Chicago State University Closure Possible Due to Political Impasse

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Due to overwhelming financial strains, Chicago State University (CSU) has issued pink slips to over 900 faculty members. The letters, which were sent Feb. 25, 2016,did not come as a shock to many, but rather was a sign of the grim reality. Due to the failure of Governor Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan to reach common ground and push the 2016 fiscal budget through, the nearly 150-year-old institution may be slated for closure due to a political impasse.

Chicago State University has been a stalwart fixture in the community, and has faithfully served the people of the South Side of Chicago and beyond for generations. Originally founded as a teaching college in 1867, the Chicago university has expanded over the years to offer 36 undergraduate, 22 graduate, and two doctoral degrees. What is especially important is that the tuition is kept lower, specifically to aid the students in the community. Chicago State University offers quality education, a diverse learning experience, and has never had an issue in all of its years with funding or budget, until the arrival of political strife last June.

“That’s when everything started,” declared Media Arts/Writing Professor and alumna Christine Houston. “They really need to stop with the political games. They need to stop playing games with the students’ education.” Prof. Houston is an NAACP Image award-winning playwright and creator of the popular late ’80s television show, 227. After leaving Hollywood, Houston returned to Chicago, where she went to Chicago State University for her bachelor’s degree, and ended up staying for her master’s while teaching screenwriting.

Unfortunately, Houston is one of the 900+ faculty members who received letters of “nonrenewal of appointment” from Chicago State University. “The political games” are a reference to the antics of Gov. Rauner (R) and Speaker Madigan (D), who have been vetoing one another’s respective bills, delaying the vital legislation that would continue the flow of funding for public schools in the state. Chicago State University receives 30 percent of its funding from the state.

There has been a litany of blame-flinging articles in the press, mostly from the perspective of Rauner. According to The Chicago Sun-Times, the governor is accusing Madigan of “having spies on board” at other state universities and directly interfering with his leadership by pushing for Rauner’s proposals to be blocked. Rauner claims that Madigan is drawing out the financial crisis in order to use the issue during the upcoming primary elections.


In a letter to the governor posted on the university’s website, CSU President Thomas Calhoun cites the necessity and importance of Chicago State University. He says the majority of the student population are transfer students, and the same standards that apply to other state universities are not applicable to Chicago State. Full-time and part-time transfer students make up two-thirds of the student body, and 42 percent are first-generation college students. 55 percent of the student body come from households that are below the poverty level. To these students, Chicago State University is an opportunity they may have been working toward their entire life.

Houston echoed the sentiments of the president, saying, “It’s hard enough to get kids into college; the students need these sorts of opportunities.” For those who cannot afford prestigious university tuitions, Chicago State University is a credit to its South Side community, welcoming a bustling and diverse global transfer-student population. “I have students from all around the world,” she continued, “Students from Germany, Japan, Hungary, a very diverse population. If it [CSU] wasn’t there, the community would suffer.”

Calhoun stated that while the university has students who come from lower-income homes, that does not imply they are any less capable of succeeding in a university atmosphere. This is said in response to an extremely troubling inference made by Richard Goldberg, deputy chief of staff for the governor. He called Chicago State University a school that rejects reform and cited a number of incorrect statistics meant to imply that the African-American students at the Chicago university were graduating at a lower rate than the white students. Calhoun corrected these erroneous statistics and reminded the governor of the many cutbacks and drastic efforts of the school to save money just to stay open until the end of the semester.

Since Jan. 2015, Chicago State University has cut 10 percent of its workforce, and the administrative salaries had been frozen. They delayed payments and instituted cutbacks on purchasing. They did not fill vacant positions, but instead consolidated positions and academic programs.

ABC News reported on Feb. 23, 2016, that Chicago State University had canceled spring break and is accelerating graduation in order to finish the semester. Students and alumni were distraught and angry in the face of the state budget impasse, saying that they and their future were the ones being compromised; all for the sake of political power plays. Calhoun mentioned on ABC that the Chicago university was looking into closing down some buildings throughout the summer to save additional money for the upcoming school year.

The university has promised its students to help keep them on top of schoolwork during the upheaval of the accelerated graduation period. It is telling that a school, whose aim is the access of higher education to students of diverse backgrounds and fostering the intellectual success of its student population, is outwardly demonstrating that mission during dire pressures.

Prof. Houston is one member of the faculty that received the nonrenewal letter. She was recently honored by NBC News 5 and the university as part of Black History Month in acknowledgement of the foundation she has laid for the future eras of black representation on TV. As the first African-American woman to write her own successful TV show, it seems appropriate she would work at an institution like Chicago State University, whose dedicated students and staff have rallied together to persevere, despite the political impasse holding their future at bay.

227 is noted for its excellent writing, which depicted African-Americans living their lives in an apartment building, and illustrated the characters as people instead of as caricatures. The show ran for five seasons and it was well-known for being the springboard to celebrity for black actors and actresses. It can be inferred that without the influence of 227, a ray of representation would have been lost. Seeing black men and women on the television screen, living their lives for an hour or two, had an impact that was without measure, especially for young black people living out their own lives in similar circumstances. If the circle of influence is that powerful for a television show, then who can say what the impact will be of the closure of an institution, in nearly its sesquicentennial year, in a Chicago community?

Opinion by Juanita Lewis
Edited by Jeanette Smith and Cathy Milne

CSU News: A Message to the Governor
The Chicago Tribune: Rauner tries to pin blame on Madigan for university funding crisis
The State-Journal Register: Rauner accuses Madigan of putting politics before higher ed
CSU News: Professor Houston Recognized on NBC 5 as a Black History Legend

Top and Featured Image Courtesy of David Wilson’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons license
Inline Image Courtesy of Chicago State University – Public Domain License