Illinois Public Media News
Furlough days could be just the beginning of the changes ahead at the University of Illinois. Two top university leaders say the next few years could see a host of changes, as the U of I adjusts to diminishing state funding.
Interim Urbana campus chancellor Robert Easter says the state's budget crisis has forced U of I administrators to start looking at how they can maintain the integrity of the institution in the long-term, considering the financial problems they're facing. He says university officials are starting to hold conversations they haven't had for some time.
"Those conversations are around what are we really about, what are our key programs that we want to have as a part of our future. What do we want to look like in 20 years?" Easter said. "And how do we decide those things that we no longer do? They may have been important at some time in the past, they may still be important. But what are our priorities?"
Easter says he'll be meeting with deans and vice-chancellors on the Urbana campus this Friday to start work on designing the framework for those conversations. While their outcome is unknown, U of I interim president Stanley Ikenberry says he envisions a U of I five years from now with the same number of faculty or more, but with fewer non-teaching and administrative staff.
Ikenberry and Easter made their comments Monday night during a live interview on WILL Radio and TV.
It will be sometime next year before researchers can utilize the world's fastest supercomputer on University of Illinois Urbana campus -- but there's already a list of teams who will have first dibs when Blue Waters comes on line. And the U of I's National Center for Supercomputing Applications is seeking applications for more through mid-March.
Blue Waters is the result of a collaboration between the U of I and National Science Foundation, which is providing monetary awards to those researchers.
NCSA spokeswoman Trish Barker says it will take some time for research teams to adjust from a machine that does trillions of calculations each second to one that does a quadrillion every second. She says that will require an understanding of the huge computer's applications, or codes, in the same way we would use a common consumer program.
"They're written to run on supercomputers -- that means that things have been parallelized so that programs are sort of broken up and different pieces of them are being run on different parts of the supercomputer that are communicating with each other," Barker said. But those have to scale up now to take advantage of many many more processors than they're currently using. It's kind of like if you've tried to think about, I've used Microsoft Word on one computer -- what if I wanted to use it on five computers?
The first 18 teams learning Blue Waters' codes includes a group from the U of I's department of atmospheric sciences to build a tornado model. And another group on campus will study molecular dynamics.
Barker says the NSF awards are partially for travel... allowing teams to all meet on campus to begin researching the programming code for when Blue Waters comes on line. Some of the funding is also dedicated to getting the teams together to prepare their research.
While academic professionals at the University of Illinois are preparing to take unpaid furlough days, some of them believe they shouldn't have to. They're the 300 or so visiting academic professionals at the U of I's Urbana campus. Unlike other AP's, the VAP's have a collective bargaining agreement with the university.
Their chief negotiator --- Alan Bilansky of the Association of Academic Professionals --- says that agreement exempts them from mandatory furlough days, the same as with other union workers on campus.
"We want to make sure that the university really wants to do this, when we've made it very clear that they're covered by a collective bargaining agreement", says Bilansky. "And you can't just arbitrarily give them a pay cut. If they're moving forward with it, we're going to have to move forward with an unfair labor practice (complaint)."
But U of I spokesperson Robin Kaler says the directive for unpaid furlough days definitely covers visiting academic professionals, because -- unlike other union employees -- their agreement does not have any language forbidding furloughs..
"The VAP collective bargaining agreement covers people who are not civil service employees", says Kaler. "The 17 collective bargaining agreements we have with civil service employees say specifically that we must follow civil service rules, which do not allow for fuloughs."
Visiting academic professionals at the U of I do the same work as academic professionals, but they are hired and fired differently. Only the Urbana campus VAP's have a collective bargaining agreement with the university.
About 11-thousand University of Illinois employees will have to take four unpaid days off work between now and the middle of May.
U of I administrators say furlough days have become unavoidable as the university faces a 440 million dollar shortfall in state funding. Administrators say the state has given the U of I only seven percent of the support it expected from this year's budget.
Interim president Stanley Ikenberry says no layoffs have been ordered, but departments are being asked to consider them because of a grim immediate future.
"Next year is not any more comforting," Ikenberry said. "So I think until we see the state leadership -- the governor, the leaders and members of the General Assembly, and frankly the citizens of the state -- rallying around a long term solution, I think we're going to be dealing with a mounting financial crisis."
Ikenberry believes the state will need to cut state spending and increase taxes to dig itself out of its budget deficit.
Chief financial officer Walter Knorr says the U of I has borrowed millions of dollars from its own funds - he says money from tuition, federal support and private giving have also kept the university going. "And indeed it's these other areas of the university that are giving us the liquidity that we require to be able to cope with the shortfall in funding from the state," Knorr said.
The four-day furloughs announced today do not affect civil service employees, but Knorr says their bargaining groups will be asked to put similar actions into their contracts. About 100 top administrators will take ten furlough days over the next five months.
December was another month of slow economic improvement for Illinois --- according to the University of Illinois Flash Index.
The Flash Index increased by a fifth of a point, to 91.2 in December, from November's 90.0. U of I Economist Fred Giertz says the Index has been gradually going up since hitting a low of 90 in September.
"There has been now three months of small increases", says Giertz. "So it's good news in a very limited sense --- good news in the sense that things aren't getting worse, but it doesn't necessarily mean there's a lot of improvement."
