Will SIU make its payroll?

November 24, 2009

Adam Turl explains how the state government's budget shortfall is affecting Southern Illinois University workers and students.

JUST IN time for the holidays, administrators at Southern Illinois University (SIU) announced last week that they may not make the December payroll. SIU President Glenn Poshard threatened that without additional state funding, the university would have to resort to layoffs and furloughs to make up the shortfall.

By the weekend, Poshard had backtracked--claiming that SIU could make its payroll through mid-December with a huge squeeze on other expenditures. This would still put SIU on track for a full-blown crisis early next year.

These threats come on the heels of the successful graduate employees strike at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign (UIUC)--and a month after pressure forced the state to back down from cutting Monetary Award Program (MAP) financial aid for the spring semester.

As the recession hits state budgets hard, college administrators think they have a green light to raise tuition, cut programs and lay off employees. This is especially the case at SIU, where faculty and graduate assistants' contracts are coming up for negotiation next summer.

Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard
Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard

According to SIU's Graduate Assistants United (GA United) President Jim Podesva, "What they are trying to do is prepare people mentally, establishing a climate where bargaining units that ask for things are going to be discouraged from doing so. Essentially, they are trying to create diminished expectations."

Professor Tony Williams agrees. "At the general level, [the cuts are] a way of attacking higher education, raising tuition and making it the preserve of just the wealthy elite," he said. "Poshard has been threatening cutbacks and layoffs for the past year. I believe he's trying to start a climate of fear on campus."

WHILE ADMINISTRATORS are cynically manipulating the crisis, the budget disaster is real. Because states can't run budget deficits--and because revenue has been straitjacketed by years of free-market "reforms"--things are set to get worse. Illinois relies on a flat income tax rate and regressive sales taxes that not only put the burden largely on working people, but guarantee declining revenue as unemployment spreads in the wake of the recession.

Illinois is already $4 billion behind in paying bills for this year--and that doesn't include a short-term $2.2 billion loan that has to be paid back in the spring, or nearly $2 billion in cuts that have already been implemented. Projections put the state $11.7 billion in the red for the coming year.

The crisis in education funding has deep roots. In recent decades, state money had already plummeted as a total percentage of university and college budgets. At SIU-Carbondale, annual tuition and fees more than doubled in just 10 years to over $10,000. Similarly, tuition hikes occurred at other state schools--shifting the burden of education costs onto working-class and low-income students and their families.

This slow-burning funding crisis has now morphed into immediate disaster. The state of Illinois has simply stopped sending hundreds of millions of dollars in already allocated funds to its colleges and universities. The state owes U of I more than $300 million, and SIU some $125 million.

This shortfall could essentially cancel out the victory that students, faculty and staff won earlier in the semester to restore MAP funding following rallies on campuses and in the state capital. Moreover, it's no longer clear that Illinois will come up with the $200 million needed to fund MAP in the spring. One in four students at SIU (and nearly 150,000 statewide) rely on MAP funds.

In the interim, SIU has ordered a freeze on all non-payroll expenditures and a near total hiring freeze (although the school did find the money to hire a new chancellor). Departments can't even buy replacement equipment without approval from top administration hacks--and President Poshard ordered departments to "delay" paying their bills.

Poshard and SIU's Vice President of Financial Affairs Duane Stucky claim these impromptu cutbacks have generated $25 million--enough to make payroll through mid-December. However, these cuts are intolerable to students, faculty and staff--and won't solve the underlying problem. As Williams put it, the cutbacks are making "teaching and research virtually impossible."

Moreover, if the administration decides to pursue "emergency" layoffs and furloughs they will find themselves in violation of union contracts with faculty, staff and graduate employees. "We're operating under a contract, and it's good until June or July 2010," said Podesva. "If we're operating under a contract and they start cutting paychecks, there are going to be issues."

WHILE POSHARD and other administrators demand sacrifice from faculty, students and staff, they're doing nothing about cutting their own bloated six-figure salaries and pet projects.

For example, more than $4 million in student fees are currently allocated for the new "Saluki Way" stadium development project at SIU. According to the budget for the 2010 fiscal year, $35 million is set to be wasted on this boondoggle. Administrative costs are also out of control. SIU's "Office of the President" alone has an annual budget of more than $2 million.

Scrapping unnecessary projects and cutting obese administrative salaries and expenses could go a long way to mitigating and possibly even solving the immediate crisis. Meanwhile, faculty and staff are chronically underpaid. As Williams argued, "The average wage [for professors at SIU] is 20 percent below what is paid elsewhere."

At the state level, the Democratic Party majority in Springfield seems paralyzed--trapped between their fidelity to big business and the enormity of the crisis.

Legislators don't necessarily want to raise taxes on working-class voters during the recession--or dramatically increase tuition costs (all at once at any rate)--for fear that they might be punished in the next election. At the same time--and far more important for Springfield politicians--they don't want to alienate the corporations that run the state (and fund their campaigns) by raising taxes on big business and the rich.

Which side wins out depends on pressure from below. This helps explain why legislators voted to restore MAP funding--but failed to really fund it by earmarking any actual revenue--back in October.

Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has proposed taking out a $900 million emergency loan to cover the immediate shortfall. However, this would only postpone the crisis by a few months at best. The funding gap would reappear in the spring semester, and the state would then be forced to hand over our tax and tuition dollars to the banks--with interest.

Quinn claims he wants to increase taxes during the spring legislative session to solve the problem once and for all--but left to their own devices, Democrats in Springfield could easily come up with a rotten "compromise."

According to the UIUC-based Institute of Government and Public Affairs, the "best solution" would be to raise taxes (probably across the board) and implement a new regime of (essentially regressive) sales taxes on things like plumbing repairs, haircuts and other services. Many students and university workers might feel compelled to agree, but calling for regressive tax increases will ultimately serve to pit students and university workers against off-campus workers.

The only solution to the state budget crisis that helps all working-class Illinoisans as well as students and university employees is to demand a progressive graduated income tax. So far, only a handful of politicians have proposed such a solution. That would mean throwing out the state's flat tax and the reliance on sales taxes, reducing (instead of increasing) tuition and fees while increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy.

The way to put that kind of solution on the table is to build grassroots pressure. We should follow the lead of the UIUC graduate students, the students who protested the MAP cuts earlier this fall and the thousands of students and workers who are protesting the massive tuition hikes and budget cuts in California.

Organizing against any current and coming budget cuts will mean protests--and if necessary strikes and sit-ins. Students and campus workers have the power to stop tuition hikes, layoffs and cuts. Without them, the university system simply cannot run. As Podesva put it, "We teach the core curriculum, we run the labs, we run the discussion sections, we prepare lectures, and we deliver the lectures. This university would be shut down without graduate students."

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