Chicago State University faculty walk out on strike

University administrators said all support services and most, if not all, classes would continue during the strike.

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Striking faculty and staff picket at Chicago State University on Monday, April 3.

Striking faculty and staff picket at Chicago State University on Monday, April 3. Chicago State is Illinois’ only predominantly Black public university.

Lisa Philip/WBEZ

Faculty at Chicago State University, Illinois’ only predominantly Black public university, walked off the job on Monday for better pay and a reduced workload. That’s after 10 months of negotiations failed to bring an agreement between staff and university administrators.

“The professors put in the time and work. They work overtime — I’ve seen it,” said Muriel McClendon, a graduate student at Chicago State who picketed alongside faculty Monday. “They are burning our professors out.”

More than 160 professors, lecturers and academic and technical support professionals at Chicago State on the Far South Side are represented by University Professors of Illinois Local 4100. Data from the state and from the National Education Association show they are among the lowest paid faculty members in Illinois.

The next bargaining session is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

Chicago State serves 2,366 undergraduate and graduate students, according to federal data. Nearly seven out of 10 are Black.

“Our students come from Black and Brown communities,” faculty union president Valerie Goss said at a rally on campus. “I don’t understand why it is that our students have to endure faculty who are being paid less than faculty at any other institution. This is not an equitable picture.”

In a written statement released over the weekend, university administrators said they expected all support services and most, if not all, classes would continue during the strike. The spring semester ends in less than six weeks on May 13, with final exams starting on May 8.

Students said emails had been circulated asking alumni to teach classes in professors’ absence.

“They can actually think about, and are moving towards, hiring people to replace us in the classroom, but not actually putting money towards what would be a fair proposal for us,” Goss said. “It seems a little bit disingenuous.”

Faculty members picketing on campus Monday were joined by leaders of the American and Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Chicago Teachers Union — and by their students, like senior Mya Nash. She is graduating in May and starting a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Chicago in the fall. She credits her professors at Chicago State for her success.

“I saw my first female Black chemistry teacher teaching me. I was like, ‘Oh, yes, it’s possible, I can do it,’” said Nash, who lives in the Chatham neighborhood. “And that’s why I’m doing it.”

Nash said she would love to teach at Chicago State one day, but the current situation gives her pause.

“I want to come back to my home school, and give back to the students,” she said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that because of the pay.”

Several faculty members raised concerns Monday about the ability to recruit and retain staff at current salary levels. According to a report from the National Education Association, professors at Chicago State earned on average $88,000 in the 2021-2022 school year. That’s $7,000 less than the average salary for public university professors across the state.

“I’m really big on wanting more instructors to come in, then we can educate more students and help to change a lot of lives in this community,” said Dorothy Moore-Ahma, a member of Chicago State’s nursing faculty. “You can’t recruit more and good instructors if you don’t have wages that help you to just work one job.”

“We have achieved agreement on significant issues, including workload, office hours, parental leave and other points as they were raised during our bargaining sessions,” the university statement reads. “Yet the financial realities at the University remain. We intensely recognize the dedication and needs of our faculty, but must also ensure that CSU can continue its commitment to our students, staff and community into the future.”

In response to administrators’ claims about financial constraints, union leaders criticized Chicago State University President Zaldwaynaka Scott as one of the highest paid university leaders in the state.

According to data from the Illinois Board of Higher Education, she earned $395,000 during fiscal year 2021. That was the fourth-highest salary for public university presidents in the state. Scott has served as president since 2018.

Ninety-eight percent of voting faculty union members voted to authorize a strike in early March. Bargaining after that vote did not bring agreement on issues of compensation and workload. Union leaders filed notice of their intent to strike on March 23.

Goss said she knows firsthand how the school serves students. She grew up nearby in Roseland and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

“I would not have had an opportunity to go even down to UIC,” she said. “I was married earlier and I had children and I worked. This would have been my only shot to have a chance for college.”

Federal data show that half of the students at Chicago State are 25 or older. Forty-five percent receive Pell Grants reserved for students from families with the most financial need.

“These regional institutions play a very important role,” said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “And when they’re underfunded, or when the employer isn’t properly valuing the work of the educators inside their system, they’re also dismissing and having a negative impact on the student body that’s going to attend Chicago State.”

Before the strike, Bruno said he wasn’t surprised that faculty unions at Chicago State and other institutions in the state were inching toward strikes.

Faculty unions at Eastern Illinois University and Governors State University recently filed notices of intent to strike. UIC went on strike for five days in January to secure a contract.

“It speaks to the lack of support for those institutions, which puts pressure of course on the employer,” Bruno said. “But it also cascades down to the people that work there … The staff isn’t going to grow, enrollment hasn’t grown, fallen state support hasn’t kept up to meet what the needs are. So on one hand, the employer is going to feel like its resources aren’t ample enough. But the workers are going to feel the increased burden that’s placed.”

State funding for higher education has been on the rise since Gov. J.B. Pritzker took office in 2019, but levels are still below what they were two decades ago. That puts an additional financial burden on smaller universities that rely more heavily on public funding as opposed to tuition revenue.

“The state has an obligation to address racial and economic inequities,” Bruno said. “And one of the best ways to do it is to fund colleges like Chicago State.”

Lisa Philip covers higher education for WBEZ in partnership withOpen Campus.

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