URBANA — A Democratic budget proposal that would give public universities 82 percent of their 2015 state funding would avert major cuts at the University of Illinois, according to President Tim Killeen.
"That would put us back on our feet," allowing the university to pay its bills and focus on the 2017 budget going forward, Killeen said Tuesday.
But if lawmakers fail to act on a budget before the fiscal year ends Thursday, and the standoff drags into January and beyond, the university will be forced to announce significant cuts in mid-August, Killeen said during a meeting with The News-Gazette editorial board.
He's planning to send a general message to employees late this week or next week, based on what lawmakers accomplish in Springfield.
"I'm very optimistic," he said Tuesday.
Regarding the budget, Senate Democrats have proposed a bill that includes $1 billion for higher education, including $151 million remaining for Monetary Award Program grants. It would provide most public universities with 82 percent of their 2015 funding levels, and Western Illinois, Eastern Illinois and Chicago State universities — which have suffered more catastrophic cuts — would receive 90 percent. The money could be used to cover either 2016 or 2017 expenses.
Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed a more modest spending plan, and the two sides are at odds over funding levels for Chicago public schools.
A UI budget committee has been studying contingency plans since the budget impasse began a year ago, including the "worst-case scenario" — no budget through January 2017, Killeen said.
The UI has weathered the first year "reasonably well," Killeen said, noting that it still has relatively strong credit ratings and is used to dealing with a six-month backlog of reimbursements from the state anyway.
"The first year, we didn't cry wolf, but we could see eyes peeking over the hedge," he said.
"But another 18 months with that degree of uncertainty" would force the shutdown of programs, the "sweeping" of UI reserve funds and other serious cost-cutting measures, he said.
Asked whether any of those would be reversible, Killeen said, "It's very hard in academia to make reversible decisions, like Brexit," referring to Great Britain's vote to leave the European Union.
He's asked the chancellors to have plans in place by mid-August.
Tenured faculty would be protected even if their programs close, as their tenure is with the institution, he said. They could be moved to other departments.
"We've got a lot of people thinking this through," he said, adding that all decisions will be based on the principle of protecting students and the UI's "world-class" education.
Any decisions on a salary program for UI employees — most of whom have gone without raises for two years — will wait until the UI's funding level is determined, he said. Morale is an issue, with hundreds of administrative positions cut over the last year and concerns about talented faculty leaving the UI, Killeen said.
"If they pass something, we're in a much stronger position," he said, but emphasized that no decisions have been made.
Killeen said the UI hasn't reached a tipping point in terms of faculty flight, despite lots of "water cooler talk" about high-profile departures in recent months.
The UI is still recruiting more faculty than it has lost, he said, quoting figures showing 57 new faculty on the Urbana campus compared to 23 who've left.
He said he's talked with some of the professors who decided to leave, and their motivations vary. Some have access to new facilities that Illinois can't yet provide, such as a medical school. Others left for family reasons.
"People are anxious about the budgetary cutbacks, no question about it," he said, as well as the future of the state's pension program. "Our faculty are getting offers."
But he's wary of creating a "self-fulfilling prophecy."
"We've actually got a very strong institution, fiscally and intellectually," he said. "We can withstand this. We are very strong."
Universities are constantly trying to recruit faculty away from each other, he said. A top researcher gets calls from a headhunter about once a week, he said.
When Killeen was at the State University of New York, he drafted a proposal for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to "raid other schools." He had found that 100 top professors at SUNY brought in about $500 million in research funding; tripling that number would bring in another $1 billion. Illinois, Wisconsin and California-Berkeley were all seen as potential targets, he said.
He said Illinois is still seen as a place to build a strong academic career, with a collegial, interdisciplinary focus that's been in place for decades.
"We may not have the mountains but we have each other," he said. "It's like breathing here."
The danger is if people see the state not fulfilling its part of the bargain for years ahead, he said.
As the budget impasse drags on, "I am very worried about a loss of talent," he said. "If it goes on another six months to a year, I'm very fearful we will have an exit."
Killeen said he doesn't want to preside over a university that "used to be a great place."
But he cautioned against going into retreat mode.
"The enemy is complacency or hunkering down," he said.
Both the university and the state have had an "aspiration deficit," failing to tout the university's assets and focusing on "the last thing that went wrong," he said.
He touted the UI's new strategic framework, which bills it as "the public's university" and an economic development engine for the state and the entire Midwest — a rival to Silicon Valley, only more affordable.
Higher education provides the jobs in a knowledge economy, graduates who overwhelmingly stay in the state, a 19 percent return on the state's investment, and a $13 billion economic impact, he said. It's the future of prosperity for Illinois taxpayers, he said.
Killeen said he's received a list of finalists from a search committee for the chancellor's job at the Urbana campus. He would not say how many finalists are under consideration or whether interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson is among them, but said the position drew more than 30 "great candidates. It's one of the top jobs in the academy."
A decision is expected within the next month. The UI Board of Trustees' retreat and meeting is scheduled for July 20-21 in Urbana.
Killeen said he was disappointed by the recent vote of the American Association of University Professors to continue its academic censure of the UI in the Steven Salaita case.
"I don't think it affects who we are or what we do or how we go about our business," he said. "We'll just wait and see what happens next year."
The UI has always supported academic freedom, and administrators and trustees reiterated that in recent weeks, he said.
AAUP delegates were swayed by a UI professor who argued that trustees should have a chance to consider a proposal from the campus Academic Senate, which would delegate trustees' authority to approve individual faculty contracts to the president.
Killeen said he doesn't know how trustees will respond to that proposal, which has to be considered by the UI Springfield and UI Chicago campus senates, as well as a university-wide faculty body, before it comes to the board.
Any delegation of the board's authority "requires careful consideration," he said.
"I don't know where this particular issue will go," he said. "It's sort of a little bit moot in my mind. We have academic freedom in our genome. But it would be good to get out from under censure for our faculty."