Illinois Universities Face Closures, Layoffs as State Budget Impasse Continues

AP Photo/M. Spencer Green,File

This February 7, 2014 file photo shows a student walking on the campus of Chicago State University in Chicago. 

An eight-month-long state budget standoff in Illinois could shut down a 148-year-old, predominately African American university on Chicago’s South Side if state lawmakers cannot resolve a funding dispute soon. The impasse affects the entire Illinois public higher education system, with many colleges and universities facing layoffs, furloughs, and class cancellations.

Students at Chicago State University recently held a rally demanding an end to the stalemate after the university’s board of directors declared financial exigency, or “college bankruptcy.” “We are being held hostage,” says Paris Griffin, a Chicago State senior who helped organize the demonstration at the governor’s offices in the Windy City.

Illinois colleges and universities have been in crisis-mode since Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and the Democratic state lawmakers who dominate the General Assembly failed to pass a budget for the 2016 fiscal year that began last July. Colleges have been forced to dip into limited reserves or even borrow money to keep classes in session and to meet payrolls for the 2015-2016 academic year.

Chicago State University failed to receive $36 million in state funding last July, about 30 percent of the school’s budget. Another $1.6 million in state-funded merit scholarships and $5 million in state grants to low-income students also did not materialize.

After depleting its reserves to keep classes and state financial aid programs running, Chicago State must now consider drastic measures to keep the school solvent. University officials plan to announce layoffs as early as next week. The school runs out of money in March unless state lawmakers act. “There isn’t any playbook for the situation we’re facing,” says Chicago State University political science professor Agber Dimah, the faculty union vice president.

Dimah adds that Governor Rauner has ignored the university’s “unique position.” Seventy percent of its students are black and many hail from nearby low-income and minority neighborhoods. “Most of our students are nontraditional students: They work, they hold jobs in the city, some of them have families.”

Though Chicago State University has experienced the most financial turmoil, other public higher ed administrators worry that they may be next. In Illinois’s rural heartland, 150 miles south of Chicago, Eastern Illinois University sent layoff notices to nearly 200 employees and told remaining staff and faculty to take 18 furlough days before the spring semester ends in May.

Meanwhile, Alan Phillips, Northern Illinois University’s vice president for administration and finance, says his school, which enrolls twice as many students as Eastern Illinois, is in better shape. But the university still receives 20 percent of its funding from Springfield, and state bills are piling up. Since July, the university has left more than half of its vacancies unfilled and has halted all campus renovations and repairs. Tuition dollars allow the university to run most classes and programs. Phillips warned the school could be forced to dip into reserves this spring.

College and university administrators continue to raise doubts about the future. “There’s been no real change in how this is going to be resolved in the longer term,” said Phillip Beverly, a Chicago State University political science professor who heads the faculty senate. He pointed out that assigning faculty and determining class sizes needed to be done before a new semester begins.

Only the University of Illinois, the state’s flagship school, may get through the rest of the fiscal year unscathed. The university, with 80,000 students sprawled across three campuses, has healthier finances thanks to out-of-state and international tuition dollars and other sources of revenue.

The budget impasse has laid bare the financial challenges facing Illinois public universities. According to Thomas Hardy, the University of Illinois’s public relations director, from the 1960s through the1990s, state monies accounted for as much as 30 percent to 40 percent of the university’s budget; today, state funds account for roughly 12 percent.

State Representative Carol Ammons, a Democrat whose district includes the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, describes Rauner’s agenda as “all-or-nothing” and echoed voters’ resistance to program cuts. “Constituents are overwhelmingly in favor of protecting our safety-net programs, defending the rights of workers to collective bargaining, and providing the funding our higher educational institutions need and deserve,” she says.

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly says that universities “could all be funded tomorrow” if Democrats passed a Republican bill that would fully fund university and grant programs. But Democrats have resisted the measure since the bill would give the governor more control over state universities’ budgets.

As politicians continue to squabble in Springfield, students suffer the consequences.

Griffin, the Chicago State student organizer, faulted both legislators and the governor for playing a “political game of chess.” “Meanwhile, we are watching our university crumble,” she says.

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