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Buyer Ed

Illinois higher ed: Private ends and public means

Illinois Times

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. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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