SIU months from new funding formula, but SIUE still could get greater share of money

The Southern Illinois University Board of Trustees has received the results of a study commissioned to reassess the distribution of state funds between SIU Carbondale and SIU Edwardsville.

But it did not get the clarity it hoped, said Board Chair J. Phil Gilbert.

Instead of an updated mathematical formula indicating what share of state funds each campus should get based on costs, the firm AGB Consulting returned a set of policy recommendations to help the board create its own formula.

To Gilbert, that feels like a “punt,” he said, dodging the most controversial aspect of the project: quantifying the differences between SIUC and SIUE.

Since about 1975, state funds have been allotted on a roughly 64% to 36% split between Carbondale and Edwardsville— about $91.4 million and $53.8 million respectively in Fiscal Year 2018.

But calls to invest a greater share in SIUE have intensified as the university equaled and then eclipsed SIUC in enrollment over the last two school years.

Leaders of both campuses, as well as the board and Interim President J. Kevin Dorsey, agree a re-examination is warranted.

But they know its findings could vary greatly, depending on how the campuses’ costs are weighted.

A university’s instruction costs vary by academic discipline and by degree level, with doctoral students considered more expensive to educate than masters students, themselves more expensive than undergrads.

Post-secondary students are more common at SIUC, a high research classified Carnegie institution that awarded 880 masters degrees and 167 doctorates in FY 2018.

And Carbondale takes on other disproportionate costs too, according to Chancellor John Dunn and his chief of staff, Matt Baughman, including the facilities, payroll and salary costs for many SIU system employees.

“You have to look at what are the charges assessed or assigned to each campus,” Dunn told the board. “Those are not 50-50.”

The funding distribution must also account for fixed costs, pointed out Trustee Ed Curtis.

That could be a particular challenge for SIUC, where infrastructure built for higher enrollment, like the towers, has sat empty.

Lacking clear mathematical weighting directions from AGB, the board will now “take the bull by the horns,” Gilbert said at Wednesday’s board meeting, creating an ad hoc committee of trustees and administrators to work out a formula.

That places the board right back at the center of a potentially future-altering decision.

State Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, in a news release called for a new study on SIU funding.

“I am really disappointed with the results of the funding distribution study from AGB Consulting,” Stuart said. “The results were inconclusive and did little to solve the funding disparity that exists between the two SIU campuses. Instead of finding a fair funding formula, the firm passed responsibility back to the Southern Illinois University Board of Trustees. I hope the board chooses to act responsibly and fund the Edwardsville campus fairly.”

On some weighting schemes, students’ educational costs vary by factors of one or two. On others, students at different levels, in different disciplines, are considered more expensive to educate by factors of eight, 10 or 20.

The board hopes to agree on a weighting formula by its December meeting, Gilbert said, drawing on internal data and the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s annual statewide institutional cost comparisons.

The funding committee will be led by Interim President J. Kevin Dorsey, who told the board he hopes to save his successor from having to make such a potentially contentious decision right out of the gate.

“There are two primary players in this, and that runs the risk of having, quote, a winner and a loser in the eye of the beholder,” Dorsey said. “Wouldn’t it be better to have this be on the back of the guy who’s no longer here, as opposed to the new person coming in?”

But questions will remain even after a weighting framework is established, Gilbert said.

Will the universities adjust weighting as their costs, enrollment and demand for different degree programs change? How frequently will they adjust? Who will be in charge of gathering data to make such changes?

“It’s going to be a process with our new president and this committee to try to come up with a plan,” Gilbert said. “This is complex, and there are a lot of other factors besides enrollment.”

Most members of the board concurred on one AGB recommendation: make any allocation changes with future money, instead of shifting currently budgeted funds between campuses.

That was what former President Randy Dunn attempted in April 2018, proposing a $5.1 million transfer from SIUC to SIUE as an initial step toward equality for Edwardsville, while the campuses waited on the funding study.

The plan became mired in controversy, culminating in Dunn’s ouster.

But now, with Dunn gone and an updated funding formula still months away, the board appears poised to make a similar, albeit smaller, show of good faith toward SIUE.

A measure up for approval at Thursday’s full board meeting would give SIU Edwardsville fully half of the 5% funding bump given to the two campuses in the state budget, instead of the traditional 36-64 split.

On Wednesday, SIU Carbondale Professor Marcus Odom challenged its logic in comments to the board.

“Currently there is no factual basis for this. Nothing objective supports the proposed 50-50 split,” Odom said. “Making any changes now is untimely.”

If approved, the measure will award about $1 million to SIUE that would have gone to SIUC, Odom added, a significant reduction to the 5% operating budget increase that the Carbondale campus was expecting.

“This will have harmful consequences at SIUC,” he said, imploring trustees to wait for the funding study’s results before reallocating any money.

However, multiple trustees, including Chair Gilbert, spoke up in favor of the plan on Wednesday.

“There’s never going to be a good time to do this, but this is a start,” Gilbert said. “Things have changed. We have a footprint at Carbondale for over 20,000 students with 11,000 students (currently enrolled) and there’s going to have to be some changes to Carbondale.”