03/01/2016

Faculty layoffs signal deep disinvestment in higher ed

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When Chicago State University sent layoff notices to about 900 faculty, staff and administrators Feb. 26, it was the latest in a series of events that show just how hard the state budget impasse has slammed higher education in Illinois.

The problem: Gov. Bruce Rauner refuses to sign the state budget, so for eight months CSU and 56 other Illinois public colleges and universities have been without state funding. Rauner has tied budget approval to policies that threaten collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Chicago State University protestors"The idea that the state is not going to fund higher education is ridiculous—it's unconscionable," says Bob Bionaz, president of the CSU chapter of University Professionals of Illinois. "It's a power struggle between the Legislature and Rauner, and we're stuck in the crosshairs."

CSU has already declared a state of financial emergency. It canceled spring break to save money. And it's lost nearly 3,000 students due to the tenuous financial situation there. Some students fear the school will close.

But faculty members like Gabriel Gomez, who teaches library technology, are determined to keep the school open. "It's very important to us that people in Chicago public schools and neighborhoods that face serious disinvestment, racism and poverty have a place to go for higher education," he says. "Nobody and nothing, not Gov. Rauner, not a right-wing agenda, can stop us."

Gomez and other union activists have traveled multiple times to the state capital to convince legislators to override the governor's veto of the budget bill and to fight for funding. They've made phone calls, staffed campus information tables, written letters and run social media blitzes. Students have led numerous rallies, including one that shut down the Dan Ryan Expressway close to campus.

Other colleges in Illinois are also feeling the heat. Furlough and layoff notices have already gone out at Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois universities, and administrators there are considering which programs to cut this fall. Low-income students across the state stand to lose essential MAP (Monetary Award Program) grants.

Sign a petition demanding that Gov. Rauner restore funding for MAP grants, making college an option for students in need.

At Prairie State College, GED classes have been cut, adjuncts have been laid off and the child care center was closed, throwing 10 people out of work and many of students, faculty and staff into the childcare market. Peggy Jones, administrative assistant to the dean of liberal arts and chair of the Cook County College Teachers Union chapter there, says she's afraid there will be more losses.

"It just kills me that someone may not have a job," she says. "It's scary times right now." The college has asked staff and faculty to volunteer for early retirement, and the president of the college teared up as he told them RIFs were likely, says Jones.

"I just never imagined that we would be living this scenario," says Tony Johnston, president of CCCTU, which represents faculty and staff at 14 colleges in and around Chicago, including Prairie State. "The governor is holding financial aid—and students' futures—hostage."

The impact is especially acute among low-income students who have few options for affordable higher education. The institutions under the most financial pressure are the ones that serve the largest population of low-income and minority students. "CSU is a place where people go to get a second chance," says Bionaz of his school. "It's really a very transformative place, and that's going to be a terrible void to fill." CSU has already lost nearly 3,000 students due to the tenuous financial situation, he says; 2,700 of them were black.

Meanwhile, Moody's Investors Services has downgraded several Chicago institutions because of insufficient cash flow; the credit ratings for Northeastern Illinois and Northern Illinois universities has dropped to just above junk status, and Eastern Illinois is rated at below investment grade. Those decisions could affect accreditation.

"Our country tells students how important college is, but Illinois Gov. Rauner acts contrary to that value," says AFT President Randi Weingarten. "In failing to fund the future of Illinois' public universities and colleges, Rauner has turned his back on the hardworking people of Illinois. Rather than pulling the ladder of opportunity out of reach, we must work to extend it to those who need it most."

[Virginia Myers]