"It's a discussion. A lot of people would probably be afraid to talk about what I'm suggesting here," said Brady, a 22-year member of the General Assembly and graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. "And my point is that someone's got to be willing to say, 'Let's talk about it. Is there a way that this can be a win-win?'

"I'd like to elevate the discussion and what I'd like to find out is: How much do the regulations on the state universities weigh on those universities? Are they worth it? When we invest money in grants to Illinois residents, how do we hold them accountable? And is this a way that some of our universities that aren't necessarily thriving — and by that, I believe they're losing enrollment — do they need their own private board eventually and maybe they can raise more outside private money. And so that's what this is all about."

Brady acknowledged that other Republicans have proposed less far-reaching reforms of the higher education system. Sen. Chapin Rose of Mahomet has a bill that would require MAP recipients to pay back the financial aid if they leave the state within five years of graduation. Rep. Reggie Phillips, R-Charleston, proposed that MAP recipients have at least an 18 on the ACT or a cumulative grade point average of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale.

"I don't pretend that my bill is the answer. I think it elevates the discussion. It could be the answer. I didn't draft it with the idea that it didn't make sense," said Brady, whose Senate district includes part of Normal, the home of Illinois State University. "Having represented a campus for almost 20 years, I think I know a lot about what goes on in higher ed, so I think I bring a background in this. But I'm not suggesting that this answers every question that needs to be answered."

Rauner not in loop yet

Under Brady's legislation, each of the Illinois public universities would transition to a nonpublic institution over a six-year period. A new governing board would be appointed, and "all books, records, funds and other property" of the university should become property of the university. The state would have no ownership interest.

State funds now appropriated to the universities — about $1.2 billion indirect appropriations this year — would be transferred to eligible Illinois college students in the form of grants that would be based on need.

Students who graduate in four years would immediately have half of their grant money forgiven. And for each year a graduate lives and works in the state, another one-eighth of the grant would be forgiven.

Students who do not graduate within four years or who drop out would have to pay back the grant over a 10-year period.

Brady said he isn't aware of any other case where a once-public university in the United States became private.

"I'm serious that we need to evaluate whether it's better off being private or public," he said. "I'd like every university to tell us what would happen if they did go private."

Brady said he hasn't discussed his plan with Gov. Bruce Rauner or any current university presidents.

"I didn't think that was appropriate. I intend to but I didn't want to put anybody in a spot," he said.

UI: 'News to us'

The veteran senator said he didn't consider proposing closing one or more public universities as an alternative.

"My whole idea is that they would grow and thrive in a regulatory-free environment," Brady said. "My goal is to motivate Illinois students to graduate and stay in Illinois while providing them with opportunities in Illinois that aren't there now and to give public universities the ability to compete and thrive and do the things they think they do best."

He said his plan calls for the state assets on campuses, such as land and buildings, to be leased to the universities themselves. The new universities would operate in the same manner as "private, not-for-profit universities" such as Bradley, Illinois Wesleyan and Northwestern, he said. They would not be sold to private, for-profit owners.

"My thought is not to have a DeVry or something like that. These would be private, not-for-profit schools," he said.

The University of Illinois is reviewing the legislation, said UI spokesman Tom Hardy.

"We're always happy to have a conversation with Senator Brady and anybody else about how best to make higher education accessible, affordable and excellent," Hardy said. "Senator Brady's bill was news to us, not something the U of I had been aware of. So, we're reviewing it, probably will have questions about its feasibility, and would look forward to discussing it with Senator Brady."

Columnist

Tom Kacich is a columnist and the author of Tom's Mailbag at The News-Gazette. His column appears Sundays. His email is tkacich@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@tkacich).

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