EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of six stories in the JG-TC's "State of the University" series focusing on Eastern Illinois University's recent years of declining enrollment, and financial challenges related to the Illinois state budget impasse. This installment examines how the university reached its status today.
CHARLESTON -- There was hardly a moment of doubt for Eastern Illinois University leaders that an Illinois state budget would be passed and passed relatively soon back in 2015.
Even though a budget was not passed by the end of the legislative session May 31 that year, EIU President David Glassman said it was not a worry just yet.
“That is not the first time, for the state, that they haven't completed a budget by the end of the session,” Glassman said. “So, I wasn't particularly concerned because that has happened before.”
In 2007, the state lawmakers and the governor at the time, Rod Blagojevich, were at odds, unable to pass a budget for a six-week stint.
“The assumption is that it would get done in the next month or couple of months, and then we would have our budget and everything would run as it normally has,” Glassman said. “We just always assumed a budget would come.”
Even for state leaders, the expectation was that it would happen relatively soon.
"I always had it in the back of my head that, you know, it was not going to play out the way it would play out," State Rep. Reggie Phillips, R-Charleston, said. "I always thought, somehow, that we would get some sort of budget."
But days passed, then months and Illinoisans had yet to see their lawmakers pass a budget.
“There would be various deadlines that we would hear about,” Glassman said. “Those deadlines kept getting extended and extended.”
State lawmakers said it would be the next month. Then, they would say it would come by the end of the year, but the impasse continued.
And still today, state lawmakers and the governor have yet to come to an agreement on a budget -- one year and nine months into the budget impasse, making this not the first, but the longest time the state has taken to hammer out a budget.
As each month passed, budget tightening at state universities became more frequent.
EIU responded fairly quickly to the news that money would not be coming down the pipeline. After the budget failed to make it through, Eastern furloughed 222 administrative and professional employees.
Soon after, development projects on the campus were halted and layoff notices went out. It would not be until January 2016, though, when the big cuts came. As tuition dollars started running thin and the state seemed none too eager to pass a budget, Eastern leaders made the decision to cut an estimated 200 positions.
This news prompted activism among many people in Charleston and started one of the bigger rallies, of which there have been many now, calling for the state to fund the universities as well as sparking a funding effort to aid laid off workers.
Soon after employees were laid off, a Charleston area group, Support EIU Employees, began to collect funds for those recently laid off employees to pay bills and other necessary items.
After a couple fundraising efforts, the group amassed $16,000 for EIU employees in need.
Andy Eggers, Support EIU Employees member, said it was a swell of surprising support from the community that made the funding efforts possible.
“It was impressive to me -- the idea that everyone in the community was a part of it,” Eggers said.
“Made me realize how many people are dependent on EIU and how many people realize that,” he continued.
The group still has funds they are willing to distribute. Leaders have now opened up their parameters to include any EIU employee, former or otherwise, who has fallen on hard times. They can be contacted through their Facebook page.
Another group, Fund EIU, sought to work on state funding for the university. The initial “Fund EIU” rally on Eastern's campus, along with other rallies at places struggling more at the time, such as Chicago State University, garnered significant media attention and shone a spotlight on what the budget standoff, just months in, had done to universities that rely on state funding.
The Fund EIU rally in February 2016 filled a sizable portion of the university's Library Quad, centering around the Doudna steps, where people spoke out about the need for funding.
Austin Mejdrich, a rally organizer and Fund EIU founder, said he is still amazed thinking about the crowd that surfaced to lend support to the call to action. Hundreds of EIU students, faculty and staff, along with Charleston-area residents, came in support of the university at the time.
A Charleston resident his entire life, the EIU student said he was most shocked and appreciative of the “townies” that were there. Mejdrich said there is some animosity between the city residents and the university, mainly the students, but that tune changed.
“There was much more coalescing in the city,” Mejdrich said.
Criticism from state and university leaders of the rallies' effectiveness followed. Glassman said it sounded like a call of desperation, specifically on Eastern, even though it was a state issue.
He continued that the rally also might have resulted in unintended consequences for the Eastern. Even before the rally, though, rumors of the university's possible closure circulated among the campus community and outward to parents of potential EIU students.
“It was a perception thing we could just not control,” Mejdrich said on the negative reaction to the rally.
However, he noted that those at the rally were largely speaking about the greatness at EIU and how the campus community wanted that stature to remain. He argued that positives outweighed the negatives that surfaced from the rally.
“There was almost an immediate reaction from government officials,” Mejdrich said.
While a budget was not passed, state lawmakers came under more intense fire to get the universities funding. In April last year, state lawmakers passed Illinois' first stop-gap funding bill to help keep Eastern and other public universities on a financial even keel until they can figure out what to do with the overall, long-term budget.
A couple more funding bills would come later in the year, the last of which was geared toward helping universities through the end of 2016.
Universities have yet to receive additional funding beyond what was given to them by the end of the year.
While Eastern officials have made no mention of cuts either in the near future or down the road, other universities like Southern Illinois University have taken such steps. SIU officials recently announced $30 million in potential cuts to the university to offset the lack of state funding, according to the Southern Illinoisan newspaper.
Another school, Northeastern Illinois University, has been temporarily furloughing employees numerous times in recent weeks, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Today, state leaders are still sparring over the details of Gov. Bruce Rauner's agenda, which includes items like term limits and worker's compensation reform, and the long-term budget impasse appears to have no end in sight.