Students, teachers protest cuts at NEIU

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NEIU student Marlene De LaCruz steps up to the microphone during a campus protest Thursday over state cuts. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Holding aloft photographs of “missing” professors who’ve left in search of greener educational pastures, about 100 students and educators at Northeastern Illinois University led a campus protest Thursday over “devastating” state funding cuts to the institution.

Much of the anger Thursday was directed at Gov. Bruce Rauner, with many blaming the state’s chief executive for a lack of a state budget for nearly two years. A stopgap budget expired in January, cutting off state funding for higher education and social service agencies.

“We don’t need him to do anything drastic,” said Tyler Zimmer, who teaches philosophy at NEIU. “We just need him to stop vetoing budgets so we can get the funds the university needs.”

Tim Barnett, a professor of English and women-and-gender studies, agreed, saying it isn’t simply a matter of business as usual in Springfield.

“We’ve never had the experience where funding for students or higher education has simply been denied for political purposes,” Barnett said. “That is brand new and that is Gov. Rauner.”

To save money, the university is requiring almost all employees to take five unpaid days of leave during the week of spring break — an initiative that is expected to affect about 1,100 employees, school administrators said. The campus will also shut down during spring break, meaning university services — with the exception of police and maintenance — will be halted.

“A lot of the students don’t have internet at home,” student Marlene De LaCruz said. “A lot of the students need help. They are passionate about their education, and they are not able to get the resources that they need.”

In an emailed statement, Illinois Education Secretary Beth Purvis blamed lawmakers for the funding problems at state colleges and universities.

“Higher education has been negatively impacted by the General Assembly’s failure to pass a balanced budget, and this decision underscores the importance and urgent need for the Senate to reach a bipartisan compromise that is good for students, job creators and taxpayers,” Purvis said.

Northeastern administrators say that without additional state money arriving soon, more furloughs are “inevitable.”

“The university feels the same anger and frustration expressed by students and the faculty union today regarding the 20 months that they — along with our dedicated staff — have had to endure without adequate and reliable state funding for higher education,” interim President Richard Helldobler said in a statement. “All members of our university community are feeling the pain of  this state budget impasse, and we are pleading for a swift resolution to this budget crisis in Springfield.”

The university, which serves about 10,000 students, received about $36.7 million from the state in fiscal year 2015 compared with about $10.7 million in 2016, officials say. The university was forced to dip into its reserves to get through 2016, officials say.

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