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UIS Facing Budgetary Deficit - Eliminating NPR Illinois Cash Support | Community Voices

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The University of Illinois Springfield has developed over a $7-million deficit during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is requiring budget adjustments which include eliminating cash support for NPR Illinois over the next five years. Karen Whitney, interim chancellor, discusses the situation with Randy Eccles and addresses the fiscal necessity. Eccles shares that NPR Illinois is still healthy in face of the reductions but will need to expand non-pledge-drive fundraising to grow.

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Chancellor | University of Illinois Springfield (uis.edu)
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Edited for clarity

Eccles: Hi this is Randy Eccles and this is a another episode of Community Voices. For my co-host Bea Bonner, I want to thank our guest, interim chancellor Karen Whitney at the University of Illinois Springfield, for joining us. Thank you, Karen.

Whitney: Thank you, Randy. Thanks for having me here.

Eccles: There are some changes that are happening at the university that impact NPR Illinois. As of last week, we completed a plan that sees NPR Illinois, over the next few years, seeing reduced funding that it currently gets from the University. Why is it necessary to change the funding?

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Karen Whitney

Whitney: It is necessary. This isn't by choice, first of all, and I think as UIS takes stock of its core mission of teaching and research, we've had to take a look at where we spend our dollars. The dollars are limited and the dollars are fewer than they have been over time. The university overall is operating with less money than it had. Particularly, I think back in 2013, 2014 what many people call the, "Impasse" when the state really ran into some tremendous challenges. They substantially reduced their funding to public higher ed in the state. Even though that feels like a long time ago, particularly with the pandemic and COVID, institutions are like glaciers, it takes time to see one thing affect another thing. Why are we working with your leadership at NPR Illinois on a different business model? Because we have to. This is really a reaction to an eight to 10 year decline in state funding and shifts and changes in our enrollment. Our enrollments declining. At the same time, our expenses have to decline, they have to shift. Throughout the entire institution we are evaluating every activity, every position. In fact as interim chancellor, I personally review any new open position at the University to see if we can fund it. We're at a point where if we are true to our mission, we are a public university, we are a capital city university dedicated to intensive teaching, applied research, and public service to advance the public good. We're doing with constrained resources. We are doing different things, working with NPR Illinois is a good example. Our commitment is true to NPR Illinois and it has shifted, it has evolved. You know our commitment in terms of providing the facility space that NPR Illinois operates in. Some of the finest folks in fundraising available in higher ED to NPR Illinois and you and I are working together, providing lots of expertise and support is real. The direct dollars that we've provided in the past is what has shifted because those dollars don't exist for us, really, to give you anymore. They just don't exist. We've used our savings and now we're starting to run a bill. We can't do that anymore as a university. We have to financially prioritize. We have to put students first and we have to put our faculty there at the core of what we do. There are some things we're having to shift on and it's across the institution.

Eccles: This is Randy Eccles. You're listening to Community Voices. Our guest is interim chancellor at the University of Illinois Springfield Karen Whitney. We're talking about recent changes in budgeting at the university that are going to impact NPR Illinois. As the general manager of the radio station, this has been a collaborative process in coming up with a plan to deal with this with Chancellor Whitney. She has been very transparent and is willing to be on the show right now to talk about why this is happening. Giving you, our listener and supporter, a sense of why this is happening. Even with these coming reductions in funding, we are healthy. We are fiscally healthy. We have a reserve. We are able with our cash flow to continue to provide the service that we have been providing from Morning Edition and All Things Considered to statehouse coverage. The hope is that our fundraising, as the chancellor was alluding to, will increase. That involves grants, major gifts, and planned gifts -- some things that public radio hasn't pursued as much as the traditional pledge drive. That will allow us, with increased fundraising, to grow our service to the community -- not just cover the the loss and funding. I am optimistic that the consultants we have conferred with have led us to a path, and the university plan is leading us to a path where the station will continue to be healthy. The key is the success of fundraising allowing us to grow. We're going to get into some more of details with Chancellor Karen Whitney because we've had questions from different listeners, from our Community Advisory Board, who have asked about this. The Illinois Board of Higher Education came out with a report on past equity, sustainability, and growth for higher ed. One of the issues that is here is that higher ed has not seen its funding even stay flat but decreased significantly over the past years. Plus it hit an impasse with the budget where it had to use some of its reserves. Now it's gone through COVID, where there's been drops in enrollment. All that's come together to create this financial moment.

