Budget crisis forces Illinois university to close for a week

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Northeastern Illinois University has shut down for spring break. The school says the closing, for the week of March 20, is a necessary move to ensure there will be enough money to stay open the rest of the year.

Universities across Illinois have been scraping by just to stay operational over the 20 months that their state's budget has been at an impasse. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner continues to balk at funding services, from higher education to senior care; the equally determined state Legislature, which has a Democratic majority, refuses to cave to his cuts in public services and anti-union demands.

NEIU has finally reached a breaking point. The campus is shuttered for the week: computer labs, the writing center, the library—all closed. Only police and building engineers are on call. More than 1,000 employees will be furloughed, forced to take a week without pay. Worse, about 300 students who rely on their campus jobs will be out of work too.

Protest signs at Northeastern Illinois University

University Professionals of Illinois members have joined students and community members to rise up and protest. Hundreds turned out at a rally March 16 to demand full funding, and they are planning a statewide Teach Out for Illinois Higher Education on April 27. "This is the second consecutive year where the university furloughed the hardworking staff and faculty to simply keep the doors open," UPI President John Miller said in a statement. "Our students, employees and state deserve better." Miller and hundreds of UPI members have protested the cuts and worked hard with the Legislature to try to pass the budget.

Administrators are also outraged. "It's just unthinkable to me that we would do this to students," Richard Helldobler, NEIU interim president, told the Chicago Tribune.

Universities across the state have already laid off hundreds of employees. They've also furloughed staff before; last year at NEIU, it was one unpaid day a week for six weeks. At Chicago State University, 900 faculty, staff and administrators got layoff notices last year and more than one-third of the employees are currently laid off, including instructors, tenured and tenure-track faculty, and student-support professionals. Enrollment there has dropped by half, as the school's status has become increasingly unstable.

Eastern Illinois University has laid off 177 support staff and instructors and is now moving to eliminate academic programs. Governors State University has cut 22 programs and hiked tuition by 15 percent, with additional program eliminations expected. Western Illinois University has laid off more than 100 instructors, including tenure-track faculty, and an additional 100-plus noninstructional employees, and has forced pay deferrals and furloughs. The schools have all deferred maintenance, cut travel budgets and begun to spend their reserves. And students all over the state are worried about their Monetary Award Program, or MAP, grants—need-based state aid grants that have not been funded for the current academic year. Without the grants, designed for the lowest-income and most disadvantaged students, many will be unable to enroll.

The situation is so bad that, at a planning meeting for the March 16 rally, UPI organizers urged advocates to bring canned goods: With campus closed over spring break, the food bank would be unavailable and students would need to stock up.

"For years, Gov. Rauner has engineered fiscal crises to justify austerity budgets that slash public spending and lower taxes for his billionaire friends," says AFT President Randi Weingarten. "It's a vicious cycle, and today we're seeing the consequences play out.

"This shutdown will deny students the ability to learn and will fire part-time student workers who depend on a regular salary to survive. Contingent faculty will be hit especially hard. We want the school to join our fight for a new budget in Springfield, but only if it is committed to advocating for students and to stabilizing the state college system that educates tens of thousands of Illinoisans."

[Virginia Myers]