Stimulus package may fund higher education

By Mary Versaci

Tuesday’s inauguration of a new administration is leaving higher education officials hopeful that Barack Obama will help fund their cause.

The administration is working with Congress to develop a stimulus plan which will include funding for higher education, said Tom Hardy, executive director of external relations for the University.

Hardy said he saw Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on “Meet the Press” Sunday, and the interview indicated the administration’s plan will have items for education. The plan will involve operating and capital funds, which are both critical for higher education. Operating funds include money for research and Pell Grants while capital funds would be used for infrastructure projects.

“There are some in Washington who think the higher education piece is not as essential as other parts, but given what Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said in the interview Sunday, we are hopeful that the administration will push very hard to include higher education funding in the stimulus package,” Hardy said.

The U.S. House of Representatives included significant funding for higher education in their version of the economic stimulus package released Thursday.

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    The American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009 includes increasing the maximum Pell Grant available to students by $500 and also gives $6 billion to colleges and universities for infrastructure projects.

    Details of the bill were released following a series of letters written in December to Congress and the new administration, addressing the issue of higher education funding in the economic stimulus package.

    “We are very pleased,” said Anne Hickey, associate director of government relations at the American Council of Education.

    The Council had written a letter to Congress that addressed both the issues of Pell Grant and infrastructure funding.

    “The most important part of this from the students’ perspective is the Pell Grant aid,” she said. “It ensures that a student can afford school.”

    President Barack Obama’s administration is also working on its own stimulus proposal, and one may be released by the Senate as well, Hickey said.

    In a speech given at George Mason University on Jan. 8, President Obama discussed providing public universities and other schools with “21st century classrooms, labs and libraries,” but no official numbers regarding higher education funding have been released by the administration.

    “We’re waiting to see how the politics of it play out,” Hickey said. “The legislature could meet at the end of January or beginning of February.”

    Another letter written regarding higher education funding was sent by a group of university presidents and other representatives, including University President B. Joseph White. The letter stressed infrastructure funding for colleges and universities, which corresponds with the new administration’s emphasis on improving infrastructure as a way to improve the economy.

    “We have many ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects,” Hardy said. “When we have the funding, we can begin work immediately.”

    However, there is still a lot to be done by the administration and Congress, he added.

    “We don’t take anything for granted,” Hardy said. “More hard work has to be done in D.C.”

    The University of Wisconsin System was also represented by the letter.

    “We need the intellectual infrastructure to compete within this economy,” said David Giroux, the system’s executive director of communications and external relations. “It will help us to be a much more competitive, productive nation.”

    He added that the system participated in the letter because of the importance of higher education.

    “(University of Wisconsin President Kevin Reilly) chose to be a part because he believes in the cause, investing in the intellectual capital of our future,” Giroux said.

    Both letters focused on the importance of higher education to the nation as a whole.

    “Higher education is an important sector of the United States,” Hardy said. “We’re educating future generations, conducting research that will make lives better, transform lives.”

    University to hold meeting to explain, discuss budget options

    While Barack Obama is leaving room for hope, the state of Illinois’ current budget crisis and Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s upcoming trial is leaving the University with no room to spare.

    University of Illinois President B. Joseph White issued on Wednesday a mass e-mail to members of the campus community detailing what actions the University will be forced to take in the future as a result of the budget crisis.

    Last week, a 10 percent cut to the University of Illinois system’s budget was presented at a Board of Trustees meeting.

    University spokesperson Tom Hardy said that if this is the case, the University will not fill vacant positions, and will severely reduce travel and equipment expenses. Tonight at 6 p.m., University Chancellor Richard Herman plans to host a town hall meeting in Foellinger Auditorium to further discuss the University’s budget situation.

    Hardy said the town hall meeting will allow administrators, faculty and students to discuss ways to cut spending and save money.

    After the participants explain what steps the University is taking and what possibilities are in place, there will be time for audience questions, comments and suggestions.

    The Springfield campus held a similar meeting on Wednesday, and the Chicago campus plans to hold one next week.

    “The town hall meetings are intended to open up lines of communication between everybody in the University community,” said Hardy.

    Hardy said the state’s expected deficit is about $2 billion. In order to erase that deficit, between 7 and 8 percent of the state’s budget would have to be cut.

    Compiled by Alissa Groeninger