Whitney: You've mentioned many of the items that that have occurred in Illinois. This is a challenge throughout the entire country. All 50 states have declined their support for public higher education over the last 30 years, some more than others. Illinois is more in the middle of the pack. There is a conflict, families and students often struggle to pay our tuition and fees. States have systematically adopted policies of decreasing support. We value and cherish our hardworking faculty and staff and want to pay them market competitive salaries and benefit packages. That's a recipe for stress. Kudos to UIS over, particularly the last 10 years, on the hard work of faculty and staff to secure grants and sponsored projects in many areas of the university. All of our work with our downtown efforts in the iHub. All of our business incubator work is based on entrepreneurial models of grants and contracts. More and more faculty are integrating sponsored research and grants for the services they provide. This university is transforming itself from only being dependent on state funding and student tuition and fees to multiple sources of funds. It made sense to ask that of NPR Illinois, also, given our long and terrific association.

Eccles: My understanding is that Ken Kriz along with you has been leading transparent budget conversations at the university. UIS is $7-$8-million in deficit at this point. What is the issue? Is the university healthy? Is this just UIS? Is this the UI system? Urbana? Chicago?

Whitney: Our annual operating budget is $163-million approximately. At the close out of June 2020 we spent $7-million more than we earned. We've not closed out this year, yet, but it's been a pandemic. We're very compassionate with our students and employees. I expect another year where we've spent more than we've earned. Like any institution, we do have reserves. We are part of a premier system that has reserves, so we are fine. We have a problem, though that we must address. So we are fine, and we have a problem, and we have the tools to fix it. We must show balanced budgets in a responsible way to move the university forward. We also need to earn more than we spend so we have money to invest. To invest in new academic programs. I was talking to a department chair yesterday. He said, "I have a faculty member who can bring in more grants, but we need money to outfit a lab for that faculty member." That's investment money. This goes back to 2013. I am here, using my 40 years of higher ed experience in a variety of settings to put us on a to go from spending more than we earn, to earning more than we spend so we can continue our mission. This problem really started a good eight to 10 years ago. First, I'm going to say it's structural, it cuts across multiple generations of leaders. It cuts across multiple governors. It is a long time coming, and it is a moment where we have to take responsibility and shift out of it. I do encourage anyone listening to me to go to UIS.edu, put in "Show Me the Money." There is a five part series where we work very hard to break down, I like to break money down and finances down to where anyone who wants to know how we're doing. We're doing fine and we have a problem and we're working through it. The "Show Me the Money" series walks you through that. We have some of the brightest minds in public administration and public funding in the country and they're on task on this. They're working with our leadership of the university and we're determining where our gaps are within the institution and we're working much like with NPR Illinois on what is the right way to go. What's the fix to help us be solid so we can continue to serve. We're celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, my view is I plan for us to be here, another 500 years. That's about setting us on this trajectory of growth and financial stability.

Eccles: So the PBS NewsHour reported this week that 60 universities across the country in the past year have either closed or merged. That's not the situation we're looking at, right?

Whitney: Oh absolutely not. In fact Randy, I right on this. My academic area is higher education finance economics and leadership. You dig into that report, the ones that are merging are closing typically are small private liberal arts institutions who actually were very niche in their enrollment. Those those niches have really not been thriving. U.S. News and World Report rated us as the number one public regional University in Illinois. We're fourth in the Midwest. We are a top flight university that's dedicated to the Midwest and definitely to Illinois. We are growing. The provost is leading us in a whole transformation effort to even meet workforce needs that only that don't exist today. We're expanding our efforts in health care and health professions. We are expanding our efforts in business, in teaching. We're holding true to a tremendous expertise and asset in the humanities and liberal arts. By and large, any mergers or closures are in the private liberal arts. I will also point out strategic alliances and mergers have happened at higher ed all the time. I mean there's lots of examples of colleges and universities reorganizing and coming together. I used to work in Pennsylvania, so I would use Carnegie Mellon. Used to be Carnegie and used to be Mellon. They were two different institutions, they came together. Our own, we were Sangamon State and now we're UIS. That's the type of evolution. That's a type of corporate merger. These things aren't necessarily bad. Changes in how one organizes in order to keep to your mission that's okay. We have to build resilient organizations, no matter whether you get a period of defunding by the state or you get changes and demographic trends for a while that the university is resilient in in making its way through those things. Illinois is in a period of declining population. That's going to be temporary. It's going to come back up. I don't know how long. You and I may won't be here, probably, it may be a while. What isn't going to change is Springfield is the capital. UIS is a capital city university dedicated to this region. We're going to be here to see it through.

