© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

As UIS deals with a budget deficit, campus unions call out “a lack of investment”

NPR Illinois

Employee unions representing both tenure-track and non-tenured faculty, along with service, clerical, kitchen and custodial workers at the University of Illinois Springfield, say more financial resources are needed.

The unions are getting ready for what is expected to be difficult negotiations on new contracts. The non-tenure track faculty union, which was recognized for the first time early this year, is now at the bargaining table. The others are under contract until August 2025, with talks expected to begin this fall.

“We've definitely made significant strides since we unionized in our last few contracts,” said Kristi Barnwell, an associate professor in history and chapter president for the tenure-track faculty. She mentioned the union is still putting together a comparison of salaries among comparable institutions, but believes it shows UIS pay is below average.

UIS lists total revenue available at $57.8 million. That includes state support, along with tuition and fees. But when expenditures are factored, the campus deficit sits at an estimated $8.8 million.

A state budget impasse in the past decade, followed by a pandemic and rising inflation, has contributed to strained finances.

UIS has also struggled to grow enrollment. The number of students dropped from a high of 5,431 in 2014 to below 4,000. The campus froze tuition in several years since in an effort to remain affordable and attract students. Undergraduate tuition has remained the same since the summer of 2022.

Enrollment at UIS has increased in the past two years, including 11% last fall. But it still counts about 700 fewer students than a decade ago. The focus is on growing the numbers.

“The more students we have on campus, the more students we have in our residence halls…all of that helps us balance our budget more effectively,” UIS Chancellor Janet Gooch said last year.

UIS would receive a 2% funding increase under the governor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year starting in July. That would amount to an approximately $400,000 spike in revenue.

The last contract negotiations with faculty went down to the wire. An intent to strike notice was filed in 2022 before an agreement was finally reached.

“We were able for the first time to get some of the biggest raises that I’ve ever received in the 13 years I’ve been at UIS. But those topped out at like 3 to 4 ½ percent,” she said. “If I were to calculate to back when I started, and made adjustments for inflation, I am barely above where I was then,” Barnwell said.

The UIS administration, in a written response, said the union-represented positions are subject to collective bargaining. “This contract was voted on and approved by the union membership,” it said.

Joshua Smith, a professor in the computer science department, is among those bargaining on behalf of the non-tenure track faculty. He said the workload has increased for those employees, taking on additional duties or teaching more classes. Smith said the university is having difficulty hiring.

“Our department is booming. But the salaries we’re offering to incoming faculty are not high enough,” he said. “So instead of teaching three classes a semester, I am teaching between six and seven.”

The new non-tenure track union doesn’t include adjunct instructors – only faculty at 50% employment or higher.

Barnwell said in the current contract for faculty, a deal was reached to study the problem of unequal distribution of teaching. That study is ongoing, she said.

“Our tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty are having to pick up the slack and stretch themselves thin to offer more courses and meet other expectations,” Barnwell added.

For years, UIS has touted smaller class sizes as a selling point. But Barnwell said that’s not always possible with current staffing.

Smith said while work is getting done, the quality can suffer.

“Lately, I have been teaching five unique classes. I was hired to teach three. I have to come up with five unique assignments for each class every week. I can’t just reuse material,” he said. “I have to make decisions as to the workload and what I can actually manage. It has a trickle-down effect on students.”

It is expected once again to be a key point in negotiations.

“Our goal is to provide quality instruction while also ensuring students make timely progress toward graduation,” the administration replied. “In some cases, that may mean full-time faculty take on limited additional teaching assignments for additional compensation when necessary. In other situations, additional teaching capacity may be accommodated by hiring part-time adjunct faculty. Underlying needs and constraints vary from term to term and department by department and are closely monitored at the college level with support from the administration.”

The former Sangamon State University was brought into the University of Illinois system in 1995. At the time, the move was seen as a way to improve and expand the campus and its offerings.

While UIS has expanded its campus footprint in the nearly three decades since, Barnwell said an “under-investment” has been happening for years.

“We’ve been running deficits, and that’s not because we’re spending money wildly. We’ve got buildings in need of repair, equipment and classrooms that need maintenance. We have employees who need to be paid fair wages. But the U of I is not investing enough to keep the ship afloat,” she said.

“What’s the point of being part of a system if resources aren’t going to be shared around to make sure everyone gets what they need to be successful?”

The administration said maintaining facilities is an important strategic priority. It points to a commissioned study to better determine the deferred maintenance backlog and efforts to address it.

“UIS has partnered with UIC, UIUC and the U of I System on a Campus Renewal Task Force, comprised of representatives from across the System, to recommend a capital renewal strategy,” it added. “The strategy includes financial, implementation and prioritization plans to address short and long-term needs. The task force’s report, focused on academic buildings, will be presented to the U of I Board of Trustees in the coming months.”

The overall University of Illinois system budget for the current fiscal year totals $7.8 billion. But state funding for higher education, which has gone up the past two years, lags behind where it was two decades ago. At that time, the state provided $2 in support for every 1$ in tuition. That has since flipped. Families have picked up the slack, paying higher tuition and fees. Many institutions are implementing programs to help, including UIS with the new Prairie Promise.

While curriculum varies across the three University of Illinois system campuses, some jobs are more similar.

Tom Gebhardt is President of University Professionals of Illinois Local 4100, representing service employees at UIS. He points to building service workers who earn less than colleagues at Urbana. At UIS, the starting hourly rate is $16.23.

“We start out $2 per hour less. It jumps to a $7 dollars per hour difference within two years. Clerical and kitchen staff are about the same pay scales,” he said.

“Yes, it’s a bigger campus over there, but they also have two to three times as many people doing the same jobs as we do. We open the campus. We are the first ones here, cleaning the buildings, prepping the breakfasts and lunches and it doesn’t seem that we’re recognized as those gatekeepers, so to speak.”

Gebhardt said service workers also played a key role during the pandemic with deep cleaning and sanitizing and keeping the campus open.

Meanwhile, UIS leaders are making it a priority to dig out of the multi-million dollar deficit, an effort that is expected to take several years. But union representatives said they see the next round of contract talks as key to the future of the campus.

“I’ve been teaching here 15 years and I was a student before that.” Professor Joshua Smith said. “I think we’re getting to the breaking point to where we’re not going to be able to sustain what we’re doing.”


Note: NPR Illinois’ newsroom staff is not part of any union on campus. 


Related Stories