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Local

Officials: Northern Illinois can endure

At town hall, stakeholders fret jobs, grants, school’s future

DeKALB – With news of some colleges and universities cutting staff and even being on the brink of bankruptcy as the state’s budget impasse nears nine months, Northern Illinois University officials tried to reassure some of its stakeholders Tuesday that the university is OK – for now.

“We’re still locked into an epic battle right now. An epic battle between a governor that wants to reform the way Illinois is governed, and a Legislature that wants to do things differently than the governor,” NIU President Doug Baker said. “And so higher education and many of the human services are kind of caught in this crossfire.”

Students, faculty and staff filled the Regency Room at the Holmes Student Center where Baker facilitated a town hall meeting. Students expressed concern over Monetary Award Program funding; faculty members wanted to know if they’d still have jobs and others were concerned with the overall effect of the budget impasse on the university.

But Baker and some members of his Cabinet told the attendees that NIU’s story is different from what’s going on at Chicago State University, which has declared a kind of fiscal state of emergency, or at Eastern Illinois University, which is preparing to lay off employees, or even at Kishwaukee Community College.

Kishwaukee College, which is 5 miles west of NIU’s campus, and which serves as a feeder for the university, announced last week that it would be cutting 17 percent of its workforce.

“We are not in the same category as some of the other institutions that are struggling,” said Al Phillips, vice president of administration and finance. “We have sufficient funds to get through the summer, to get through the fall semester and into the spring.”

Phillips said the university has buoyed itself against the tidal wave of fiscal fallout from the budget logjam by cutting back on expenses, halting some capital projects and not filling some vacant positions.

But officials cautioned that the approach won’t hold up in the long term, and the university will need its state funding.

“We’ve deferred maintenance, we’ve deferred purchasing, we’ve deferred new programs,” Baker said.

NIU freshman Emily Packer said she has anxiety over MAP funding. She said without that and other funding, she may not be able to return to NIU next fall.

“I work a part-time job here at school just to pay the tuition and costs that the school doesn’t cover,” said Packer, who is from Cary. And without the MAP grant and without the extra funding that the school might not pay with the budget, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to come back next year.”

In fiscal 2015, NIU received $96 million in state aid, with a budget of about $425 million. The school anticipated receiving $63 million this school year in a $389 million budget, but to date has received no state funding. Additionally, NIU is waiting to find out when it may be reimbursed about $20 million it fronted for students who expected to receive MAP grants this school year.

Still, the town hall touched on more positive things that the university is working on. Provost Lisa Freeman gave an update on the program prioritization initiative that was started last year.

Chief Diversity Officer Vernese Edghill-Walden announced that NIU would be looking to start an interfaith commission. She added that a series of community dialogues would kick off next month, with the First Amendment as the first topic.

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