Eccles: There's a discussion of a demographic cliff on the horizon. That the amount of incoming freshmen for universities, at a point in the future, will be low. I've heard through this process the fix for this is more enrollment. What's the model for that and how are you looking at the future?

Whitney: The model is to continue with a very diverse portfolio of what we teach, how we teach, and who our target audiences are to benefit from our teaching and our applied research. The demographics on 18-year-old is on a decline at least the next five to seven years. The pandemic will show you another drop that will hit us in 18 years At the same time in Illinois there's 1.2 million people with some college and no degree. Currently, this is where we need a resilient university that can pivot and shift based on what the state and the region needs from us. UIS is exceptionally positioned for pivoting and shifting. For well over 25 years, UIS leads the country, the country in online learning. This is pre-pandemic. We lead, and give lectures, and are sought out as experts on the delivery of quality learning online. That's why in March 2020, it took our faculty four days to pivot from the on-ground courses we had to online because of that expertise. Historically, before the pandemic, half of our students were already learning online. We've had growth areas and online learners in certain graduate programs and certain areas for transfers. Think about your retirement. Many folks are fortunate enough to have a retirement fund or portfolio and you plan it. Any good planner says, "You ought to have a diverse portfolio," right? Well, we need a diverse portfolio on what we teach, how we teach, and who were trying to benefit. That's a resilient organization. That's what's going to get us through any of the shifts in demographics. Recently, we had a national shift of a real decimation of international students and that hurt us. They're coming back for this fall. It's going to probably hit us next fall. The idea of riding these rapids of volatility and uncertainty, we are transforming our operation here at UIS to be more resilient.

Eccles: We're talking with interim chancellor Karen Whitney and we're talking about the fiscal health of the University of Illinois Springfield and how addressing some of the issues that have occurred in the past few years are resulting in some changes having to be made including NPR Illinois funding. We have a plan together, which will be reducing eventually down to zero over five years, the cash that comes to support the radio station's operations. The university is still providing a variety of in-kind services, whether it be foundation services, helping us process gifts, to administrative management, to facilities, and power. There is still commitment by the university to NPR Illinois. We've been in conversations to make this as little an impact, hopefully, on the station as possible so it doesn't damage our operations. It's phasing in over about a five-year period. What other parts of university are undergoing cuts?

Whitney: We are looking at every place. Full the academic reorganization is actually meant to improve as an engine of growth and to position ourselves to grow enrollment. We're proudly a teaching intensive university. Most of our money is made by teaching people the form in courses. We sell credits. We get money to teach paid by the state and we get money from the student. The way we're going to get through this, we're going to make more money through teaching more students. We're going to save money by strategicly looking at if there other ways to fund something. NPR Illinoia is a good example. We're also looking at how can we leverage more rentals in our athletic fields? Historically we've often have been very charitable and we've offered our facilities at below market. I can tell you right now, based on the defunding by the state, we cannot be charitable. We need to be fair. We need to offer quality services and programs to our Community partners, but we can't do it for free because we haven't been paid or funded to do it that way. At the same time, our students are loud and clear that they're paying the most they can pay. If our core person we're here to serve is saying, "Hey, I'm paying the most I can pay." The state, at best, at best, doesn't take money from us. We're looking at, "How do we leverage all of our assets across the institution? How do we maintain our really heartfelt personal commitment? You said it, it's a balancing wheel. The support we're giving is substantial through indirect support to NPR Illinois. What we're not able to do is give the cash support, but we're giving it over five-year plan. I'm a personal donor to NPR Illinois, I love NPR. Our commitment is setting NPR Illinois on a growth success trajectory like we're looking at a growth success trajectory for the entire institution. No, we didn't start with NPR Illinois. Since the 2013 impasse, all the employees and at UIS will tell you all of the budget cuts they've taken all these years. There's two things in higher ed we do. We use our money to hire awesome, terrific people and we buy a few things. It's really in that order. About 80% of our budget is people. We have cut the things, and cut the things, and cut the things. There aren't any more things to cut. We've really constricted our people, too, where we can. We need faculty to teach classes. The classes can only be of a certain size. We need people in financial aid to process financial aid applications. We need people in housing to make sure that it's a quality residential experience. We are looking at every part of our enterprise, and we have shifted quite a bit over, particularly the last 10 years, to grants and contracts. The contract means a faculty member will say, "Hey, state agency, I will offer you my expertise and you will pay for it through a contract and the university gets a part of that." We are doing that more and more and more to develop that resilient diverse portfolio of funds. We've only come to NPR Illinois, I would say more, more than halfway through these efforts. Certainly not at the beginning. We still have a ways to go to get to where we'll be financially thriving and resilient. We didn't start with NPR Illinois. That's not who we are.

