Students, staff protest cuts at Chicago State

May 2016 Chi students

By MARK UGOLINI

Chicago State University (CSU) announced the layoff of more than 300 employees, effective on April 29. Widely considered only the first round of layoffs, it impacts about one-third of the university’s workforce. CSU and other Illinois state universities have been denied funds for nearly the entire academic year, resulting in layoffs, furloughs, or other program cuts at all 12 of the state’s public universities.

These cuts are a result of the failure of the Illinois state government to provide desperately needed fund-ing for public education and social services throughout the state.

CSU is a predominantly Black university, located on Chicago’s South Side. Its more than 4500 primarily low-income students are hardest hit, and most are critically impacted by the 10-month-long freeze on educational funding in Illinois. CSU is dependent on Springfield for more than 30% of its funding, a greater ratio than other public colleges that rely more heavily on endowments.

The April 30 Chicago Tribune reports the CSU layoff “will reduce the number of non-instructional employees by nearly half. Faculty members were spared during this initial wave of cuts but are likely to be affected later.”

CSU’s dire financial situation has been well known since last year when Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner blocked passage of a state budget and escalated implementation of his “Turnaround Agenda,” an austerity plan to privatize schools, break unions, and cut desperately needed social services across the state.

In February, notices of potential layoffs were sent to all 900 CSU employees, admitting that payroll costs could not be met past April due to lack of state funding. Later in the year, the administration instructed students and employees to turn in keys to rooms and buildings in preparation for an end-of-term school closing.

On April 22, the Illinois state legislature, as part of a broader state-wide $600 million “emergency” funding package, approved $20 million for CSU. While this measure provides some relief, the funds approved for CSU are less than 60% of what it expected to receive during this fiscal year, and not enough to prevent layoffs and additional cuts. Not all of the $20 million is immediately available to the school, and some funds need to be used immediately to pay off existing debts incurred since the funding freeze began 10 months ago.

The package calls for state universities to split $356 million, while community colleges are to receive $74 million. That amounts to a roughly 70 percent cut compared to the funding bill passed by the state legislature that Rauner vetoed in 2015. Some $170 million is targeted for Monetary Award Program scholarships for low-income students who were denied payment during the funding freeze.

During 2016, CSU implemented program cuts because of lack of funds. Administrative costs have been reduced 20%, and the school’s spring term ended two weeks early to ensure students could graduate before the money ran out.

Paris Griffin, president of Chicago State’s Student Government Association, told the Columbia Chronicle (the Colombia College student newspaper) that she is anxious about what the school will look like next semester. “I am running out of financial aid; I do have a scholarship, but as of now, [it] will only be able to be used at Chicago State,” Griffin said. “I have one year left, so there’s no school I will be able to transfer to that will accept all of my credits. I may not have to start completely over, but I will have to [do some things] over, and I honestly don’t have the money or resources to do that.”

“Even though 60 percent of something is better than nothing, we also know there is no budget in place for 2016-17,” said Chicago State senior Darren Martin. “So it seems like are we preparing ourselves for another battle. We don’t know what the future will hold and what will happen next year.”

Bob Bionaz, president of the University Professionals of Illinois Local 4100, representing about 330 mostly faculty CSU employees, spoke to local CBS News. The union is bracing for layoffs later this year as faculty contracts are due to expire this summer.   “We’re not affected yet,” he said, “but this is a blueprint for what we’re going to deal with.”

On April 30, the Rev. Jesse Jackson condemned Rauner for ignoring the needs of Chicago’s Black and minority communities: “We were deceived in thinking that we at least had breathing room until the fall. We were betrayed,” he said. “Given the number of Black and Brown people involved, it has heavy, heavy racial and sensitivity implications.” Jackson was accompanied by CSU students and community members at Chicago’s South Side headquarters of Operation Push.

Two days earlier, a CSU graduating class of 850 students heard Rev. Jackson at commencement ceremonies. A gathering well attended by the local media, it took the form of a large protest rally for CSU funding. Nearly every speaker paid tribute to the CSU students, faculty, and staff who stand united in the fight against education cutbacks. Despite the widespread uncertainty they faced over the last year, they mobilized together, making their voices heard in numerous protests, rallies, and demonstrations on campus and around the city.

Clearly, the $20 million “emergency” aid package is no more than a token measure—too little, and too late. Many millions more in funding are required to repair a system that is seriously broken. Fortunately, students, faculty and community members understand this and continue to organize, and drive forward for a real solution.

Campus activists have joined forces with community and labor groups, combining the struggle for CSU funding with the citywide movements against police violence, for a $15 minimum wage, and in support of Chicago teachers. CSU students and faculty played a prominent role in the April 1 Day of Action on the theme “Fund Our Futures,” attended by nearly 20,000 teachers and supporters.

South Side community members are organizing through Operation Push, local churches, and the recently formed Black Committee to Save Chicago State University, which has held rallies to generate additional support for full funding of CSU.

“The city of Chicago and the state of Illinois are proving that they do not value Black lives,” said Joan Fadayiro, an organizer with Black Youth Project 100 in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “Police officers are enabled to kill Black women with impunity while Black community assets such as Chicago State University are divested from.”

The struggle for sufficient state college and university funding is integrally connected to the broader fight against austerity and Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda.” At its core, this is a political struggle against union-busting, and to defend and expand public education, pensions for state workers and teachers, and desperately needed social services.

In this fight, the natural allies of students are Chicago teachers and public workers currently under assault, as well as others fighting for union rights, against police violence and all forms of racial discrimination, and others engaged in struggle.

In addition to mobilizing in the streets, the battle needs to find expression in the political arena, in opposition to both capitalist parties. Needed gains will not be won by relying on liberal Democrats in the Chicago city council or the state legislature in Springfield. A strategy that focuses on lobbying is one that relies on liberal politicians, and can only yield piecemeal and token results.

Ultimately, the political power of working people in Illinois needs to be unleashed. This can find expression in independent political struggle, squarely in opposition to both capitalist parties.

Photo: Chicago Tribune