U. of I. President Bob Easter said the university will neither furlough employees nor employ a hiring freeze this year, even if next year's state budget appropriation is reduced - as new Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has said is likely.
But that doesn't preclude the possibility the new governor will address funding and hiring issues through executive orders, he added.
Easter, who is retiring this year, made the comments at his final annual meeting with the Senate Executive Committee Jan. 26.
He said the university has built enough cushion in the budget to weather a short-term state funding reduction.
In the long term, depending on the level of cuts, the president said each campus would have to develop strategies to make dollars stretch further or make operational reductions.
"Those are decisions that would be left to each campus," he said. "It's not appropriate for me to dictate what would need to be downsized, reduced or eliminated."
The new governor is expected to give his budget address this week. With the state already nearly $7 billion behind in bills and nearly $100 billion behind in pension system funding, and with the expiration of a temporary income tax rate increase this year that brought in extra revenue, the governor's options are seemingly limited.
Walter Knorr, the university's chief financial officer, told trustees at their Jan. 22 board meeting that he had been instructed by the Illinois Board of Higher Education to prepare two budgets for the coming fiscal year - one using normal year-to-year figures and the other showing a 20 percent reduction.
University budget officials were asked to do the same last year and received flat funding, noted Christophe Pierre, the university's vice president for academic affairs.
Knorr said university officials would know more about the budgetary year ahead after Rauner's two major speeches scheduled for this month - a State of the State address on Feb. 4 and a fiscal 2016 budget message on Feb. 18.
Although Rauner has previewed his fiscal austerity messages since taking office Jan. 12, Knorr said the February speeches "will give us a feel for what they're going to do and what's going to be coming."
Knorr said the state reimbursement for the university's current appropriation also was growing again after contracting for a time last year. The state now has a backlog of more than $300 million in university obligations.
Easter said at the SEC meeting that he is hopeful this session will be one where the state Legislature works with the governor to seriously address the state's dire financial issues.
He said officials currently are studying two of the new governor's executive orders - one on gift limitations and hiring, the other on travel restrictions - to see how they impact the university.
"While there is a lot of uncertainty in Springfield," he said, "I think there's a conscious effort around state government to address this. By the time we get to the March board meeting, we should have a better perspective."
Easter, who retires at the end of the fiscal year, will likely not be at the helm if the Legislature and governor do implement a long-range plan. Timothy L. Killeen, whom the board named president in November, will be.
Easter said he is working closely with Killeen to make the transition process go smoothly. In fact, he said, Killeen is now working at a 30 percent appointment capacity at the U. of I., splitting those duties with his responsibility as vice chancellor for research at the State University of New York. Killeen has stepped down as president of the SUNY Research Foundation.
Easter said the new president would benefit from the recently completed university administration review, which already is being implemented to improve and streamline university decision-making processes.
Easter said he is confident Killeen is up to the task, and that he has been impressed with the new leader's depth of higher-education knowledge.
And, just as the new year is rife with challenges for the new governor, the scene isn't that much different for the new president. Issues vying for Killeen's attention include funding, pensions, student affordability and access, technology and a decision regarding the Urbana campus college of medicine proposal (the direction of which may depend on Easter's recommendation).
"We have a chance to reinvent public higher education," Killeen said at the Jan. 15 board meeting. "That will take all hands on the tiller, and I'm ready to roll up my sleeves."
Despite the numerous challenges, Easter said he is confident the U. of I. can continue to benefit the citizens of Illinois by leading progress and economic development.
"It's going to be a fascinating period, and the university has the ability to make a big impact," he said. "We have a significant role to play; we always have."