State legislators get to ‘Know Your University’

By Jenn Rourke

On Tuesday the University Young Men’s Christian Association’s “Know Your University” lecture series featured Illinois State Sen. Rick Winkel, R-52, and State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-103. Both are University districts.

General Assembly members were in town to discuss the view of the University from the Capitol. They came to discuss what Springfield is doing about the need for higher education funding.

“A lot of people see great separation between elected officials in Springfield and the University,” said Rebecca Guyette, program director for the University YMCA who organized the lecture series. “There are people who are concerned about (whether) our elected officials understand the plight of the University.”

Guyette hoped the legislators would take constituent comments back to Springfield and act on them.

Jakobsson said that’s why she maintains an advisory committee at the University, to keep her abreast of student issues.

“I don’t ever pretend to know everything,” she said in her speech. “No one can be an expert on everything, and that’s why I have several advisory committees (that) talk about issues like education, healthcare and the environment.”

Community members often provide feedback on proposals in Springfield and work to develop possible legislative ideas, Jakobsson said.

However, Winkel said educational funding is not a local battle.

“It’s not just with Illinois, it’s nationwide,” he said in his speech. “Higher education’s really taken it on the chin, as far as support from (the schools’) respective states.”

Another part of the funding problem lies in stagnant funding to Illinois’ higher education budget, Winkel said.

The level of education funding this year matches that of 1996 and the last three years funding has remained the same, Winkel said. Instead of fighting for a budget increase, it’s a victory enough to keep the same level of funding each year, he added. He expects the trend to continue for the next budget. Fault lies with himself and his fellow legislators, not the educators, he said.

“Be wary of legislators who … have the audacity to criticize higher education for increasing tuition,” he said. “It’s the General Assembly and the Governor’s office (creating) the budget that’s under-funding higher education (and) forcing that very issue.”

Jakobsson said her most important concerns are University funding, affordability of education and accessibility of Illinois residents to state schools. Part of the problem is continuing to move beyond the recession, she said, but she said she has a positive outlook.

“I believe we are turning a corner,” Jakobsson said. “We have stared down budget deficits for four straight years, balanced the state budget and done it while keeping higher education and healthcare as top priorities.”

Jakobsson said University students should be active in the process as well.

“Students are a very important part of the community,” she said. “Students really need to be, not just heard, not just seen, around campus. But they need to be represented and they need to have a voice in our state government.”

Winkel said he agrees with President White’s assertion during his inaugural speech last month that the University needs to find other sources of funding. Winkel said the University couldn’t be completely dismissive of the state however, because it still plays a huge role in funding.

“We can talk about our commitment to the University, we can nibble about the edges about saving a couple million here or a dabble there,” Winkel said. “But if you’re really going to restore funding to where it needs to be, it requires a tax increase.”

The money has to come from somewhere, and the budget isn’t getting any bigger, he said.