Chicago State University students protest state budget impasse

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Chicago State University students have held numerous protests over a state budget impasse that has crippled public universities — leaving their South Side school in particular facing severe cuts and the spectre of closing.

In recent weeks, they’ve rallied on the 95th Street campus and blocked the Dan Ryan Expy. at 95th to get attention. On Monday, they brought the protest to Gov. Bruce Rauner at the downtown State of Illinois Building.

“We’re not asking for reform. We’re not asking for revolution. We’re asking for them to do their basic duty. Sign the darn budget. That’s all we’re asking,” said Charles Preston, 25, of Roseland, a senior majoring in African-American Studies.

“While they play this game of political chess, we are the ones suffering. We have students scared that they will be unable to graduate,” said Preston, among about 100 students, faculty and supporters who rallied downtown.

The school’s administration last week declared financial exigency — a crisis level preceding program cuts and allowing layoffs encompassing union and tenured staff.

CSU, serving a predominantly minority population of 4,500 students, is perhaps most severely affected by the void of higher education funding during the eight-month stalemate between Rauner and the Democrat-majority General Assembly.

“Chicago State offers opportunities to students like me, who take a break from school and return, as well as older students who have families, jobs and careers,” said Adrian Mercado, 23, of South Chicago, a senior communications major who helped lead an hour march around the Loop.

“I think Gov. Rauner has to start thinking about people. If he did, he would realize people who most need education are the kind of students at Chicago State,” Mercado said.

CSU depends on the state for a higher percentage of its funding — 30 percent or about $37 million annually — than schools with greater endowments, such as the University of Illinois. But all public universities have been hobbled, with schools including Northeastern Illinois and Eastern Illinois fearing they won’t outlast the spring semester.

And last week, the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits state public universities, sent a letter to Rauner and legislative leaders saying the impasse has put schools’ accreditations at risk.

“A criterion for accreditation is demonstration of the availability of financial, physical, and human resources necessary to provide quality higher education,” Commission President Barbara Gellman-Danley wrote on Feb. 4.

The commission had simultaneously written to all public universities, requiring they provide a plan to assist students in the event of closure, per federal regulations.

“If they believe they will have to suspend operations or close in the next several months, they must provide HLC with a plan for how students can continue at another college or university to avoid eliminating their access to higher education,” Gellman-Danley wrote. “For students to continue at another institution, it could mean having to transfer to private universities or leave the state. It is also probable some students may drop out of college.”

The plans, to be forwarded to the commission by Feb. 18, must spell out “how students will be informed about this urgent situation, including how they access transcripts if operations have been suspended due to lack of state funding,” Gellman-Danley wrote.

CSU officials recently speculated that without funding, the school would have to cease operations by March 1. That announcement galvanized black community leaders and became a topic of outrage in black radio and newspapers.

But CSU’s board of trustees meeting last week instead went the route of financial exigency, triggering massive cuts.

Chicago State University students and supporters, including Paris Griffin, student government association president, demonstrate outside 300 N. La Salle St. on Monday. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“We’re out here in solidarity to let the governor and the legislators of Illinois know that we’re serious about our education, serious about putting pressure on them to fund education and pass the budget of the state of Illinois,” Paris Griffin, 21, president of the CSU Student Government Association, said as students chanted while holding picket signs.

“This is not just a Chicago State problem. This is all of the public universities in the state of Illinois. There are many schools whose doors could close at the end of this semester, yet it doesn’t seem like anyone cares or understands,” she said. “That’s why we as students have to continue to get out here and make our voices heard.”

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