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Starving Public Higher Education in Illinois

By Janet Smith, President, UIC United Faculty

While our Governor lives high on the hog, our students and campuses are being starved. Chicago State University recently declared fiscal exigency. Northeastern Illinois University just announced furloughs beginning Monday and Southern is now planning layoffs while other state universities consider and do the same.

These are truly frightening times. Besides layoffs, the bond ratings of most public universities in Illinois are near or at junk status. This is because we do not have a budget, which in part is because our current governor wants to change the collective bargaining rights for public employees.

As a relatively new union that fought hard for these rights, we along with the hundreds of thousands of public sector employees in Illinois, cannot allow this. While not all support unions, the simple fact is that they make a positive economic difference to employees and their communities as recently reported in What Do Unions do for the Middle Class? a study completed by Richard Freeman from Harvard along with Eunice Han, Brendan Duke, and David Madland.

And unions make a difference in public higher education. Our union has worked hard to fight back the loss of tenure and to provide more security for those without tenure. This last contract we were able to get multi-year contracts assured for nearly 2/3 of our NTT faculty and raise the starting salary to $42,000. While we always are striving for more, our efforts will always focus on preventing the further erosion of the teaching mission and reverse the trends that all public higher education have followed.

We applaud you all as we strive together to "Keep the Public in Public Higher Education." Public higher education is more than a line item in a state budget; it is the infrastructure of our democracy. It is not just a means to a job, but a means to a more just and democratic society.

We need to return to our radical roots where PUBLIC higher education was valued and understood to be the seeds of a better future because we had a well-rounded public prepared to engage in debate for the good of all the people.

It's hard to think of that world when today at my campus - in the spirit of supporting free speech but also commerce - Donald Trump will be speaking. Thousands are gathering to exercise their free speech, to protest against the hate mongering and vitriol that his campaign has brought to our political arena. Let us all hope that it is peaceful and that our students and community - both inside the pavilion and outside it are safe.

While the Trump campaign has created great strife at our campus, he will leave it tonight. Our larger and more pressing concern is the state of our state.

It's not easy these days to work in public higher education when you have a Governor holding hostage support for students. When he recently vetoed the Monetary Assistance Program funds that rightfully belong to our campuses to support thousands of students around the state, including 8,000 at UIC, the governor said it was because of bloat. This feeds into a larger image of a bloated public sector that includes public higher education. However, if the Governor really wanted to cut bloat, he might start in his own offices.

But rather than point fingers and strike budget line items, we need to reframe the problem and the solutions. The public good relies on responsible people making decisions for the people who elect them to represent them in office. Currently, many feel and I do too that this is not the case. Putting aside the people elected, we need to focus on reframing the problem.

We are in a fiscal crisis because we allow some taxpayers to not pay their taxes including large corporations like McDonalds. If the average citizen has to pay, why do we allow corporations that make serious profits and pay low wages, to not pay their share? Their contribution alone would more than fund the MAP program.

The point here is that if we are to really keep the public in public higher education, then we need to value the public and make it a priority. This doesn't require radical thinking - though in Illinois we would benefit from a progressive tax, something we do not have yet. The radical thinking more people are proposing is simply making some people follow the rules like the vast majority of us do already. But keeping public higher education public is more than the funding. It's also about a cultural point of view that has valued private education for a few relative to the many who cannot afford it or get access. The disturbing trend is in the fact that we are seeing a growing and deepening divide between the rich and the poor and middle class when it comes to accessing higher education. Even as private institutions amass huge endowments to support lower-income students, the slots are limited and far fewer than the students who merit them. But even then, public higher education should not be seen as the second choice. A vast majority of students and faculty CHOOSE public higher education because they believe in it and value what it can offer EVERYONE.

As we watch the dismantling of the Wisconsin Way to the north, with the evisceration of the UW system which for so long made it possible for so many to attend a highly respected public university system, we have to keep vigil in our own state.