03/22/2016

Faculty, staff layoffs mark attack on higher ed budgets

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Holly Dust has been an instructor of human physiology at Eastern Illinois University for more than seven years, with full classes at the school where she earned both her bachelor's and her master's degrees. She'd settled into life in small-town Illinois, bought a house with her husband, who also works in the area, and was busy raising their three children. "I thought I had a good job at EIU," she says.

Until she was laid off last December.

Dust is the face of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's refusal to fund state colleges and universities like EIU. Other faces include the 177 EIU support staff laid off in this month. At Chicago State University, 900 faculty, staff and administrators got layoff notices in February. At Western Illinois University, a $20 million cut means offices and/or units have reduced hours or are being combined or closed, layoffs and mandatory furloughs are already underway, and a hiring freeze is in effect. In colleges across the state and nationally, cuts to higher education funding are striking programs, personnel and students in unprecedented ways.

The headlines say it all:

Millions are also being slashed from the higher ed budget in Connecticut. And faculty at City University of New York haven't had a raise in five years.

Red flags marking layoffs"Based on the trends since 1980, average state fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059," says a report from the American Council on Education. "Public higher education is gradually being privatized." The result is higher tuition, less access and diminishing resources for public schools.

What does this look like on the ground? Back at EIU, Dust is grateful to her union: Members voted to take a pay deferral so she and 28 others who were laid off could hang onto their jobs until the end of spring. She is looking for part-time work. For those who still have their jobs, EIU's president has proposed a $2 million pay cut that would reduce their paychecks by about 20 percent for the next four months. The union has suggested a pay deferral plan instead and will vote on the measure March 22; the issue is still being resolved.

Meanwhile, conditions are worsening. "I can no longer do my job effectively," says Diane Burns, a geology professor. "I am not able to give quality time to all of my students." Burns is teaching four credit hours' overload, sharing an administrative assistant with another office and trying to find time to empty her own trash because the support staff has been cut back. Worse, her students worry constantly about whether to return in the fall. If funding isn't restored, "They will be left with a higher tuition price, lower number of good faculty, fewer opportunities to do research and creative activities, less quality time with faculty who are increasingly loaded with more classes, and less clean living and studying spaces."

"I'm in relatively good shape," says Steven Scher, a tenured professor of psychology. But with salary cuts imminent, "I still have to worry about how I'm going to take what amounts to a 20 to 25 percent pay cut and pay my mortgage and feed my children." His department has been through three administrative assistants in one semester, due to layoffs. The campus mail delivery team is down to two people for a campus of 8,500 students and 1,500 staff.

"This state's government has proven time and again that they are anti-union and anti-higher education," Burns says. "We have had to deal with deep cuts to our budgets, [and] it is increasingly obvious that it is a totally malevolent atmosphere for state workers, especially at the universities. My job should be to teach and mentor, not lobbying for state funding, debating and voting on pay deferrals, attending rallies, and worrying about losing friends to RIFs."

"We are deeply disappointed and frustrated with Gov. Rauner and the Republicans who support his political agenda over our students, their districts and the state's future," says John Miller, a professor at Western Illinois University and president of University Professionals of Illinois. "The governor claims to prioritize education but fails to support Illinois colleges and universities. ... We need to fund our future, and we need to do it now."

The union continues to fight: At a March 9 rally, members planted a red flag for every one of the 261 individuals laid off at EIU since fall (pictured above). On Lobby Day, they drove two hours to Springfield to urge legislators to fund higher ed. They've also made countless phone calls and sent emails to local representatives, and attended key election rallies and town hall meetings, to press for funding. And they've rallied with sister unions and offered free resume-writing sessions for their staff colleagues who were laid off.

On April 1, they will join the Chicago Teachers Union for a day of action in the city. It means canceling class for a day, but the gesture of solidarity is worth it, says Billy Hung, who teaches biology and is a key organizer for the event. "We can't tell our students to go change the world and just sit on our hands."

"I think, by continuously applying pressure on our politicians, we can get them to do the right thing," he adds. "I have to believe that."

[Virginia Myers/photo by Jason Howell]