Southern Illinois University will “reshape” itself and weather the budget storms in Springfield, SIU President Randy Dunn said Tuesday, while helping employees with the health care crisis.
Dunn gave his annual address at the Edwardsville campus describing the state of the university system, stating he intentionally would not be proposing major new programs, but focusing on survival and “reshaping” the university. Dunn also reassured employees caught in the budget stalemate in Springfield.
Dunn said at the beginning that he did not intend to roll out a lot of new initiatives or goals for the university system. “That’s not where we are right now,” he said.
One item of concern among employees has been the personal impact of the state’s budget crisis, particularly for longtime employees. One woman said that she felt like the security of the university was being taken away, her voice breaking.
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Dunn assured her that however many changes there might be, the university “is not going to wither away.”
“While we may remold in some ways… it will be a reshaping, but it will still be SIU,” he said.
Dunn said they are planning for the worst-case scenarios if Illinois continues without a budget, since there is little they can do to resolve the stalemate. One of the largest concerns among employees has been stoppage of payments on medical claims, leading some hospitals and providers to insist on full payment for medical services up front from state employees. SIU employs about 7,000 people in southwestern Illinois.
“The trick is going to be to work as much as we can with the providers to get them to keep providing services knowing they will eventually be paid,” Dunn said.
If any employee is told they have to pay for their medical care up front, he said, they should talk with the human resources department and it will try to help negotiate on the employee’s behalf.
“We are a big part of our providers’ business, and we will try to get them some latitude,” he said. So far, Dunn said, he is not aware of an employee that has actually been denied health care.
Dunn said the issues faced by Illinois universities are not necessarily unique. Issues such as student debt upon graduation, funding for student aid programs, and the balance between state funding and tuition are being debated in at least 40 states, Dunn said.
“We sometimes get caught up in thinking the things we’re dealing with are solely something in Illinois,” he said. “That’s not the case at all.”
There are highlights, he said: This year’s freshman class at SIUE was the second largest in the history of the university at 2,096, slightly smaller than the record high class that began in 2014 with 2,125 students. It’s also the most diverse class, Dunn said, with the largest number of African-American and Latino students in the university’s history. That growing enrollment puts SIUE in a very strong position moving forward, Dunn said.
Dunn said SIU as a system had a growth stage from its inception in 1869 to World War II, and a second phase of massive expansion afterward, through the term of his predecessor, Glenn Poshard. But now, Dunn said, colleges are starting a new era of “retrenchment”: facing an ongoing disinvestment in higher education by the states; cost shifts for health insurance and pensions from the state to the institutions; discussions of privatization of state universities and other trends.
“If, as they say, timing is everything, then mine sucks,” Dunn said, to laughter from the standing-room-only crowd in the Meridian Ballroom.
Ways to examine the new era may include prioritizing programs that earn revenue for the university; general cost reductions; focus on enrollment growth and seeking further revenue from philanthropy, he said. State appropriations might then support only the basics, he said.
“If we can’t look at state appropriations … philanthropy gives us the premium of excellence,” he said.
One way to reduce costs would be more shared services on departments such as human resources and information technology, if they can be handled more efficiently on a system-wide basis, but Dunn said they still want to maintain the independence of the major campuses. “It is rather a way to figure out a way to do things more efficiently within the system… not about combining campuses,” he said. “It’s rather, can we keep from doing some things in triplicate?”
Dunn said there was no way to predict what the future model of a public university will look like. Historically, public universities are cheaper to attend than private colleges because they receive state funding, while private colleges rely solely on philanthropy and tuition to function.
“We cannot go to the private school model and make this work,” Dunn said. “Our business model is based on some level of state contribution in order to do what we are doing.”
But the debate continues about that level of state contribution, and what it might mean if — as discussed — the state stops covering pension and health care contributions, shifting those costs on the institutions. Dunn said it was “hard to overstate” what that impact might be, including for those state functions that the universities carry out, such as public broadcasting and economic development agencies run on college campuses.
Overall, however, Dunn focused on reassurance, particularly for Edwardsville’s campus, which has had strong enrollment growth for many years. “It’s a strong institution, and it’s not going to quit being a strong institution while we try to get through these turbulent waters,” Dunn said. “The transformative power of this place is not going away.”
Dunn will also speak Thursday at SIU Carbondale and Friday at SIU School of Medicine in Springfield.