By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
It was the first week back to school at Chicago State University. There were students with backpacks hurrying about the campus. Young men were busy checking out female co-eds as they walk by in shorts. Meanwhile, music pumps from an amphitheater where an event is offering new students a chance to sign up for different clubs or fraternities. It is what you would expect during the first week on an American college campus, but things at Chicago State are different. As the classes began this week for the fall semester, returning students at CSU are trying to put the school’s financial crisis out of their minds and concentrate on their studies. They admit the mood around campus just isn’t the same since the news six months ago that the school might have to close because of funding issues.
“Everybody is still suffering from what we went through in the spring semester,” said ‘Jo’ Harris. “Who could be comfortable after that mess? But I think most people have just come to the realization that there is little we can do about it right now and we just have to try our best to get out of here as fast as possible.”
Other students the Chicago Crusader spoke with had the same philosophy. Many returned to CSU because they were into their last semester of classes and said it was worth the risk to return. Others are optimistic the State will not close a major university on the South Side of Chicago. But even more said they had nowhere else to go.
“A lot of people do come here because it is a school of last resort,” said one male student who did not want his name used. “I got kicked out of another college because I was high on marijuana and had gotten into a fight with a campus police officer. I thought I had ruined my life so I stayed out of school for four years. Then one day my mother told me I needed to try CSU. I was so grateful they gave me another chance. And there’re a lot of other people here for similar reasons…either they didn’t have the money to go to school out of state, or they had a baby or some other life situation put them here. In many ways we are the school of people who were broken and are trying to fix themselves. CSU didn’t give up on me so I’m not going to give up on it.”
Despite the optimism, CSU is facing some serious challenges. The university’s biggest problem is it does not get endowment money and its alumni do not give back financially to the school. The Crusader has tried for years to get the exact amount of donations that come into CSU through administrators, but our requests are either denied or not responded to.
Since this time last year, over 400 CSU workers have been laid off. And sources tell the Crusader there is the potential for more this school year. That has led to uneasiness among staff at the university and slower times to get business done, according to students. They say what used to be a five minute wait in some offices like financial aid, have turned into 30 minute waits.
“They are so short on staff that the people left behind are stressed because they are now doing the work of what had been three people,” Harris said. “It’s not their fault but everyone is keeping their cool.”
Congressman Danny Davis has been trying to recruit people to the university. Davis worked with 200 churches earlier this month to get them to declare during their Sunday services “Chicago State Day.” He says one of the keys to helping CSU and the community as a whole is getting more people to enroll at the school. He said those extra tuition dollars would come in handy.
However, Dr. Jeffrey Leek, the Republican candidate running against Davis in the November election believes that Davis, a CSU alum, is not telling the community the entire truth about what is holding CSU back. Leef said CSU suffers from administrative bloat, which has led to its financial dysfunction.
“The administrative fees at Chicago State ($3,600) are 80 percent higher than any other Illinois four-year university,” Leef said. “If one-fourth of the administrative staff at CSU were cut… it would still leave CSU with an administrative staff number that is proportionately first in the state.”
Even the CSU police department has not been immune from the problems. Two months ago officers there gave a vote of no-confidence to the police chief Patricia Walsh and said they are working in conditions that compromise public safety. Among the officers’ complaints were that the squad cars they are using are not fit for their work. A meeting between CSU President Thomas Calhoun and the officers’ union rep Ray Violetto took place in July to try to fix some of the problems.
In the meantime former CSU students, who have been able to continue their education elsewhere, said last semester’s fiasco was the last draw. Charles Johnson said he left because he had two years remaining in his courses and he could not risk his future. He is one of several former students who took advantage of the offer to go to a school in Northwest Indiana, but is only being charged an in-state tuition fee.
“It was a common sense decision for me,” Johnson said. “I had the chance to continue my general studies degree at pretty much the same price without all of the drama. Now all I have to do is concentrate on my classes and not the news.”