Senate Appropriations Committee Remarks

March 21, 2013

The prepared remarks of President Robert A. Easter to the Illinois Senate Appropriations Committee.


Good morning Chairman Kotowski and members of the committee. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss our fiscal year 2014 appropriations request with you today.

The University of Illinois is proud of a nearly 150-year partnership with the state. The University’s distinctive contributions have never been more important to our state and our nation. Education, especially at the most advanced levels, is the key to innovation, competitiveness and economic growth.   

We as a state cannot compete in a race to the bottom on wages with developing nations.  Our future hinges on developing the fertile minds and cultivating the pioneering ideas that will carve a new path to progress and prosperity.

We are the state’s largest producer of scientists, engineers, health-care professionals and innovators.  We are educating our students for the high-skilled jobs required by tomorrow’s economy, providing them with gratifying career opportunities and access to the middle class.  Our graduates will pave the way to a better tomorrow … improving the lives of every citizen of our state and contributing to economic prosperity. This is our mission, and the leadership role we seek to fill every day.   

Allow me to repeat myself, as I think this is an important distinction. As one of the world’s very best, most highly ranked public research universities, the University of Illinois carries out a unique and crucial role in leading progress for our state, our nation, and the world.

Tomorrow’s breakthroughs are taking root today through pioneering initiatives such as Blue Waters. The National Science Foundation has located one of the world’s fastest supercomputers on our Urbana campus.. In practical, every day terms, our supercomputer … your supercomputer … holds promise for accelerating medical advances, revolutionizing quantum computing, and predicting the behavior of catastrophic weather events.

We appreciate the Budgeting for Results review you and your colleagues on the Appropriations Committee are conducting.  I would like to mention a few results that reflect our commitment to budgeting for outcomes in the context of the fiscal 2014 appropriation process.

  • In education, our three campuses enrolled more than 77,400 students last fall … that equals the population of Evanston … Illinois’ 12th largest city.  
  • Our freshman classes were chosen from a record of nearly 48,000 applicants … up 6 percent from the year before.
  • The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has the highest percentage of African Americans and Latino/Latina students enrolled of any Big Ten university, and the enrollment percentage for African Americans and Latinos/Latinas at UIC and UIS is even higher.  
  • So the first benchmark of budgeting for outcomes … student demand and enrollment … continues to grow.
  • Last year, we awarded a record 20,400 degrees … undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees, from architecture to zoology … accountants, engineers, lawyers, school teachers and health-care professionals.
  • That’s nearly enough graduates to fill Chicago’s United Center and roughly matches the total enrollment at Harvard, Princeton, Yale and MIT, combined.
  • The Urbana campus awards more degrees to African American and Latino/Latina students than any other university in the Big Ten.  The number of graduates reflects a true measure of the University’s educational success, and its service to society.

While the University’s most important mission is educating tens of thousands of students and preparing them for successful careers,  we impact millions of lives in other ways as well.

In each of the dozen or so outcome areas important to the citizens of our state that you have identified, we have submitted examples of the return to the state on taxpayer dollars you appropriate to the University of Illinois. Here are just a few:

  • In economic development, University research is producing at a remarkable level. Federal grants and contracts have increased by 84% over the last 10 years, and in fiscal 2012 we had nearly $811 million in sponsored, competitively-awarded projects … a new U of I record and 7th best in the nation.
  • This is money to the Illinois economy that would go elsewhere if not for our world-class faculty and staff researchers.  
  • And the outcomes of our research, development, and tech transfer have broad economic impact, creating new products, new businesses and new jobs, and—last but not least—attracting unique talent to the state.   
  • In health care and human services, our University hospital and clinics in Chicago provided high-quality care to more than 400,000 patients last year.
  • Most of our patients are dependent on Medicaid and Medicare, and this year our medical center in Chicago will provide as much as $50 million in uncompensated care.
  • The University’s expertise is also aiding in a variety of other projects, from Asian carp abatement and carbon sequestration to outreach programs that support the grain and livestock industries that are so crucial to our state’s economy.  The Prairie Research Institute – home to the states survey’s generates $4 in external contracts for every dollar of GRF received.

But I would like to share some concerns.

Last year, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, which created land-grant universities like the U of I and democratized higher education in the United States.

That legislation and institutions like University of Illinois have transformed lives, and fueled the greatest scientific, technological, and social progress in our nation’s history.

Let me give you an example… Nick Holonyak, the son of an immigrant coal miner, took advantage of an affordable education and used that education to invent the light emitting diode, or LED, and sparked the biggest revolution in lighting and related technologies since Edison. Nick is still a member of our faculty.