Eccles: The other question that has come up is whether WILL is also impacted by this?

Whitney: The universities are three independent institutions. They are on their own budgets. They have their own expectations. We coordinate through a system. There's a common Board of Trustees. No, this is UIS. This is Springfield. Their are larger issues that national or statewide campuses are dealing with, including our two sister institutions. No, my comments about fiscal planning, fiscal decision making, and priorities are UIS specific.

Eccles: How does this cut help UIS' mission to be a public affairs service to the community?

Whitney: First of all, we were never specifically funded to then fund NPR Illinois. I just can't explain that enough. I inquired, and I've only been here 10 months, I said, "Was there ever a legislative item? Was it ever included? All I got was, "No. No." I said, "Oh, okay." In a way, we extended it as long as we could. Clearly, we're in a position that it gets to be do we put dollars into our students or do we put dollars into other things. I can appreciate someone will go, "Wait a minute, you talk about public service and public affairs but you're reducing your direct cash support subsidy to NPR Illinois." I get the disorientation on this. That's why I'm talking here that it's about budget constriction. Now, I could see if I was reporting, "Oh, we have more money than we know what to do with," and we were doing that. Then that would be a walk away from our values. We're actually increasing the amount of professional support from our foundation and our advancement efforts to specifically support NPR Illinois. I've gone on record and I'll continue to go on record as we prepare for the next major campaign, we're successfully ending a current one that began several years ago. NPR Illinois should be prominent in the next major fundraising campaign to the university. Our values are clear. We are working in challenging times together.

Eccles: You have any perspective on how NPR Illinois can best serve us students and contribute to the academic mission?

Whitney: First and foremost, I think everyone hearing my voice should increase their their direct contribution to NPR Illinois. I know when I re-up again, I will. Number two, if you're hearing my voice and if you have kids, grandkids, neighbors, talk to them about UIS. Encourage them to take a look at us, to become aware of the outstanding programs we have here, on-ground and online. Encourage them, sometimes you're kind of ignored as the next door neighbor. Everybody who cares about the Community needs to encourage everybody complete high school because, for some people, that's not a guarantee. Complete high school and get some post secondary education. Whether it's at LincolnLand, right next to UIS. Or, LincolnLand then come to UIS. Please do that because that's good for the person. The best way we can become that resilient, thriving institution is to increase our enrollment. It's really kind of simple. Help us get more students.

Eccles: When the fiscal situation for the university rights itself to be back where it needs to be is there an opportunity for this decision to be reversed?

Whitney: You know, I always believe you can never go back, but you can go forward. You mentioned the five-year plan that you're on, we're on a five year plan to recover. I love the storyline. Now, I won't be chancellor. I'm an interim through next summer. But let's pretend the next chancellor is in here, we finished that five-year, we exceed our expectations, and we've switched the institution from earning more money than spending. That's where the fun begins. You get to look at the strategic use of those funds and I can easily see creative partnerships, funded internships, looking at what kind of academic programs -- the core business model of UIS is the academic programs and the credit hours. It's what we're here for. That's why intensive teaching is at the top of who we are. It is our top priority. It's one reason why in May I officiated 53 commencements were the class of 21 got to walk a stage. We didn't shake a hands, we elbow bumped but that's who we are. There's always a forward conversation, Randy. There's always looking forward and always open to proposals in ways that NPR Illinois would contribute to our academic programs, through our faculty. Our faculty are the standard bearers of quality and curriculum. But absolutely, there's always a future discussion. I know this can be in conflict with what I'm saying, it just shows you the complexity. The commitment is there and this is an evolutionary moment for both NPR Illinois and the university. We are in this together and that's unwavering.

