Financial diet prescribed for university

By Ken Goze

NIU, like all state agencies, has to examine its priorities, lose whatever bureaucratic bloat it can and brace for some lean times, said a state legislator from the front lines of the budget battles.

State Rep. Tom Ryder, R-Jerseyville, addressed the recent round of budget cuts, the future of higher education in the face of shrinking state budgets and other issues in a day-long Friday visit to NIU.

Ryder, a 1972 NIU graduate, is the minority spokesman on the House Committee on Appropriations II.

He said the budget compromise reached last week between Gov. Jim Edgar and Democratic leaders last week was far from perfect but was the best deal that could be expected at the time. The measure would slash $273 million in programs instead of the $350 million proposed by Edgar.

A Democratic recommendation to free up money from specific funds, such as the road fund, spared public aid from deeper cuts but left in place the full $49 million higher education cut recommended by Edgar. NIU faces a $2.5 million cut from its current budget. Ryder said it’s too early to tell if it will be a permanent base cut.

“I didn’t like some of the cuts we made, but it was a compromise,” Ryder said. He said the current crisis was magnified by the recession, which put a kink in the state’s tax revenue stream and drove up demand for services.

Ryder said NIU needs to leave increased state funding out of its plans for at least the next three years as Springfield tries to shrink spending to current income levels.

“The university has three choices. They can either reduce services, they can get more state money or they can raise tuition. They’re not going to get more money, so they have to look at the other two,” he said.

In order to make up for the cuts, universities may have to raise tuition far above the 4 percent hike recently recommended by the IBHE.

Ryder said the state’s higher education governing structure needs to be examined and possibly trimmed. “You have a Board of Regents and a State Board of Higher Education. These are two layers of bureaucracy, and I’m not sure what it is that they do,” he said.

While universities need to examine their spending on non-instructional areas such as athletics and research, Ryder said legislators should not intervene in those decisions.

“I don’t think it’s the role of a legislator to micro-manage. I don’t believe that I should be the guy to come to NIU and tell (President John) La Tourette how to run his programs,” Ryder said.

Because the University of Illinois historically overshadows NIU in the legislature, NIU should work on defining its mission to Springfield rather than trying to compete with the larger school.

“When the University of Illinois speaks, people listen for several reasons. One of which is that they don’t have to go through a Board of Regents to talk to the legislature.”

yder said NIU should work to build its reputation as a regional, comprehensive university and harness the influence of its alumni in the area.

“The disadvantage for NIU is that it is a regional school for Northern Illinois. The advantage you have is that Northern Illinois has most of the people in the state,” he said.