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Illinois at a Crossroads
State's leaders seek a new agenda for higher education


By William Trombley
Senior Editor

Springfield, Illinois


Jerry Blakemore, chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education
Jerry Blakemore, chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, heads the agency that operates Chicago's Comiskey Park.
For Illinois public higher education, this is a time to wonder and worry.

After eight years of generally benevolent treatment from Republican Governor Jim Edgar, the colleges and universities must learn to live with a new governor - either Republican George Ryan, who is now the Illinois secretary of state, or Democratic Congressman Glenn Poshard - neither of whom has had much to say about higher education during the campaign.

There are other new faces in important jobs.

Jerry Blakemore, chief executive officer of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (which owns and operates Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox) is now chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the coordinating agency that must approve budget requests and new academic programs for both four-year institutions and community colleges.

After more than 17 years as executive director of the Board of Higher Education (BHE), Richard Wagner stepped down this year and has been replaced by Keith Sanders, an Illinois native who was a vice president in the University of Wisconsin system.

Harry Crisp, a wealthy Pepsi Cola bottler from southern Illinois who has been the influential chairman of the Illinois Community College Board since 1990, also has resigned.

So some of the key players are new, and no one is quite sure how the game will be played.

"There's sort of a vacuum now," said Ross Hodel, the BHE's deputy director for external relations."The big question is: Can the momentum we've had in recent years be sustained?"

For five consecutive years, BHE budget requests have been approved by Governor Edgar, an unusual occurrence in any state. This year the campuses did even better. BHE proposed, and the governor accepted, a 6.5 percent increase in higher education spending for the 1998-99 academic year. But the legislature, feeling flush because of an anticipated $1 billion state budget surplus, increased that to 7.1 percent.

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A major reason for these budget successes, even in somewhat lean years, has been a BHE initiative known as "PQP" ("Priorities, Quality, Productivity"), which has resulted in the elimination or consolidation of more than 600 outdated or duplicative programs in the state's 12 public universities and, to a lesser extent, in the 49 community colleges over the last six years. An average $36 million a year has been saved, money that has been reallocated by the campuses to high priority needs, especially improvements in undergraduate instruction.

The PQP drive was led by Arthur Quern, a Chicago businessman who was chairman of the Board of Higher Education until he was killed in a plane crash two years ago.

"PQP is one of the reasons I've been much more accepting of their budget requests," Governor Edgar said in an interview, "because I knew they had been through that difficult process and had made some tough decisions."

At the Southern Illinois University campus in Carbondale, for instance, six doctoral programs, 12 master's degrees and 16 bachelor's degrees have been eliminated since 1993, despite considerable faculty opposition.

The Carbondale campus also abolished the College of Technical Careers, which offered two-year associate degrees in such subjects as dental hygiene and mortuary science. A few of these became four-year degree programs but most were shifted to nearby community colleges.

"We probably couldn't have made those cuts without a push from PQP," said Southern Illinois University President Ted Sanders (no relation to Keith).

John Wanat, vice provost at the University of Illinois' Chicago campus, agreed. "PQP has been a useful prod," he said. "It makes it easier for us to deal with the deans, to tell them we have to have some savings, we must make some reallocations, because the state says so."

PQP also has had strong support in the Illinois legislature.

"I think we have a much more accountable higher education system in Illinois as a result of this process," said state Senator John Maitland, of Bloomington, an assistant majority leader in the Republican-controlled upper house. "I would be very surprised if someone decided not to continue it."

Illinois Secretary of State George Ryan
Illinois Secretary of State George Ryan, Republican candidate for governor, has had little to say about higher education.
But PQP has been unpopular with some campus administrators and with most faculty members. It is unclear whether Blakemore, the new BHE chairman, and Keith Sanders, the new executive director, will push it as vigorously as did their predecessors. And, if they do, will the new governor pay attention?

"It really depends on them," John Wanat said. "Will they go after this with the same ‘jihad' attitude that Art Quern and Dick Wagner had?"

