The New York Times
Chicago State, a Lifeline for Poor Blacks, Is Under Threat Itself
By JULIE BOSMAN
APRIL 9, 2016
Chicago State University, a predominantly African-American school on the far South Side of the city, faces a crippling budget shortfall that may force it to close. Credit Joshua Lott for The New York Times
CHICAGO — The lack of a state budget in Illinois has been dismissed by many here as politics as usual, another protracted ego contest between the Republican governor and the Democrats who rule the Legislature.
It does not feel that way at Chicago State University, a 150-year-old, predominantly African-American school on the city’s far South Side.
Since last July, when the fiscal year began, the university has received zero dollars from the state, though it relies on Illinois for 30 percent of its $105 million budget. If no one swoops in with a rescue plan, the school could shut down, stranding students mid-degree, eliminating hundreds of jobs and shuttering a path forward for a poor and underserved community.
In February, the school declared a financial emergency. Officials canceled spring break and moved commencement up to April 28, rushing to finish the semester before funding goes dry. Last month, members of the faculty and staff were notified that the school was making contingency plans to collect their keys. Reserve funds to pay employees will run out after April 30.
“People are losing their minds,” said Barbara Ameyedowo, 28, a math major who is expecting to graduate in December. “Students are leaving. I’m hopeful that it will be resolved, but I’m so sad. Chicago State is all this part of the South Side has left.”’
Governors and legislatures around the country have made deep cuts to state universities in recent years, leaving the smallest and least prestigious schools financially stressed, as tuition is hardly adequate to sustain many institutions. In Illinois, the absence of a budget means there has been no state financing, straining state universities and prompting some to furlough and lay off employees.
None, though, are in the dire predicament of Chicago State. Many, including the flagship University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have healthy endowments or affluent alumni bases to lean on. Like some other predominantly minority institutions, Chicago State has neither.
Students and supporters of Chicago State gathered outside Illinois state government offices in downtown Chicago to protest funding cuts in February. Credit Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune
“We are absolutely in financial disaster,” Thomas J. Calhoun Jr., the university president, said in an interview on Wednesday. “What do you do when your state just zips up the pocketbook and doesn’t give you anything?”
The crisis has left many of the 4,500 students at Chicago State, the vast majority of whom are black and from low-income backgrounds, shaken and angry: Why are they, rather than their peers at more elite state universities, at risk of becoming the first major casualties of the budget stalemate?
“It’s aimed at hurting minorities,” Glenn Weston, 23, a junior who is studying accounting, said of the budget conflict. Though Chicago State University is not a member of the historically black colleges and universities system, he said, “Chicago State is like the H.B.C.U. of Chicago. Other schools here would never close.”
For months, the students have organized in protest, their cries largely directed at Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican. In January, a group of students drew attention to their cause by forming a human chain and shutting down part of a busy expressway. At a rally downtown in February, students marched on sidewalks, chanting “Black education is good for your health” and “Black minds matter.”
Students are fearful that the school could shut down, leaving them with unfinished degrees and few options to transfer nearby.
For many students, the university is a lifeline. Originally founded as a teachers’ college during boom times in the 1860s, the small, austere campus of concrete plazas and low-slung brick buildings now occupies 160 acres of land deep on the South Side of Chicago. It is bordered by an expressway and a residential neighborhood that was once solidly middle-class but has been upended by poverty, gang violence and declining population. Streetlights are marked with dark green banners, the school color, stamped with the Chicago State logo.
“There’s a lot of frustration in the community,” said Phillip Beverly, a political-science professor at Chicago State, who grew up five blocks from the school and whose grandmother and wife are graduates. “You’re closing off an avenue for people to change their lives.”
Melanie Ellis, a nursing student and the junior class president at Chicago State, said the school was one of the most affordable options for students. Credit Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Tuition and fees are low at about $12,000 a year, and close to 85 percent of the students qualify for Pell grants, federal aid for poor students.
“This is one of the least expensive schools,” said Melanie Ellis, the junior class president, 34. “You can pay $30,000 a year for U.I.C. or $10,000 a year for Chicago State,” she said, referring to University of Illinois at Chicago. “What do you choose?”
The university attracts untypical college students. The average age is 31; close to half are mothers (70 percent of the student population are women, and most of them have at least one child); and the average ACT score is 18.6 out of 36, compared with the national average of 21.
“We can’t just go to another school,” said Reiko Williamson, a senior who is studying nursing, as she left a class on a rainy afternoon. “This is all we have. This is all we can afford.”
To save money, Chicago State, which has about $50 million in deferred maintenance, has cut about 15 percent of its work force in the last year, frozen all travel expenses and renegotiated contracts.
But that has not been enough, and administrators say that they are waiting for elected officials in Springfield to pass a budget or approve an emergency infusion of cash — two reprieves that do not appear imminent.
The roots of the crisis lie in a stalemate that began last June, when Mr. Rauner vetoed a budget plan sent to him from the Democratic-controlled Legislature that was out of balance by more than $3 billion. With no overall plan in place, he has addressed problems piecemeal — signing a bill to fund K-12 education, for instance. But he did not do the same for higher education, and in his budget plan last year, he proposed a 31 percent funding cut for universities and community colleges.
Christian Reed, right, a computer science major, in the library at Chicago State University, a school in deep financial distress. Credit Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Mr. Rauner recently called the potential closing of Chicago State “an outrage,” but blamed Democratic lawmakers for the crisis. “I believe that the supermajority in the Legislature is using Chicago State and many other service providers in Illinois as leverage to try to force a massive tax hike,” he said. “I believe that’s what’s going on, and that’s wrong.”
Other government programs are also feeling the pressure: Social service agencies are cutting help for the poor and mentally ill, museums are closing and rural hospitals are scaling back services. But for many students, the convenience and accessibility of Chicago State has had a profound impact on their ability to earn a degree — people like Ms. Ellis, for instance, who said that if the school closes, she could lose all of the credits she has already earned in the nursing program, since she was told that they are not transferable.
In the past, Chicago State has been plagued by problems of its own making: In 2011, an audit discovered rampant financial mismanagement, including a failure to bill students for their tuition for an entire semester in 2010. Mr. Calhoun, who took over as president several months ago, said he firmly believes those problems are in the past.
State Senator Emil Jones III, a Democrat who attended Chicago State and whose family has raised money for the university in the past, said that he was pushing for a legislative solution.
“Chicago State has been historically underfunded over the years,” he said. “When a crisis comes up and the funding stops, they will be the first to close.”
Clifton Conrad, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the situation at Chicago State foreshadows what many small universities could experience in the coming years, as state budgets contract and less money is designated for higher education.
“I fear this may have drastic implications,” Professor Conrad said. “You have an institution, a public institution, that is so dependent on state funding. And now you have an ominous threat where students are now wondering, can they invest long term in this institution?”
Other universities in or near Chicago, including Governors State University and the private Roosevelt University, have offered to take in students who may be left stranded. Mr. Calhoun said that he hopes that will not become necessary. But, he said flatly, “any institution, Chicago State included, that has expenses but no revenues, will eventually have to close.”