Local representatives of the Illinois Coalition to Invest in Higher Education used a Feb. 22 press conference at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center to illustrate the plight of students and communities facing uncertainty over the state budget impasse.
"We're seeing the impact on our students," said U. of I. student body president Mitch Dickey. "It's something (happening) right now."
Dickey, joined by local students, the mayors of Urbana and Champaign, and the leaders of the U. of I.'s Research Park and Prairie Research Center, lamented the dysfunction in Springfield, calling for immediate action on the state budget and a release of Monetary Award Program grants given to 125,000 students statewide.
Dickey gave examples of students struggling without the grant money, including a Ph.D. student who was ready to drop out of school. The student stayed only after his department found additional funding.
"I don't know how much longer (students) are supposed to wait," he said.
Champaign Mayor Deborah Frank Feinen said the university is the "economic engine" of the region, and that colleges and universities throughout Illinois face challenges if those institutions are diminished.
For every dollar spent on the U. of I., she said, there is a direct return of nearly 20 cents. She said the university's large economic footprint is responsible for about 2 percent of the state's gross domestic product.
Feinen said Parkland College also is a local economic driver and an important place for local workforce training.
"There may be an initial cost (to the state)," she said, "but that money comes back to the community."
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said the time is nigh for state leaders to figure out a solution, before the damage done becomes irreversible.
"It takes a long time to get to this level of excellence," she said. "But it doesn't take long to wreck a good thing. (Gov. Bruce Rauner) has to sit down with the Legislature and it needs to be done now."
Laura Frerichs, the director of the U. of I. Research Park, said the research park's national reputation as one of the top incubators for startup companies is in jeopardy because state money is used for staff support.
The park has attracted more than $880 million in venture capital and is in the top 10 nationally among universities for the number of commercial patents approved. It has several programs designed to help students and faculty members identify patent and startup opportunities.
"When those state funds are stressed, so are those programs," she said. "Let's not let it erode, let's not lose our momentum."
Terry McLennand, the director of external affairs for the U. of I.'s Prairie Research Institute, said many of the institute's programs have a direct effect on scientific and economic issues that affect the state's residents.
He said the biggest impact of the budget impasse has been a hiring freeze at PRI, which makes it difficult to attract and retain top researchers.
"It has really impacted our ability to hire new researchers or replace staff members who leave," he said.
Aaron Ammons, a Champaign City Council member and the leader of the Service Employees International Union Local 119, said the hiring freeze has affected workers who have had to take on additional duties.
His union represents about 500 building and food service workers on campus.
He said the impact can be felt doubly by workers who have children attending college – and who also are struggling because of the lack of MAP grant money.
"This is having a tremendous impact on us as well," he said. "Always remember there is a workforce back there and they are real people with real jobs. We take great pride in our work here."