The Morrill Act represented a new paradigm … it was a commitment that taxpayers would support higher education as a public good and that it would be affordable to ordinary people.

Sadly, it is no longer the case.

The state support that helped build the University of Illinois has been on a steady decline. In the last decade, our direct state appropriation has been reduced by $182 million and the governor’s budget proposal for next year would cut another $32 million.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, that would shrink our fiscal 2014 appropriation to 1965 levels … Today we enroll twice as many students as we did in 1965.

Today, the University also must cope with $480 million in unpaid vouchers from the state.

And the pension reforms that are currently under debate would shift new costs to our campuses, as we seek to remain competitive in our bid for top faculty who are the core of our greatness … attracting the best and brightest students and securing hundreds of millions of dollars in research funding.

You might ask what has been the real impact of these reductions? Enrollment and graduate counts are up, courses are still being taught and research goes on.

My answer is simple … tuition has increased over the last decade to offset the decline in state funding. Some qualified young people cannot afford to attend the University of Illinois… and the impact falls most heavily on young people from under-represented groups in our state. 

And this is true even though the University has increased considerably financial assistance to needy students. Without additional state funds, it will be difficult for us to keep investing in supplemental, need-based financial aid that is such a crucial complement to state MAP and federal Pell awards. 

In Urbana, for example, annual tuition 10 years ago was about $5,500 and the average student debt at graduation was about $15,600. Today, annual tuition is about $11,600 and average debt is more than than $24,000. 

Over the past 10 years, student enrollment has grown by more than 13% at our two biggest campuses, and as a result class sizes are increasing. The rising student-faculty ratio is a worrisome trend as we seek to protect the quality of education and improve the educational experience of our students through service learning and research opportunities as part of an undergraduate curriculum. Fewer classes and sections are being offered. 

Worse, tenure-stream faculty, who are the foundation of the University, have declined by 11% over the past 10 years: by almost 7% at our Chicago campus and by 13% at our Urbana campus. As a result, tenure-stream faculty are teaching significantly more students, and we have gained more non-tenured faculty. In Chicago, non-tenure track faculty now comprise 60 percent of the faculty. 

In Urbana, the loss of faculty in the critical STEM … or science, technology, engineering and math … areas is of particular concern. These are the faculty who are critical to our reputation and thus our ability to attract the best students, and who are most competitive for external grant funding. This is lost revenue to the state, and lost leadership to the university, at a time we can least afford it.

Our ability to serve the needs of the state has also been impacted, and let me give just one example. The proposed $500,000 reduction of funding for the Rural Pharmacy Program in Rockford equates to funding of $2,500 less per student. The program’s purpose is to respond to the shortage of pharmacists in rural Illinois. This reduction will force us to put all options on the table, including increasing tuition and considering closing the program.

Taken together, having more students, fewer faculty, and additional research funding means that we have increased our productivity in both teaching and research. We have risen to the challenge created by the budget cuts. However, we are rapidly approaching a limit to how much more efficient we can be. Simply put, the path we are on is unsustainable.

I worry that the ladder of opportunity is being pulled up at a critical time for Illinois and the nation … when we most need the next generation of Nick Holonyaks and the upward mobility that our great universities provide.

The U of I is coping with budget reductions in a fiscally responsible way through cuts and eliminations. But if it is to remain a world leader, it also must deploy an agenda of strategic growth and investment.

We will therefore redouble our efforts to attract revenues from a variety of sources and invest them in the strategic priorities that will meet the economic growth agenda of the state and the nation. 

To that end, the University is working on several fronts to preserve the affordability and quality that are at the center of our land-grant mission. 

Two years ago, our Board of Trustees enacted a policy that seeks to hold tuition increases to the rate of inflation … a policy that will yield a 1.7 percent increase for incoming students next fall, the lowest in nearly two decades, thus protecting student access and affordability.

We will also aggressively ramp up private fundraising efforts, with both alumni and corporations, and we will advance online technologies that are bringing education to more people and reducing the costs of support services.  

And we will systematically continue recent administrative cost-cutting efforts that have already netted more than $50 million in annual recurring savings.

But to maintain our excellence and our competitive position, we also need your direct financial support and -- help in cutting through regulatory red tape wherever possible, to be more efficient and better stewards of the state’s assets.

It has been said that it takes many generations to build a great university, but only a few years to bring it down.  

In closing, I want to express my deepest gratitude to you and all of your colleagues in the General Assembly for your commitment to Illinois and its citizens. These are difficult times, and on behalf of the entire University, I appreciate your careful attention to the challenges confronting this great state.

Thank you for your time, and now I’d be happy to answer any questions.