Two university aviation programs could close

September 30, 2010

Aviation degree programs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn., face the possibility of closure.

Robert Easter, interim chancellor at the University of Illinois, outlined plans to discontinue or transfer all academic curricula in the university’s Institute of Aviation in a Sept. 28 letter also signed by Richard Wheeler, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs.

“After careful evaluation of the complex, and sometimes competing interest of our students, faculty, and the public, we have concluded that some significant changes should occur,” he wrote. Easter recommends that the institute’s human factors program—which offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aviation human factors—be discontinued, because no other college in the university has agreed to accept the program. The bachelor’s degree program also encompasses the university’s professional pilot curriculum. (Tenure-track faculty associated with the human factors program already have been moved to other colleges.)

“With the elimination of academic curricula, the economic viability of the remaining pilot training and flight certification functions needs to be addressed,” he wrote. Illinois Business Consulting, an organization within the university’s College of Business, has been asked to evaluate the potential for a standalone, self-supporting flight training program. Its report is due at the end of the fall semester, and the university will make a decision about a non-degree flight training program in spring 2011.

The plans still must be approved by the faculty senate and the university’s trustees. The institute operates an average of 211 flights per day, comprising 85 percent of operations at the University of Illinois-Willard Airport. A project team’s report released by the university on April 29 questioned the Institute of Aviation’s future but did not call for its termination. Annual expenditures for the Institute of Aviation are about $5.5 million; primary revenue sources are a recurring campus allocation of tuition and other funds that primarily pay for instructional and support staff ($2.336 million in 2009) and student flight fees ($2.241 million in 2009). Closing the program could save the university about $875,000 in general revenue funds that fill the gap.

In Minnesota, the aviation program at St. Cloud State University was among eight programs recommended for reduction or elimination—and 24 cited for consolidation or reorganization—in an Aug. 30 letter from Provost Devinder Malhotra.

Tara Harl, chair of the aviation department, told the St. Cloud Times that she hopes the program can be saved by finding it a home in the university’s G.R. Herberger College of Business. The aviation program had revenues of $451,966 in fiscal year 2010 and ran a deficit of $252,430, the newspaper reported.

The university said it seeks to align its academic programs with the university's Strategic Action Plan and to direct human and financial resources to the programs that best serve the region and state. President Earl Potter said that as a result of ongoing state revenue shortfalls, St. Cloud State has cut 10 percent of its budget over the past three years and must cut another 10 percent—about $14 million. Sports programs and faculty positions will be cut in addition to the academic programs, he said.

St. Cloud State and the University of Illinois would not be the first schools to shutter aviation programs. San Juan College in Farmington, N.M., ended its pilot training program in spring 2010 when Mesa Pilot Development, a unit of regional carrier Mesa Air Group, ended its longtime support of the program. Daniel Webster College in Nashua, N.H., also closed the doors on its flight training program last spring when the nonprofit school, struggling with large debt payments, was purchased by ITT Educational Services, the parent company of ITT Technical Institutes.