Illinois official has innovative ideas for higher education

Most American state-assisted universities, as well as most private colleges and universities, are facing severe fiscal challenges.

A combination of factors has contributed to the current problem. The nation’s economy, as well as state economies, are struggling, resulting in lower tax revenues being funneled into higher education. The economy has tightened the purse strings of those looked to for major private giving, and university officials are hesitant to raise tuition rates to help meet the fiscal needs of the university. Competition for students is growing from junior college or community colleges that offer excellent educational programs. The cost of running a major state-aided institution has increased significantly, and many universities have been operating for some time in an unreal world and have not tightened their operations to be more efficient.

In the current economic downturn, most private businesses have had to make adjustments and severe cutbacks to stay in business, but the average citizen probably wonders whether university officials have explored cost savings as seriously as they should.

Here in Kansas, residents are asked to travel to Topeka to plead the case for higher education. University students organize trips to Topeka to call on state legislators asking for increased funding. Members of the Kansas Board of Regents reportedly have asked business leaders in Lawrence, Wichita and Manhattan to put pressure on their state legislators to stop any further cuts in state aid and figure out ways to increase the dollars flowing to higher education.

KU officials have made many speeches and issued many press releases telling how 200 or more people have been terminated from university positions. As of a few days ago, few, if any, of these individuals have been teachers. Most cuts have come from various types of support personnel.

Unfortunately, there have not been any innovative proposals from the chancellor or presidents of state universities, nor have those serving as regents come up with any significant — some might call them revolutionary — ideas for how the state might sail through the current fiscal storm and still be able to maintain the excellence of its schools.

This is a time that calls for leadership, vision and a proven track record that justifies the respect and support of the public — and state legislators.

A recent news story in the Champaign (Ill.) News Gazette outlines the ideas of one of the nation’s most respected university leaders, Stanley Ikenberry, interim president of the University of Illinois, on how students, families and the university all could save money and, at the same time, maintain the quality and integrity of his institution.

Ikenberry said a shorter college career, an “accelerated program” that could be in place by fall 2011, would raise revenue for the school while cutting tuition and letting students enter the work force sooner.

After outlining his ideas to the university’s board of trustees, Ikenberry said he hesitated to call his plan a three-year program, because even trimming a single semester would create substantial savings for students and their parents.

Ikenberry was president of the giant university for 16 years before stepping aside. Now, he has been asked to step back into an interim presidency while the school looks for a permanent chief executive.

The University of Illinois has more than 70,000 students on three campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield. It’s one of this nation’s major research universities with a total operating budget of $4.66 billion.

The president said a combination of distance learning or online courses, placement tests for college credit, high school participation in some programs and, especially, use of summer school could shorten a student’s stay at one of the three campuses.

“We are way underutilizing our summer session,” he said. The newspaper reported that Ikenberry told his regents that using summers more fully would provide additional revenues for residence halls and more pay for faculty members who take on extra courses. He added that increased tuition for a greater number of students would offset new costs.

Ikenberry said summer course listings have been “limited for decades” and need to be expanded to meet more of the students’ needs.

Other suggestions offered by the Illinois president included:

• The university could help its students and finances by “smoothing the transition” from community colleges to the university. He said the current process is “not as straightforward as it could be.”

• The university should look for synergies among and within its campuses to save money while enhancing the academic mission, such as having internships for students at one campus taken at another campus.

• High school students might take an occasional U of I course online for college credit.

Perhaps one of the most important parts of the report of Ikenberry’s presentation to the Illinois regents was his statement that the measure he was suggesting would “send a message to the people of Illinois that we’re still on game.”

Is KU “on game” in the eyes of Kansans?

There are sure to be those in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago or Springfield who will take exception to what Ikenberry is suggesting. Likewise, there are sure to be those among faculty and administrators in Lawrence, as well as some or all of the Kansas regents, who fault Ikenberry’s proposals.

Even so, Ikenberry is offering specific suggestions and few can argue his belief that summer school opportunities are being underutilized — in Urbana-Champaign, as well as in Lawrence.

It seems most of the efforts on behalf of KU, Kansas State and Wichita State have been in the form of trying to prevent state lawmakers from making any more cuts by sending lobbying delegations to Topeka and talking about how damaging cuts have been to the university.

It’s time for the chancellor and presidents to be as bold and visionary as Ikenberry in outlining some major changes on their campuses. Surely, there are many solid ideas that could be suggested. And why don’t the regents have the vision to call for changes and not just ask business leaders, students and others to plead the case of higher education?

It’s far past time for some leadership innovation, vision and a sense of urgency by those at state universities and by the regents themselves.

Fault him if you wish, but Ikenberry has offered solid, positive ideas, not just hand-wringing pleas for others to help.