Apparently not.

"I believe PQP has been sufficiently internalized - everyone has come to accept it - that we no longer need to place such a high priority on it," Blakemore said in an interview at his Comiskey Park office.

"We will continue with the annual reports and mission reviews, but I would like to move on to other issues," such as access, affordability, "distance education" and other uses of technology and a "more market-based approach to higher education."

Sanders said he thought PQP was "a very good idea, crafted by people who were educationally and politically smart" but, he added, "the times have changed so much" that new approaches are needed.

"We have to be as high a priority with the new governor as we have been with the current governor," Sanders said, and he does not think that merely continuing the PQP process will be enough.

Sanders has proposed, and the board has approved, a "Citizens' Agenda for Illinois Higher Education," which includes such goals as increasing access to higher education, making sure that college remains affordable, improving educational quality and making better use of technology.

Few people would argue with these commonplace objectives but so far there are few specifics. Sanders and Blakemore hope to come up with these through public opinion polls and focus groups and by traveling the state to meet with educators, major employers and union leaders, among others.

"What we're doing is pretty obvious," Sanders said. "We're trying to create a new agenda for higher education…an agenda the new governor can run on in four years. We are searching for the ideas which are perfect for the early part of this new century, as PQP was for its time."

But some observers wonder if, in the search for new ideas, many of the PQP gains will be lost.

"The challenge will be to sustain the good parts of PQP - accountability and greater productivity - but repackage them to get the new governor's attention," said Edward R. Hines, a long-tine observer of the interaction between Illinois politics and higher education.

Getting the new governor's attention might not be easy.

Although Illinois will spend more than $2.2 billion - 11.4 percent of general fund revenues - on higher education in the 1999 fiscal year, there are few signs that either gubernatorial candidate - Republican George Ryan, the current front-runner, or Democrat Glenn Poshard - has paid much attention to higher education policy.

Executive Director Keith Sanders of the Illinois Board of Higher Education
Executive Director Keith Sanders, of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, hopes to make campus budget negotiations less confrontational.
"Neither one has shown a very strong interest in higher education," said Don Fouts, president of the Federation of Illinois Independent Colleges and Universities, an opinion shared by many in recent interviews.

In a 24-page education position paper, Ryan devotes only a page and a half to postsecondary education, saying he favors more "distance education," better high-tech job training and expanded opportunities for older students who work and attend college part-time.

There is no Poshard position paper on higher education and repeated efforts to elicit his views on the topic were unavailing. Phone calls were exchanged. Messages were taken. Documents were promised. Nothing happened.

Some think either candidate would treat higher education well, unless there is a state fiscal crisis.

"On this issue, I don't think the higher education community can lose," said Chicago attorney Philip J. Rock, a member of the Board of Higher Education and former majority leader of the state Senate. "I don't think there's a nickel's worth of difference between them."

But others are not so sure.

"If Ryan wins, then I think it's business as usual, but if Poshard gets in, I would look for some big changes," said another BHE member, who asked not to be identified.

"What is critical is to continue the bipartisan approach to higher education that we have enjoyed during the Edgar Administration," said BHE Chairman Blakemore, an African American and a Republican, who was appointed to the board by Governor Edgar.

Blakemore and Sanders aim to make the Board of Higher Education less of a regulatory body.

"I hope we can let the marketplace decide some of these issues and not depend so much on regulations," Blakemore said.

Sanders would like to "turn our focus from efficiency and productivity to the concerns that are reflected in our ‘Citizens Agenda.'" He also hopes to "streamline our procedures without weakening them."

These rather general statements have been interpreted differently on the various campuses.

At the University of Illinois main campus in Urbana-Champaign, the state's flagship research university, there is concern that dependence on the "marketplace" might not be in the best interest of either the state or the nation.

Congressman Glenn Poshard
Congressman Glenn Poshard, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, shown speaking at a community college, has offered few higher education proposals.
Said a top university administrator, "To be competitive, the state must excel in information technology and in biotechnology, two areas where the University of Illinois has to take the lead. To wait for the ‘marketplace' to decide these are important research areas might leave us badly behind."

