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Pennsylvania, Resolve the Budget Impasse

A long-time university president recalls the dire consequences to public higher education of an Illinois budget stalemate — and urges legislators to ensure that doesn't happen here

Pennsylvania, Resolve the Budget Impasse

A long-time university president recalls the dire consequences to public higher education of an Illinois budget stalemate — and urges legislators to ensure that doesn't happen here

Pennsylvania is facing a budget impasse over a single non-budget issue: school vouchers. My plea to legislators, whatever your views, pro or con, on providing private school vouchers for students in poverty-stricken neighborhoods: Find a compromise and pass a budget.

In 2015, when I was president of Governors State, an Illinois public regional university, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner decided to hold the state budget hostage for a list of demands. He would not sign any budget that the Democratic legislature moved forward unless they made concessions on unrelated issues (like term limits for legislators). The stalemate went on for two years — the longest such impasse in the U.S. since the Great Depression.

During that time, state universities, most dependent on state funds, received no appropriations — and jeopardized state-supported student scholarships. The dire consequences of politicizing the state budget were felt for years afterward. Even now, years after Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a budget with generous funding for state universities and student scholarships, public universities in Illinois still feel the effects of the 2015-17 budget stalemate.

How PA’s budget stalemate affects public universities

The Pennsylvania situation is not even close to the calamitous nature of the 2015-17 Illinois crisis, but even an impasse of several months has consequences. State-related universities — Temple, Lincoln, Penn State, University of Pittsburgh — cannot wait until the PA legislature reconvenes in September to make plans for the coming year. These institutes of higher learning are setting tuition and establishing priorities now.

The worst consequence of the Illinois budget debacle was loss of confidence in higher education.

When university presidents and boards are in the dark about the amount of state funding to expect for the coming year, they cannot look forward. Pennsylvania public universities should be making bold plans now to make higher education more affordable and diverse. They should take a lesson from Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz of the University of North Carolina, and starting in 2024, provide free tuition and required fees for incoming state undergraduates whose families make less than $80,000 per year.

But without a predictable state budget, a plan like that would be too risky. In fact, all planning is impeded when you are uncertain about available funds.

The Illinois situation six-to-eight years ago was a nightmare. Students decided not to attend college because their state scholarships were threatened. At my institution, we announced that whatever the state did or did not do, we would provide students the scholarships they’d been promised. We could do that for two reasons: We had reserves, which we had painstakingly built up during the years of my presidency. And, frankly, the trustees and I made a judgment that finally the Governor would see the huge political consequences of denying already-committed state scholarship funds and come through at the last minute. That did indeed happen.

But on the question of operating expenses, we had no way to accurately predict what, if anything, we would receive. The worst consequence of the Illinois budget debacle was loss of confidence in higher education. During those terrible days, every time I made a public appearance, I had to answer the question: “When will your university close?” My unequivocal response was always that we would not close — but if the state continued its disgraceful budget stalemate, we would do what we had to do — even if it meant cuts so deep that we would be left with a faculty member and a student studying under a tree. At least I could assure them that the faculty member would be excellent, the student would learn a great deal, and we would also take pretty good care of the tree.

But emphatic, student-centered statements do not substitute for strategic, ongoing planning. We did our best. Those interested in how my university weathered the Illinois budget crisis can read a detailed account in my book, Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation.

My experience with the 2015-17 Illinois budget situation sets off fireworks of alarms whenever I see the word “impasse.” Now is the time to remember that compromise is the hallmark of democracy. I appeal to the Pennsylvania legislature to be aware of the consequences of delay. Please reconvene and pass a budget now.

Things to do:

    • Lobby legislators to pass a state budget now.
    • Vote for elected officials who know the meaning of compromise.
    • Encourage public colleges and universities to provide free tuition and fees for local students, even when times are rough.

Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is an Advisor at the American Council on Education. She is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation ( Her long career in higher education has encompassed top executive positions at public universities as well as distinction as a scholar in rhetoric/composition. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter


Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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