Listen to this article

CHARLESTON — Seven months after the end of Illinois' state budget impasse, Eastern Illinois University is still reeling from deep cuts and sweeping layoffs — though a revitalization plan has given hope to many that they'll get their jobs back.

As of now, though, Renee Kerz, AFSCME union president for EIU, said people still haven't adjusted to changing schedules, double or triple workloads and the absence of some of their friends and colleagues after about 400 people were laid off.

"The workload on some employees really takes its toll," Kerz said. "The hardship was left to the ones that stayed. There's more work for them. A lot of job descriptions got combined. It really brought people's morale down."

Jon Blitz, president of the EIU University Professionals of Illinois chapter, said there's not much union leaders can do to get workers rehired. When he started, he represented close to 600 employees, now it's just over 400. All he can do now, he said, is "pester, cajole, shame and embarrass" EIU's administration and protest as much as possible.

Enrollment numbers at EIU — which were falling even before the budget crisis — follow the downward trend of other public universities in the state, though it was hit the hardest. Enrollment in fall 2014 topped at 8,913 and dropped to 7,030 in fall 2017. The biggest loss, over a thousand students, came during the budget impasse between fall 2015 and fall 2016. It's a gloomy trend that the state's other "directional" universities, such as Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, have experienced.

The University of Illinois has caught some of that diaspora. Between spring 2014 and fall 2017, the Urbana campus received just under 100 applications from former EIU students, public records show.

From enrollment alone, EIU lost between $15 million and $20 million in revenue in two years. And the lack of a budget for fiscal year 2016 stripped the university of about $30 million in state funding. It went from a budget of about $47 million in fiscal 2015 to just $12 million in fiscal 2016.

In June 2017, Moody's Investors Service downgraded EIU's credit rating. Though the outlook for building new facilities is far in the future, as interim budget director Paul McCann suggests, the current credit rating appears to be a deterrent to investors.

The decision, Moody's said in a credit opinion, reflected a "highly stressed financial position" and said its overall outlook on the university was negative. Even with a state budget, "the timing of payments to the university is highly uncertain given the state's payable backlog." Because the state budget did not backfill for prior years, Moody's said, EIU will "likely be unable to restore its liquidity to prior years' levels."

When the budget finally came in July 2017, EIU, like other public institutions, received 10 percent less state funding than in fiscal 2015, before the impasse. It meant the university would not be able to hire back as many of its former staff. According to McCann, the budget impasse showed that the university ought to keep more money on hand. He's not confident the state Legislature will deliver another budget.

"I don't want to say that everything is back to normal, because it's not," McCann said. "We're not going hog wild. We're not just going off and seeing how many people we can hire back."

Kerz said less than 50 building service workers and clerical and technical staff — the workers she represents — have been hired back.

But it's not all doom. The impasse, McCann said, allowed the university to be introspective.

"It made us look at ourselves," he said. "We have become more efficient and better at what we're doing."

Through the Vitalization Project started in fiscal year 2017 — which looked at possible improvements the university could employ — McCann and EIU's administration came down to a bottom line: listen to the students, and get them jobs.

The university went through a reorganization of its curriculum that eliminated two majors and created 17 undergraduate and graduate degree plans. The university also expanded online and hybrid courses from just a handful to 14, and in fall 2017 experienced a 77.62 percent increase in the number of nontraditional students compared with the previous year.

The most popular new program has been criminal justice, which previously was a minor under the sociology department but is now the second-most-requested degree plan at the university, McCann said.

Neuroscience, too, has gotten increased attention from prospective students. Many in the freshman class of 2017 signed up for a psychology degree knowing the neuroscience degree plan will become available in 2018.

The university's education program, which was the purpose of the university when it was established as the Eastern Illinois State Normal School in 1895, also got some attention.

"We're hopeful (Illinois) kids will start sitting up and paying attention that we have a very strong school in teaching right in their backyard," McCann said. "We can put some of those kids back into Charleston schools, back into Mattoon schools and Champaign schools where they came from. Keep them in the area, keep them in the region."

The university has been getting good news, too. Its spring-to-spring enrollment went up 5 percent over last year. Officials called it a tremendous step.

"We lost enrollment, and it's because we didn't listen," McCann said. "And we think that by listening and making some of these changes, things will be improved."

To gather interest into a "revitalized" campus, McCann said there has been a marketing "blitz."

Josh Norman, associate vice president for enrollment management, has worked in his position for about a year and is in charge of the lighting search for recruits. The administration handed him 49 recommendations to boost enrollment for the university. He said he has gotten through to 36.

Compared with only two lonesome EIU billboard advertisements in the state last year, the university now has 108. It has bought 30-second video spots at movie theaters throughout the state and placed ads on popular apps. Norman's office is also looking for untapped markets out of state, offering scholarship opportunities that have returned applications from neighboring Wisconsin, Indiana and Wisconsin and out to Texas and Alabama.

"We're investing at light speed, and it's super-comprehensive," Norman said. "People tell me, 'You're sprinting a marathon; you're going to kill yourself.' But that's what it takes to change the culture and inspire people and put together the infrastructure necessary, so that, ultimately, it will result in increased enrollment some day."