IBHE may ban new requests

By Peter Schuh

The Illinois Board of Higher Education is gearing up to play hardball with the state’s public universities.

The IBHE could take budgeary action and impose a moratorium on new program requests in response to decisions by the universities to continue some academic programs the IBHE recommended be cut through its Priorities, Quality and Productivity initiative.

IBHE Executive Director Richard Wagner announced the board is seriously considering these actions during his testimony at a senate subcommittee hearing at NIU Thursday on PQP and its effect on higher education.

The moratorium on new programs means the IBHE would refuse to approve any new program requests. Public universities must have any new programs approved by their governing board and then the IBHE.

Wagner said the moratorium is “still a staff-level consideration” and a decision will be made before the IBHE’s November meeting.

“We could just decide for a year or two years that no new program will be considered,” he said. “This would encourage the universities and governing boards to address the issues and focus on the PQP initiative.”

Wagner said the IBHE wants the universities and governing boards to direct their attention toward the IBHE’s next round of recommended cuts, which will be announced in November.

However, he added, “There will be very few new programs addressed on this list.”

In other words, the majority of the IBHE’s new list will be recommended program eliminations from last year’s hit-list that the universities either failed to respond to or chose to keep.

The actual power to eliminate academic programs rests not in the hands of the IBHE, but lies with the individual governing boards of the universities, like NIU’s Board of Regents.

However, the IBHE does make budget recommendations to the state legislature for the universities and by recommending programs a second time for elimination, the IBHE could leave itself the option of cutting a university’s budget by the cost of the program the board would like to see eliminated.

“We may very well use that action,” Wagner said. “It’s definitely under consideration.”

But the IBHE’s role in the budget process is only advisory, and any recommended cuts to the legislature could be reinserted by the Illinois General Assembly.

State Sen. Bradley Burzynski, R-Sycamore, who organized the hearing, said the legislature could back the universities if the IBHE sought budgetary action to force the universities to make program cuts.

“I think overall that it depends on the legislature’s understanding of what program might be affected by the budgetary action,” he said. “We would be very hard-pressed to do away with some of these programs.”

Burzynski said he organized the hearing to make the Illinois legislature more aware of PQP and its effect on higher education.

The third power the IBHE wields to enforce its recommended cuts is the ability to reclassify the programs that it returns to this year’s list of recommended program eliminations as being economically and/or educationally unjustified.

This would send the programs directly to the university governing boards to be cut instead of back to the universities for consideration. The governing boards would then be forced to take full responsibility for a decision to continue a program cited on the IBHE’s list.