But the deregulation and "free market" talk are music to the ears of John LaTourette, president of Northern Illinois University, a 22,000-student campus in DeKalb, 50 miles west of Chicago.

"Keith Sanders says the campuses, not Springfield, know best what should be done," LaTourette said. "That's the kind of talk I like to hear. Because of the acceleration of change, the competition is very keen and we can't be tied down to these lengthy procedures."

LaTourette said current BHE policies make it easier for out-of-state, for-profit institutions to start new degree programs in Illinois than it is for the state's own colleges and universities.

John Wanat, of the University of Illinois Chicago campus, echoed the complaint.

"Because of the board's regulations and procedures, we can't compete with people coming in from out of state," Wanat said. "We can't offer programs in a timely manner."

"Those are valid complaints," said Robert J. English, who owns a financial management firm in Aurora, Illinois, and has been a member of the Board of Higher Education for nine years. "We need to streamline those procedures and we're starting to do it."

Kathleen Kelly, BHE deputy executive director for academic programs, said, "We are going to change the approval system, to reduce the reporting requirements and hopefully shorten the time involved." In September, as a first step, the board delegated some of its authority over academic programs in the state's 49 two-year colleges to the Illinois Community College Board.

Illinois Governor Jim Edgar
Illinois Governor Jim Edgar, a Republican, has approved five consecutive higher education spending requests.
The BHE budget approval process also will be changed.

In the past, budget requests for individual campuses were hammered out in tough negotiations between Executive Director Dick Wagner and a few aides and local campus administrators in a series of what became known as "Big Picture" meetings. Several legislators and legislative staff members said these hard-nosed sessions were a key reason for the BHE's success in proposing annual higher education budgets that were acceptable to the governor and the legislature.

"Wagner tracked state revenues carefully and he always came up with a number that would fit the overall financial situation of the state," said Tim Nuding, Republican staff consultant for the Senate Appropriations Committee. "It was always a realistic number, in contrast to the unreasonable budget requests we would get from the K-12 people."

But Blakemore and Sanders want a "more open" and less confrontational process.

They have arranged for BHE members to participate in the "Big Picture" meetings, and they want each campus to have several opportunities to argue for its requests before the board makes final decisions.

Apparently complaints by some campus presidents have persuaded the new BHE leadership that the agency has drifted too far away from the campuses in recent years and has become more a hindrance than a help.

"The process will be more open," Sanders said. "More people will be involved and all will see it before any recommendation goes to the governor's office."

Blakemore likes the idea of involving Board of Higher Education members in budget negotiations. "You've got to get into the details," he said, "in order to know if a campus budget request matches its mission and if it fits with statewide goals."

Steve Rauschenberger, Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee
Steve Rauschenberger, Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is a sharp critic of Illinois public higher education.
But others believe the participation of BHE members in budget talks is a terrible idea.

"This is not a proper role for the board," said the president of a major campus, requesting anonymity. "Boards are policy makers, not managers."

Several board members said they did not want to participate in the "Big Picture" meetings but did not want to be quoted to that effect.

The new emphasis on harmony and consensus in BHE budget decision-making strikes some Springfield observers as a mistake. They believe the board could lose some of the credibility it has built up over the years, and could be seen by the new governor and the legislature as mere boosters for expansion-minded campus presidents.

The Board of Higher Education already is so regarded by state Senator Steve Rauschenberger, chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

"The BHE is little more than a cheerleader," Rauschenberger said. "The board sees its mission as very narrowly defined. It will never be an agent for fundamental change."

Aware of these concerns, Sanders has contracted with Dick Wagner to work on next year's budget.

Veteran BHE member Robert English said changes in board policies and procedures are not likely to be drastic.

"I think we will become a little less regulatory and there will be more board participation in the process," he said. "The pendulum will swing, but it will swing in a very small arc."

Photos by Todd Buchanan, Black Star, For CrossTalk

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