Eastern Illinois University’s legislative liaison Katie Anselment had some strong words for legislators during an Illinois Senate Higher Education Committee hearing last week.

Anselment testified against a bill that would create a pilot program to allow a Downstate community college to offer nursing bachelor’s degrees.  The four-year universities view this legislation as a dangerous slippery slope toward turning community colleges into full-on competitors.

OPINION

I’m not going to take a stand on the merits of this particular bill.  There are good arguments pro and con.  It is, after all, just a pilot program.  The sponsor wants to address a very real nursing shortage, but the nurses’ union is strongly opposed, believing it won’t create any net new nurses and will instead just shift current students around.

Anyway, setting all that aside, Anselment began her testimony with a searing indictment of the current state of higher education in Illinois after the more than two-year budget impasse that caused universities to lose most of their state funding.  Legislative liaisons are lobbyists, so they don’t usually go off on legislators in public, but this time was different.

Anselment said the state’s relationship with its public universities “has been a bit of a ‘Catch-22’ situation lately.”  In other words, darned if they do, darned if they don’t.

“Hold the line on tuition, while we reduce your state funding,” universities are told by the state, she said.

“Focus on teaching, but pay more attention to marketing and technology,” Anselment said.

“Whittle down your programmatic offerings and don’t try to be all things to all people, but make sure your majors reflect today’s modern economy and are responsive to regional workforce needs,” she said.

“Tell us in excruciating detail just how bad of a position we’ve left you in thanks to the budget impasse, but stop the outmigration and convince more Illinois families to choose Illinois public universities.”

And then, later in her testimony, Anselment had a mic-drop moment:  “At a time when public universities are being admonished to up our enrollments despite declining numbers of high school graduates, to identify and implement more efficiencies in our operations, to focus on what we do best and to consider eliminating duplicative offerings, this bill sets the stage for opening up 48 new taxpayer-funded competitors in a state that has recently proven unable to reliably support the nine universities it already has.”

Whew.

That’s pretty much everything in a nutshell right there.

Illinois used to have an unwritten budget rule that higher education received one dollar for every two dollars received by K-12.

But Gov. Rod Blagojevich strongly believed that universities were too top-heavy with administration.  His solutions, of reduced state funding and a tuition freeze, kick-started the decline of higher education in this state.  That decline continued under Gov. Pat Quinn and, as with just about everything else, became infinitely worse under Gov. Bruce Rauner during the long impasse.

One of Gov. Rauner’s current big ideas is to force universities to downsize by becoming more specialized.  That may be fine, I suppose, for graduate and post-graduate levels.

But how many high school kids truly know what they want to major in when they apply for college?  The first year or two of college is supposed to be an exploration of possibilities.  Gov. Bruce Rauner graduated from Dartmouth, which doesn’t allow students to declare a major until their sophomore year.

By forcing universities to shed undergraduate degree programs, the governor would likely narrow their ability to recruit students because their options could be too limited.

I don’t intend to say here that public universities are completely blameless.  They’ve made way more than their share of mistakes over the years.  They can and should do a whole lot better.  And some under-utilized degree programs could be dumped without much disruption.

Instead of trying to create and sustain higher education jewels throughout Illinois, the state government has allowed too many universities to slowly deteriorate into shadows of their former selves, and very nearly killed some of them during the impasse.

Solving most of their problems will take money, which the state currently does not have.  And it will also take ingenuity, but not the kind that would actually threaten their very existence.

We’ve had so much drama and turbulence since Blagojevich.  One day, hopefully soon, this state’s leaders will start building instead of childishly blowing stuff up.  Last year’s K-12 funding reform was a decent start.  Higher education ought to be next.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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