Students, faculty giving up on unfunded universities

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Last March, we reported on the disaster unfurling as public colleges and universities in Illinois struggled to stay open after being cut off from state funding. At Chicago State University, 900 faculty, staff and administrators got layoff notices; Western Illinois University lost $20 million and subsequently closed units, laid off employees and implemented furloughs; and 177 support staff were laid off at Eastern Illinois University.

The problem is not unique to Illinois—defunding education at the state level has become commonplace. But in Illinois, the situation is dire, and seven months after our initial report, it's gotten worse.

Protests at Chicago State University

Universities like Chicago State (where protestors are pictured above) are barely hanging on. Just 86 students enrolled in the freshman class this year, compared with 253 in 2014. The cafeteria was closed, and library hours are limited. Why? State funding is still held up in a political fight with a Republican governor who refuses to approve a state budget without gutting collective bargaining. The entire system of public higher education in Illinois is crumbling as a result, and the victims are ultimately the individual students who depend on it.

Enrollment plummets

Most directly, students are losing essential Monetary Award Program, or MAP, grants, need-based state aid grants that in many cases have gone unfilled since July. The state has not approved MAP funding for the current academic year, either. Although some schools have been able to fund the grants despite the lack of state funds, even if an individual student gets his or her MAP grant, or partial funding, the unpredictability of future funds has resulted in an exodus of students. At CSU, enrollment is down 25 percent, and the student body is half as big as it was six years ago.

As a result of her MAP grant being cut in half, Northeastern Illinois University freshman Alexis Hall is on the verge of going home to Ohio. With four classes worth of textbooks to buy and a minimum wage job, she says she's not sure she can afford to stay. "Everything is so expensive here. It's all so disheartening. I thought they would find a way to retain students."

The problem is especially troubling at CSU, where the majority of the students are black, most are low-income and many are women with children. CSU tuition is low, and many students cannot afford to find an alternate school when their programs close or their MAP grants fall through. They may give up on higher education altogether. For many observers, the refusal to fund education at CSU smacks of discrimination. The often-disenfranchised students there "are exactly the students the state should be supporting in their educational endeavors," says Kim Coble, an astrophysics professor and union member who left CSU last summer. Prioritizing education for them lifts up not just the students, but their families, their communities and the state's economy, she says.

Faculty flight

Students aren't the only ones leaving. Forty percent of the workers at CSU, including faculty, have been let go. At Western Illinois, faculty numbers are down by about 147, and those remaining have been forced to participate in a furlough/pay reduction program. At Eastern Illinois, more than 400 people were laid off or otherwise not re-appointed. (The chart below shows how enrollment and staffing have changed at Eastern Illinois.)

Data from Eastern Illinois University

"Over the last five years, our union has lost nearly 50 percent of our annually contracted faculty—that is, our non-tenure track faculty," says Billy Hung, a biology professor and union member at Eastern Illinois. "These are not people who left to go find a better job. These are people whose contracts were not renewed due to budget cuts."

Meanwhile, at the University of Illinois' three campuses—Urbana-Champaign, Springfield and Chicago—faculty resignations rose by nearly 70 percent last year, according to the New York Times. They are abandoning the system for jobs that are more secure, in states where higher ed is more reliably funded.

Hung says he's signed up for news alerts on job openings. "I don't want to leave my school, but it would be foolish not to at least entertain the possibility of having to go," he says. His department has lost four faculty, including one who retired; that's a 19 percent reduction in tenure-track faculty over the course of one year, with no plan to replace any of them. Hung has tenure and is not afraid he'll lose his job, but says, "I might not be able to do the kind of job I'd like to do, given the austerity measures."

Coble, the astrophysics professor at CSU, loved her job but left her Chicago home of 26 years because employment there was so precarious. "I felt that an untenured position in another state was more secure than a tenured position in Illinois," she says. She left a full professorship for an associate position at San Francisco State University and has no regrets.

"As difficult as the transition has been, I've been following what's going on in Illinois and am even more convinced I made the right decision," she says. "The resources and treatment I've received here are like night and day compared to Illinois. Here, I know I am a valued professional. A huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders, and I can focus on my teaching, mentoring, scholarship and service, instead of worrying that programs that took me years to build will be starved of resources and torn down at the whim of the governor and administration."

[Virginia Myers, Terrie Albano]