Illinois higher ed: Private ends and public means
March 5, 1992
A half-serious proposal to sell off what was then still known as Sangamon State University in Springfield in order to balance Illinois’s ambitions for its higher ed system and its modest means.
The governor needs money, and so he's poking around beneath the sofa cushions of state government looking for nickels and dimes. [Gov. Jim] Edgar's staff reportedly has talked about eliminating one tier of governance from the state's public system of higher education. But while eliminating whole offices of higher ed bureaucrats is a useful beginning, it is too timid a remedy by far for a state whose economy is in long-term decline. Illinois needs to eliminate whole systems of higher ed institutions.
U.S. higher education is essentially a market-driven system. In Illinois there is some bureaucratic intervention through the Illinois Board of Higher Education to balance resources—and thus costs — with demand. (This is done by means of program reviews and enrollment caps at some campuses.) Mainly, schools are left to cope with rising costs and a dwindling customer pool like any retail business, by reducing costs, downsizing operations, moving downmarket, or exploiting new markets.
Most of our public colleges and universities have opted for the last two. For example, Illinois universities have been acting like fried chicken franchises fighting over a choice comer for the chance to establish a market presence in "educationally under-served" regions. SSU has (with Illinois State) been poaching on Bradley University's territory in and around Peoria in its search for "placebound" students who can't afford to attend that private four-year school. And Lincoln Land Community College has apparently driven Springfield College in Illinois out of business—and now finds itself over-extended.
Less choice for the consumer and lower profits for the purveyor—the shakeout in education looks awfully like the shakeout in retailing. As is true of retailers, downsizing is the inevitable alternative to bankruptcy. Unlike some of their students, Yale's administrators can read the writing on the wall, and have proposed to eliminate two academic departments, consolidate five others, and trim faculty overall by 11 percent.
Closer to home, the people who run LLCC want to reduce its projected $1 million deficit by paring extraneous faculty positions and eliminating two under-enrolled job training programs. (Even these piddling reductions excited the unions to file official complaints; in a system as bloated as ours, efficiency is an unfair labor practice.)
A more radical reorganization is in order across the whole Illinois system. Sangamon State University is today's case in point. These days you would expect a public affairs university to shine. The state government is desperate for new ideas to raise revenues, to train and organize its own work force, to direct its economy and rebuild its cities. Yet the only new idea to come from Shepherd Road is how to structure its proposed basketball program.
It seems fair to ask that professors—who complain about getting only five5 percent raises from a state that hasn't given poor kids a raise in the basic AFDC grant for nearly twenty years—be able to justify their claim to the taxpayers' largess. There is alas no accepted test of a university's worth. Most of the popular measures, such as the number of TV appearances by its sports teams or alumni hangovers, are not quite germane to SSU's peculiar mission. Should we perhaps hold it against SSU that during the twenty years of its improving presence the city of Springfield sent Doc Davidson to the statehouse something like ten times and gave Jim Thompson majorities in four consecutive elections?
In fact, trying to calibrate SSU's intellectual contributions asks the wrong sorts of questions of an institution that was boosted as a cultural public works project. In that role it has paid off handsomely; the auditorium in the Public Affairs Center—a remarkably lavish facility for a campus with no arts program to speak of—has given Springfield the venue for road-show musicals that Springfieldians used to have to drive to Peoria to see.
Nice while it lasted, but higher ed can no longer subsidize even itself. LLCC may offer a model for paring back the system. It has proposed offering some vocational classes under a self- supporting Training and Retraining Institute that would in effect sell skills to local businesses. The institute would thus reflect organizationally what the school has been doing all along. An about-to-be-laid-off agriculture instructor let the hog out of the bag when he complained that many ag employers would no longer have a crop of potential employees with associate degrees to choose from.
As a man reaps, I say, so should he sow. Raising crops of workers for the private sector is best left to the private sector. SSU for example could spin off such enterprises as its Public Affairs Reporting program to a broadcaster-publisher consortium. SSU's "better bureaucrat" management programs should be offered by a training institute funded by the relevant state entities. Grant-funded university "think-tanks" already function as profit centers on their respective campuses; the demand for self-serving studies that confirm the obvious shows no sign of flagging, although there are questions about whether academics can compete if they have to pay their own phone bills.
WSSU-FM, the public radio station that arguably is SSU's signal contribution to local life, might not be a viable proposition as a free-standing commercial operation, even granting a potential market for its state-house news service. (In a more advanced state there would be a market for a statewide radio C-SPAN, but . . . . ) And while WSSU attracts a reported ten percent of local radio listeners on an occasional basis, its core audience is much smaller; this makes it an unlikely candidate for conversion into a community-based station the way Chicago's WBEZ-FM did when its founding sponsor, the Chicago Board of Education, decided it could no longer afford it.
The real estate at least will be easy to find buyers for. SCI expects to make a nice profit on the sale of its land if it closes. Unfortunately SSU's PAC is rather too large to be feasible as a local arts center (although it might have a future as a regional conference center/motel). But it and Brookens Library are ready-made state office buildings, being inconveniently located and surrounded by parking lots. The only hitch would be if Bill Cellini holds an option on the property.
And how to satisfy the local demand for advanced instruction in Darwin or the poetry of Yeats? Turn Springfield into the educational version of the free trade zone, open to branch campuses and extension courses of any institution that can make them pay. Taxpayers are entitled to hold the higher ed administrators to the logic of their position; having let the market expand the system for their benefit they should leave the market free to shrink it for ours. ●