Illinois Public Media News
One immediate change following former Governor Rod Blagojevich's removal from office last year was the overhaul of four state pension boards. Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation last spring that not only changed the membership of those boards, but moved the chair of Illinois' Board of Higher Education into the same role with the State Universities Retirement System. Carrie Hightman has served in both capacities since July.
AM 580's Jeff Bossert spoke with her about the dual role, and the funding challenges faced by colleges and universities:
The Illinois Senate discussed the state's horrible budget problems but did it in a closed-door session that was off limits to the public.
Illinois lawmakers are defending their decision to bar observers from Wednesday's meeting, where national researchers presented details on how state budgets are suffering in the recession.
Senate President John Cullerton's spokeswoman says both Democrats and Republicans agreed to close the session to encourage "bipartisan dialogue.''
The Constitution requires "sessions'' of the General Assembly and its committees and commissions to be open. Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon says the Senate was not in session and senators did not comprise a committee or commission.
Public-access lawyer Don Craven doesn't believe the meeting was legal. He says it's unlikely there was anything discussed that couldn't have been said publicly.
Faculty unions and students say they're both opposed to the concept of furlough days as a way to cut costs at the University of Illinois.
A capacity crowd of around 100 attended at least a portion of Monday's 'teach-in' on the Urbana campus, in which faculty unions urged for more affordable and accessible education - without requiring furloughs, layoffs, and other cost-cutting measures. Students say lectures from groups like the Campus Faculty Association and Graduate Employees Organization were valuable, but a few were concerned their teachers took a common furlough day and cancelled classes in order to do it. Sophomore Eric Hessenberg says his history professor cancelled an 80-minute course in order to be at the teach-in, and he says that hurts instruction when it meets twice a week. "I guess my beef with this is that professors like to paint themselves as the good guys," says Hessenberg. "If they're so great in taking the high road, then why are they cancellling our classes? They've got all these research days, they could easy do this on that."
Leigh Ragsdale is an Officer-At-Large with the Graduate Employees Organization. None of her classes were cancelled, but the furloughs are creating a new problem for graduate workers because what their supervisors have asked of them. "And what's happening is they're asking us as grad students to cover their classes and their responsiblities which obviously presents a problem," says Ragsdale. "We already have our own job responsilibities and shouldn't be forced into doing the jobs of our professors during those furloughs."
U of I sophomore Rebecca Bauman says her English teacher will have to condense her lectures by cancelling one of two meeting times this week. But she was also asked to attend some of the lectures on higher education funding for a class on human rights. University spokeswoman Robin Kaler says furloughs should be taken in a way that doesn't hamper students' education. But she says it's good that that students and faculty spend some time discussing challenges at the U of I.
Sony's purchase of a Champaign-based medical technology company will allow it to use lasers for more than consumer electronics.
iCyt is located in the University of Illinois' Research Park. Its flow cytometry machines count, examine, and sort cells, doing research as well as testing for diseases like AIDS and various cancers. The machine uses a laser that shines onto cells, optics that collect the light from them, and computers that process the information. iCYT founder and CEO Gary Durack says that laser technology isn't far removed from what Sony does with a CD or DVD player. He says Sony plans on keeping ICyt in Champaign, adding that's important while so many seek help from Springfield or Washington, DC to solve our economic problems.
"We can help build businesses here, we can create jobs here, we can work to make the University of Illinois the greatest research institution in the United States, and recognized for that," says Durack. "We can get on board with all kinds of things in this community to get together to build it." ICyt has 44 full-time employees, but Durack expects that number to grow soon. Financial terms of Sony's purchase of the company weren't disclosed.
Leaders of Illinois' public universities are making a unified appeal for the money the state government owes them.
Illinois has been trying to deal with a deep budget deficit by putting off payments to creditors - including nearly three quarters of a billion dollars to higher education.
University of Illinois interim president Stan Ikenberry says his institution is 431 million dollars in debt because of the lack of payments, and leaders owe it to the people of Illinois to find a solution. He says that solution will include painful budget cuts.
"And it's going to require revenue increases. Very unpleasant, very difficult for any public leader lawmakers to think about," Ikenberry said. "But I think both cuts in expenditure and revenue increases will be essential before any solution can be brought about. The third essential element will be some strong leadership and bipartisan cooperation."
Ikenberry says the financial crisis is not a total surprise because the state's fiscal situation has been in decline for nearly eight years, but he's surprised that's it's gotten as bad as it has.
Several other university leaders joined Ikenberry at a Chicago press conference to call for the state money to be released.
Peoria-based Caterpillar has joined the growing list of supporters of the FutureGen coal-burning power plant planned for Mattoon.
