University and campus officials have testified before legislative budget committees in Springfield to illustrate the importance of the state's investment in higher education.
But they continue to worry over the possible passage of Gov. Bruce Rauner's proposed budget for next year, which calls for a 31.5 percent cut to higher education, equating to a $208 million loss for university operations.
Ilesanmi Adesida, the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, told members of the Senate Executive Committee at the March 30 meeting that estimates of the direct impact to campus have varied from $86 million to $114 million in lost state funding, should Rauner's budget pass.
In addition, he said there also are concerns that legislators may rescind about $15 million of this year's general revenue allocation as they search for ways to minimize the state's funding obligations, which include $6 billion in backlogged bills, a $1.6 billion annual structural budget deficit and more than $100 billion in unpaid employee pension obligations. He said the loss would be absorbed through central administration.
Adesida said if the state follows through on the threat to cut funding significantly, the university will be hard-pressed to make it up - considering one of the only other funding option, outside of donations, is tuition revenue.
Legislators also are considering moving some of the state's employee benefit obligations to the university.
"We have to be prepared for that," he said. "We anticipate something (in the way of cuts). We're just not sure what that number will be. It looks extreme right now. If it's 30 percent, that will be very serious and we'll know it's going to be very tight."
Tuition and state funding are considered general revenue used for day-to-day institutional operations, while most other funding is restricted and earmarked for specific uses.
Adesida said that means making cuts and finding efficiencies may be the only options if state funding is cut significantly.
"Everything is on the table," he said. "Spending cuts would be applied strategically and would be determined through a consultative process. We have to start a discussion as a campus."
The process is being led by an inclusive campus budget oversight committee and will go through the typical campus government structures prior to final approval.
He said campus leaders hope to have an austerity-response plan for the U. of I. Board of Trustees to consider at its May 7 meeting.
"We are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best," said Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise.
She said campus administrators have tried to share with legislators the importance of investing in the U. of I. - and the potential return it delivers to taxpayers.
A recent legislative presentation included students who shared stories about the university's impact on their lives.
Nicholas Burbules, a professor of education policy, organization and leadership, said he wondered if the state budget problem wasn't a permanent fixture and whether leaders should adopt a longer term and more strategic approach to adapt to that reality.
"This isn't a one-time event," he said. "Every indication is that we're in the middle of a trend that's a long-term trend."