What’s driving all the faculty strikes at Illinois public universities?

State spending on higher education was cut nearly in half over 20 years after adjusting for inflation, setting the stage for today’s labor strife.

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Around two dozen faculty and staff members walked the picket line outside Chicago State University during their first day of their strike on April 3.

Around two dozen faculty and staff members walked the picket line outside Chicago State University during their first day of their strike on April 3.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Professors at three public universities in Illinois are either on strike or on the verge of striking this week following years of declining state investment in higher education.

Faculty at Chicago State University walked off the job last Monday, faculty at Eastern Illinois followed on Thursday, and faculty at Governors State University plan to strike on Tuesday.

All three universities are regional institutions that serve significant numbers of students of color or students from low-income communities, and all three have had to do more with less as public funding has dropped over the years. At the same time, enrollment has fallen off dramatically at Chicago State and Eastern Illinois.

According to a recent report from the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a research and advocacy group, state spending on higher education in Illinois was cut nearly in half, by $1.8 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, between 2000 and 2023. That’s despite recent increases in the real dollar amount invested in the state’s universities.

“This significant cutback in state funding has really created some fiscal stress, particularly for those public universities that serve more traditionally underrepresented student populations, like low-income kids, rural kids, minority kids,” said CTBA Executive Director Ralph Martire.

For example, nearly seven out of 10 students who attended Chicago State in 2021 were Black, federal data show, and eight in 10 full-time freshmen received Pell Grants reserved for students with the most financial need. At Eastern Illinois and Governors State, more than five in 10 received Pell Grants.

“A lot of folks talk about, ‘Oh, we don’t need the redundancy in these universities,’” Martire said. “Absolutely, we do. It’s not redundancy. It’s access to opportunity for students who have very different family situations that may require them to stay local.”

Frank Fernandez, a professor of higher education at the University of Florida, said smaller public regional universities are some of the most effective vehicles for social mobility.

“Those are the schools that — if you’re on a Pell Grant, you’re in the lowest income quartile, and then you go get a degree in nursing, or engineering or even become a teacher — that’s how you get somebody from the bottom of the income brackets moving several steps up,” said Fernandez, author of a forthcoming report on higher education funding in Illinois.

The roots of public disinvestment lie in longstanding fiscal mismanagement in state government and the cost cutting it necessitated, according to Martire. He calls higher education “a low-hanging fruit” for politicians on both sides of the aisle looking to rein in the state budget.

“Social services don’t really have an independent funding source … K-12 education doesn’t really have an independent funding source, other than local property taxes,” he said. “Higher ed does: It is called tuition.”

In 2003, public appropriations made up 72% of Illinois public university revenue, with the remaining 28% coming from tuition and fees.

“Now, that’s pretty much flipped,” Martire said.

According to the CTBA analysis, state funding now constitutes 35% of public university revenue in Illinois. Tuition and fees make up the remaining 65%.

The problem is, higher education analysts say, not all public universities can generate substantial tuition revenue.

“If you have a flagship, nationally renowned university, like the University of Illinois, it has great endowments. It does not take a significant number of low-income students. A lot of students can bear the load of a higher tuition,” Martire said.

“But then you look at Governors State or Chicago State or Western Illinois, they take a significantly greater portion of low-income students in their general enrollment population. They can’t just pass tuition costs on to these kids.”

Tuition and fees at Illinois public universities have increased by 115% when accounting for inflation, according to the CTBA report.

“They are spiking at a level that’s seven times greater than the growth in income for most people,” Martire said. “And that’s really pricing higher ed out of the family budget for many middle-income [families], not just low-income families.”

Larger campuses like the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are able to subsidize tuition costs for students with financial need, said Xiaodan Hu, a professor of higher education at Northern Illinois University.

“The rest of us, we don’t have the same capacity to support our students from the institutional end,” Hu said. “And we’re looking at a lot of students who may not go to a four-year institution if we’re not there.”

Picket signs for faculty at Chicago State University.

Strikes have become commonplace at Illinois universities. Faculty are on strike at Chicago State and Eastern Illinois, and Governors State may follow this week. Faculty staged a strike at University of Illinois Chicago in January.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

Of the 12 public universities in Illinois, only the two largest, the University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign and the University of Illinois Chicago, have grown their student bodies in the past decade, according to federal data.

The remaining 10, all regional institutions, have lost students. Several of them have seen substantial losses, with enrollment declines well over 20%. Chicago State and Northeastern Illinois have seen their student populations decline by half or more.

Enrollment declines are compounding the financial struggles at these campuses, said Fernandez of the University of Florida.

“Unless the state is going to come in and fund you more, you have to cut spending,” he said. “And when you’ve got fewer student services, you’ve got fewer classes, you start cutting programs, well, then fewer students are going to enroll because you’ve got fewer services, you’ve got your classes, fewer programs. And you get kind of caught in the cycle of, ‘Well, how do we ever find the money to invest into expanding again?’”

So administrators at regional public universities have to make tough choices about spending.

“Faculty and staff: Those are your biggest costs,” Martire said.

Universities can minimize or forego salary raises, and they can reduce the number of tenure-track positions. That has been a national trend, according to the American Association of University Professors and has required existing faculty to take on larger workloads without additional compensation.

Starting to reinvest

The good news in Illinois, according to Martire, is that under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, the state has started to boost public funding for higher education. In his current budget proposal, the governor requested an additional 7% in funding.

“But we’ve got a long way to go to even make up for where we were 20 years ago, much less get to a level where a university can have adequate resources to serve the student populations they want to serve,” Martire said.

A state commission currently is searching for a new model to fund higher education, with the goal of increasing equity, adequacy and sustainability. It is due to release a report in July.

Hu hopes the proposal will take into account the differing missions and needs of each university and its students.

“We need to make every effort to make us stay affordable and to stay accessible for our students,” Hu said of the state’s regional universities. “Otherwise, we are irrelevant.”

Lisa Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus.

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