Eccles: In other markets, other universities have not worked with their stations to try to make this work. UIS has committed to increase work from the advancement department and to continue to support us in in-kind ways. There have been universities that have sold their radio stations for the profit they can make to a religious broadcaster or somebody else. That's not how UIS values NPR Illinois.

Whitney: Not me. I would be surprised that the next chancellor would feel that way. The biggest reason goes back to your earlier question about the long history of public service and public affairs and the the incredible value that that public broadcasting brings to our democracy. I am unwavering. I've been vocal for many years about the requirement of having a free and unfettered press as a prerequisite to a democracy. Let's just say, at least, the democracy I believe I exist in. It's vital. Everyone should know that now more than ever. There is a relationship here of of mutual respect and knowing our lanes. NPR Illinois is not of the communication department of the university. It's an independent journalistic operation. I respect that. That's a necessity.

Eccles: A couple years ago, NPR Illinois did in-depth research and reporting about Title IX activities at the university, system-wide and it found some things that weren't optimal. The thought had been that this might have been retribution for that coverage.

Whitney: Given that I'm completely unaware of what you just said, anyone who presented that question to you, I can say that is completely in no way factors into it. I was unaware of NPR Illinois, its work in that area. I'm not aware of the item. I am very aware of my commitments of Title IX and NCAA regulations. One of the three things you get with me as an interim at first, is the assurance that we are following all of our requirements as a highly regulated industry so and I know that, as of today, our current operation is in best practice in Title IX. Whoever posed that to you if they want to talk to me more in depth, if that would help them move from that point in time to today, I would love to help them get to what we're dealing with today.

Eccles: The university's role in in the capital and holding government accountable, how can we help improve that in the situation of declining resources. There's not as much reporting as there used to be. There's some concern that this impacts NPR Illinois' ability to do state government accountability reporting.

Whitney: Well, we're all individual citizens. One of the best ways that we can help any journalistic outlet do what I think is its constitutional duty is to fund it. We do have good and bad, you can argue it, a predominantly privatized model of funding. People who care about it help you with the fundraising. Make it and let's set a situation where NPR Illinois is resilient. My job is to ensure outstanding credential curriculum, leading to really inspiring credentials that move people to want to come to UIS and learn and prepare for great lives and great livelihoods. My job is to support our faculty in their teaching and research. There is a terrific lane for NPR Illinois to work with that, but i'm always clear on what what my priorities are. Our priority at UIS is not to be the watchdog of state government in Springfield that is not our priority. We do have really important priorities of teaching and research and working with NPR Illinois.

Eccles: Anything you'd like to add, before we wrap up.

Whitney: Springfield is a town that has loved UIS and UIS has a great love of Springfield and we're going to work through that she guys. I want to really give a plug for compassion and patience and optimism that we're going to work together. Please know I will always do my best to answer every question, provide any information. I do encourage folks to go to UIS.edu "Show me the Money" or the chancellor's site. You've got a lot of information. If you think something's missing that you think should should be on that website, let me know. I'll put it out there. If you have suggestions for more web or zoom meetings are open to the public on the university, let me know. We want to be very transparent, because we are people's university and we owe it to explain what we're doing how we're doing it, and where we're going it's a very exciting time. In April, the board approved six new credentials. We are refreshing credentials. We're going to be introducing even more. We're expanding our reach and our enrollment. These are good things and I invite folks to join us.

Eccles: Karen Whitney, thank you for joining us. Karen is the interim chancellor at the University of Illinois Springfield and we've just had a discussion because there are some fiscal recovery aspects to the the issues over the past few years that are impacting the University, which in turn is reducing the funding that the university is able to provide NPR Illinois. If you'd like to know more, much as Karen has said she'd be happy to answer any questions you have, as the general manager of npr Illinois, I'm happy to talk to you and let you know what's going on and discuss the plan that we've come up with to navigate this situation, which you'll also be able to find at nprillinois.org. Thank you to the audience Members who love NPR Illinois and are passionate about standing up for us. We're hearing a lot from you and we wanted to make sure you got to hear from the head of the university why this was happening and how it is affecting the station and the community. Thank you Karen for taking the time.

Whitney: Thank you Randy appreciate you and everybody at NPR Illinois.

Randy Eccles is thrilled to be talking with community members and joining them in becoming informed citizenry. Please reach out at randy.eccles@nprillinois.org.
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