Giertz says he thinks slow economic growth will continue in Illinois, provided there are no unforeseen reversals, but says it will take a couple of years for the Flash Index to reach 100, which would indicate the start of actual economic growth.
"I think the evidence suggests that we are on the path to recovery", says Giertz. "But the recovery's going to be pretty slow. But there's not guarantee about that. There could be some unforeseen circumstance or some reversal. We've certainly seen that in the last couple of years."
Giertz says the best-case scenario would be a healthier financial sector combining with renewed public confidence in the economy to create a snowball effect. But he thinks gradual sluggish improvements are more likely.
The Flash Index is based on corporate, personal income and sales tax receipts in Illinois. Despite the recent improvement, all three categories are down from a year ago.
More than 200 grade school students in Champaign are learning their way around a new building.
Unit 4 bid farewell to Booker T. Washington Elementary school before the holidays. Its students, teachers, and staff will spend the next year and a half in the Columbia Center while the Washington building is demolished and replaced.
It's a time of mixed emotions for 3rd grade teacher Julie Peoples, who's in her 21st year with Washington Elementary. She's sad to see the building go, but she also serves on a committee that will oversee the new Washington's transition to a magnet school program. Peoples notes her current students will be first to graduate from that new school:
"They want to know when the wrecking ball is going to tear down the old school, and I keep saying, 'Drive by.' I don't even have a date yet," Peoples said. "People have even been calling me -- people in the community, ex-parents -- wanting to know how they can get a brick. I talked with the principal and she said we're going to start selling bricks and make some money for the school. So it's kind of exciting."
Peoples says she can't say enough about district staff that helped with the transition over the holiday break.
Unit 4's Columbia Center was built in 1903 and has seen five additions added since then, the most recent one built in 1965. It's been used as an elementary school, middle school, and most recently for alternative education.
A semi-trailer carrying nearly 200 hogs overturned on an interstate west of Champaign Monday, blocking traffic for several hours. The driver of the semi was unhurt. But an estimated 10 to 12 percent of the hogs were killed, including about a half-dozen who had to be euthanized at the scene, due to their injuries.
That work was done by veterinarians and students from the University Of Illinois College Of Veterinary Medicine, who were called to the scene by state police to help out.
Dr. Kris Clement of the U of I Vet-Med teaching hospital was one of those called to help with the injured hogs. She says that fortunately, traffic accidents involving livestock trucks happen rarely. But Clements says the accident gave her students valuable experience - including a lesson about when to step into an accident scene.
"Our role didn't start until the survivors got off the trailer because that's the biggest thing -- you've got to get the uninjured ones off the trailer so they can be taken away and you actually have the room to work with the injured ones," Clement said. "Our instinct is to want to help right away, but we can actually get in the way."
The semi overturned as it was turning off of westbound I-74 onto southbound I-57. All lanes and ramps were opened to traffic after the truck and the uninjured hogs were removed.
Gov. Mitch Daniels says Indiana will start cutting school funding starting in January.
Daniels previously announced the K-12 cuts of about $300 million. Schools will lose about 3.5 percent of current state funding in 2010, starting with their January payment. The Indiana State Board of Education had recommended that the cuts begin in January.
State Superintendent Tony Bennett says school districts can find 3 percent savings without laying off teachers.
Daniels says education is such a big part of the state budget in Indiana that cuts were unavoidable to ensure Indiana doesn't have a deficit when the budget ends in July 2011. The Republican governor has already ordered cuts at state agencies and universities.
Employee buyouts are being looked at as another option for the University of Illinois to cut costs next spring.
Campus units were told earlier this month to make contingency plans to reduce spending by 7, 10, and 15 percent. Those plans were to be submitted earlier this week. U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says this is just another possibility as state reimbursements to the university are behind by about $400 million. "For several months the university has been struggling with a mounting financial crisis," says Kaler. "We're working on several options and buyouts are one of those, but we don't have details yet on any of the options." Kaler says it's too early to speculate who may take advantage of a buyout plan.
The U of I is also considering implementing a furlough policy next spring that's already been put together. Kaler says administrators have other cost-cutting proposals on the table, but couldn't be more specific.
The sponsor of a bill to eliminate the 50 percent tuition waivers available for children of state university employees says it's a sacrifice the state needs to make.
Dave Winters of the Rockford area submitted the bill (HB4706) last week and acknowledges that he's received some unhappy phone calls from state-employed parents since he did so. But Republican state representative says public employees shouldn't be seen as having a special privilege not available to others.
"We have to realize that it's a fiscal crisis", says Winters. "The state can shut down the universities. If we go another year or two in the current spending habits without making some tough decisions, I think we're facing disaster this year with so many of our social service agencies on the verge of closing or having already closed."
Winters also says he'll probably amend the bill to allow students already using the tuition waivers to continue to do so. And he says he would add a controversial scholarship program for state lawmakers to the chopping block.
Winters also says universities could be given the option of continuing the tuition waivers, but he says they'd have to compete with many other programs and services for a shrinking pool of state funding. He expects more lawmakers to sign onto his bill when the legislature reconvenes next month.
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