NORTH PARK — With the Illinois budget impasse now reaching its 700th day, Northeastern Illinois University will lay off 180 employees in order to remain open during the summer and fall, Richard Helldobler, interim president of the university, announced Tuesday.
"We've been pushed to our limits. It has been devastating and sadly today the devastation increases," Helldobler said during a news conference.
"In order to remain open for our students, and while state government remains dysfunctional, we must take drastic measures," he said.
NEIU last received a full appropriation from the state, which accounted for 40 percent of its budget, in fiscal year 2015. Stopgap funds released in July 2016 left the university with a $17 million shortfall, a hole NEIU has plugged with a series of furloughs and other cost-saving measures.
The school's reserves are now at "next to nil," Helldobler said.
The layoffs will hit full-time administrative and support staff positions, some of which are union jobs. Affected personnel were just being informed of the decision, officials said.
For the union jobs, a "complicated bumping process" will play out over the next several weeks, according to Helldobler.
"Having to say goodbye to so many people is heartbreaking," he said. "This is one more result of this 700-day-old budget crisis — a crisis not of our making."
The expected savings of $9 million from the layoffs is still $1.8 million short of what NEIU needs to keep the doors open until fall tuition dollars come through in September. The remainder of the shortfall will come from spending freezes and leaving vacant positions unfilled, Helldobler said.
NEIU enrolls nearly 10,000 students, many of whom are minorities, the first in their family to attend college and come from the bottom socio-economic quartile, he said.
Many of the support staffers being cut provide services that help these students navigate college, Helldobler said.
"We provide them the keys to their future, a better life — the American dream," Helldobler said.
His concern, he said, is that in the absence of an affordable option like NEIU, many of the university's students, rather attend college elsewhere, won't attend college at all.
"That's the real tragedy for Illinois," said Helldobler.
Though the just-announced layoffs don't include professors, "we're losing our colleagues," said Sophia Mihic, a professor of philosophy and political science.
"I do my teaching in concert" with support staff, Mihic said. "They've been here longer than I have."
The constant budget turmoil is also beginning to make it difficult for the university to retain some of its most talented instructors, she added.
"This is an unstable future," Mihic said.
Over the years, she's seen so many professors arrive on campus thinking NEIU would be a quick stepping stone to somewhere else, and then wind up sticking around because the "teaching experience is so great," she said.
"Now we're losing those people," said Mihic.
If Gov. Bruce Rauner and Illinois legislators were to agree on a budget in the coming weeks, NEIU would "press pause" on the layoffs, Helldobler said.
Until then, an emotional and frustrated Helldobler said he stands by his grade of "F" for Springfield.
"We're waiting for people to make tough decisions," he said, and added a warning for Illinois politicians.
NEIU is an economic engine for the state, and its students and employees are taxpayers, Helldobler said.
"And, they vote," he said.