And the heavy equipment maker is the first member of the FutureGen Alliance not tied directly with energy production. The alliance now has 11 members committed to providing financial resources to get FutureGen off the ground, they include Chicago-based utility giant Exelon, and St. Louis-based coal company Peabody Energy. Monday's announcement drew praise from officials like Governor Pat Quinn and Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson. Coles Together Vice President Anthony Pleasant admits Caterpillar's backing may appear a bit unusual at the outset. "The rest are power generation companies, and clearly that's not what Cat does." says Pleasant. "But Cat's always been environmentally friendly. Just days ago, their headquarters in Peoria was LEED certified. They reduced energy by 40%, and water usage by 50%. So it's something they clearly invest in." In a release from the company, a Caterpillar official says the company has long been committed to technologies and policies that slow, stop, and reverse the growth of Greenhouse gas emissions.
Pleasant notes that Caterpillar also makes mining equipment. He says this move is a good sign that other companies not related to energy production will support FutureGen, and calm federal officials' concerns over cost. The price tag of the facility now stands at about 1-point-8 billion dollars, with the Department of Energy expected to handle just over a billion of that. Two years ago, the Bush Administration pulled the plug on the project due to cost overruns. A DOE announcement on whether FutureGen will be built could come later this month.
Explosive growth" is how the Eastern Illinois Food Bank describes a more than doubling of food recipients over the last four years.
The food pantries in 14 counties supplied by the food bank report more than 100 thousand people received food from them last year. That's 133% higher than the number of recipients in 2005, the last time the "Hunger in America" study was compiled.
Jim Hires directs the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. He says his agency saw an identical increase between 2001 and 2005. Hires believes the economic downturn is partially to blame for the continued increase, but he also thinks his agency and member food pantries are doing a better job of finding those in need.
"Our numbers were going up anyway because of our efforts to reach more people," Hires said. "Even at our best effort we were still only reaching about half of the people who are in need. So we were taking steps. Couple that with the recession and all of a sudden it just ballooned almost out of control and really had us scrambling to meet the need."
Hires says a change in federal commodity policy has led to more surplus food going to the Eastern Illinois Food Bank, letting the agency use its money in creative ways to find more food.
The University of Illinois plans to send out emails to its Urbana campus employees on Tuesday, providing details about its voluntary separation incentive program. The U of I is offering incentives for faculty and staff who retire or resign --- but only if the conditions are right.
The cash-strapped U of I is looking to save money by shedding some of its faculty and staff --- and it will pay a half-year's salary up to 75 thousand dollars for faculty and staff who resign or retire. But university spokeswoman Robin Kaler says campus units will only offer the incentives in cases where the employee's departure would provide a real savings --- because that person would not be replaced, or would be replaced at a lower cost.
"So for example, if you had someone who made $70,000 a year and you determined maybe that you could not replace that person if they went, spending $35,000 to recoup another $35,000 could be a savings for the university," Kaler said.
The incentive programs target civil service and academic professional staff who agree to resign or retire before next fall semester --- and faculty eligible for retirement who agree to retire before fall semester 2011. A two-month application window begins on Wednesday. The incentive program only covers the U of I Urbana campus, not the Chicago or Springfield campuses, or university administration.
University of Illinois employees planning to retire this academic year don't have to worry about unpaid furlough days affecting their retirement benefits --- if they act in the next few days.
The university says that employees who sign a retirement agreement by Tuesday, February 2nd, don't have to take furlough days --- or a voluntary pay reduction.
U of I spokesperson Robin Kaler says the furlough waivers are being offered to employees considering retirement, who may be concerned by how furlough days will affect their final year's salary --- and consequently their pension levels.
"We did not want that furlough program to doubly hit people, just because of that window within which they those to retire", says Kaler.
The furlough waiver offer is for employees on all three U of I campuses who plan to retire by the start of the next fall semester. Employees on the Urbana campus may still be eligible for cash benefits to be offered in a voluntary separation and retirement program to be unveiled next week.
The University of Illinois will unveil incentive programs next week for faculty and staff on the Urbana campus considering resignation or retirement.
The programs have been in the works for several weeks. Deans, directors and department heads on the Urbana campus were given advance notice of the incentive programs Thursday in an email from Associate Provost for Human Resources Elyne Cole.
The programs offer a lump sum cash incentive for voluntary retirements and resignations --- equal to 50 percent of current annual salary, or 75-thousand dollars, whichever is less.
Civil service and academic professional employees working on the Urbana campus for at least four years in a row may apply for incentives covering resignations and retirements. Another incentive program covering retirements only is open to faculty and academic staff who are already eligible for retirement under SURS, the State University Retirement System. A two-month window for applications begins Wednesday.
In her email, Cole stresses that the incentive programs are voluntary, and that no one should be encouraged to participate, or discouraged from doing so. She describes the incentives as one way to address "challenging financial times" at the U of I.
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