The struggle for SIU’s future

April 7, 2010

Adam Turl, a student and activist at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, reports on the fight against cutbacks and fee hikes developing on campus.

THE STRUGGLE for the future of higher education is heating up at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC)--a largely working-class campus of some 20,000 students in downstate Illinois, not far from St. Louis in the middle of what used to be coal country.

At the center of the struggle is a question about who is going to pay for the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Will it be highly paid administrators or cash-strapped students? Will it be working people at SIUC, or will the state of Illinois step up to the plate and fully fund higher education?

On March 29, some 200 SIUC students took part in a three-hour-long teach-in and protest outside the school's Morris Library against campus budget cuts. Since the fall 2009 semester, the SIUC administration has threatened (and already implemented) budget cuts, and threatened future layoffs and furloughs.

In the spring semester, hundreds of SIUC students participated in rallies and a lobby day in Springfield, Ill., to stop cuts to need-based Monetary Award Program (MAP) financial aid grants. These actions were organized--at least in part--with the tacit approval of the SIUC administration, with the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) providing buses to the state capital in Springfield. MAP funds were restored, but state legislators failed to allocate any actual money to the program.

Students at Southern Illinois University are speaking out against budget cuts and tuition hikes
Students at Southern Illinois University are speaking out against budget cuts and tuition hikes (Jasmin Creek)

The state of Illinois still owes SIUC more than $100 million for the current fiscal year, and the school projects a deficit of some $125 million for the coming fiscal year. This prompted SIUC President Glenn Poshard to require every department to submit a plan for 10 percent across-the-board budget cuts for next year--cuts that would inevitably lead to layoffs and severely undermine education at SIUC.

HOWEVER, WHILE state officials and administrators were sharpening their budget-cutting axes, students at SIUC were starting to get organized. In mid-March, undergraduates and graduates from several academic departments met at a local coffee shop to form Students Against University Cuts (SAUC).

SAUC made plans for an informational campaign (issuing a number of fact sheets about the crisis), plans for a protest and teach-in, and petitioning--including petitioning at two "People's History of SIU" events that drew hundreds of students to discuss the 1970 SIU student strike and the history of the Black Panthers in Carbondale. In just a few days, hundreds of students, faculty and staff signed the petition.

What you can do

SIUC students--both graduate and undergraduates--who want to get involved in fighting against budget cuts and increases in tuition and fees can contact SIU Students Against University Cuts by e-mailing [email protected].

SIUC graduate assistants can get in contact with their union by visiting the GA United Web site.

Several student organizers were inspired by the March 4 day of action and the protests in California. As student organizer Nick Smilgo put it: "I heard about the March 4th protests and strikes that were taking place in California, and realized they had been trying to get public schools around the country involved in hopes of starting a nationwide coalition to defend public education. I thought that sounded like a great idea: they were doing something, they were organized."

SAUC decided to focus on four key demands. If cuts became necessary, the university administration should "chop from the top." Students also demanded an end to threats of layoffs and furloughs, a moratorium on tuition increases at the campus and state level, and full funding for education in Illinois through a progressive income tax that would fall on corporate incomes and the rich.

On March 29, 200 students streamed in and out of SAUC's protest, many of them taking to an open mike--in between chants of "chop from the top" and "education not a corporation"--to talk about how cuts impacted them and their ideas about what education should be about. Students carried signs reading "No furloughs, no layoffs," "Put the public back in education," "Use your voice" and "Another SIU is possible."

Protests continued the next day, when dozens of agriculture students confronted the agriculture school dean about the sudden resignation of their favorite professor.

Two days after the March 29 protest, the campus newspaper, The Daily Egyptian, published an extensive list of top administration salaries at SIUC, underlining protesters' demand to "chop from the top."

The top five administration salaries include: basketball coach Chris Lowery ($763,176), President Glenn Poshard ($320,376), Chancellor Sam Goldman ($300,152), Dean James D. Cradit ($246,588), and Vice President Duane Stucky ($234,740).

While administrators have been talking about 10 percent across-the-board cuts and unpaid furloughs, and threatening to lay off faculty and staff, they've been raking in six-figure salaries. As the Daily Egyptian pointed out, there are more than 7,500 employees at SIUC (not counting student workers), and just 247 of them account for more than 12 percent of payroll.

In addition to these fat salaries, students are footing the lion's share of the bill for the new football stadium--$41.5 million in student fees are allocated for the "Saluki Way" development project, money that could have gone to underwriting academic programs and preventing job cuts.

Every student I spoke to the day the Daily Egyptian report came out was absolutely furious.

Take Jessi, an undergraduate student at SIUC--and protest organizer--whose brother is terminally ill. She is paying her own way through school. As she put it, "I don't know how I'm going to make it through the next few months. I know that if the school had spent funds more wisely, I could have gotten more assistance. How much farther will I go in debt to line their projects and pockets?"

As another student put it, "It seems that students' experiences are peripheral to students' dollars. What's the priority here?"

Of course, administrators act like they're on the side of students. In mid-March, SIUC President Glen Poshard and members of the SIU Board of Trustees indicated that they would seek a tuition freeze at SIUC for the fall 2010 semester, citing the hardships that students and their families were facing because of the recession.

A tuition freeze is a welcome development. Unfortunately, the freeze might have as much to do with public relations as helping students. Administrators are planning to implement a 3.2 percent fee increase across the board, as well as an increase on campus housing costs by nearly 6 percent and food service costs by 6 percent. This is essentially a tuition increase in disguise.

These same administrators and trustees have more than doubled tuition and fees over the past 10 years--from $4,113.30 in the 2000-2001 academic year to $10,411 for the current academic year.

One has to ask: where was their concern for poor and working-class SIU students over the past 10 years?

Following the March 29 protest, the USG took the lead of the Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC)--essentially the graduate student government--by passing resolutions against most of the fee increases slated for next year. Of course, the votes by these democratically elected student bodies are non-binding on the administration.

Worse still, the "freeze" would only apply to the fall 2010 semester. This means the "freeze" could be temporarily used as leverage by administrators in upcoming contract negotiations with campus unions, and then abandoned in the spring semester--freeing SIUC to follow the lead of UIUC in proposing drastic tuition hikes.

THE NEGOTIATIONS are coming up with several unions--including graduate assistants, faculty and civil service workers. Outsourced food service workers at the SIUC Student Center are also facing negotiations with Chartwells Corp.

According to Graduate Assistants United (GA United) President Jim Podesva, two of the big issues for graduate assistants at SIUC are health care and fees. While GAs get a tuition waver and small stipend, they have to pay more than $1,000 a semester in fees. This means they are forced to "buy" their jobs and essentially work for free for several months each year. Average GA pay reportedly works out to around $600 or $700 a month.

Secondly, while GAs are covered under the student health plan, their family members aren't. Since many GAs have partners and children, this puts their livelihoods and educations in peril if a spouse or child is struck with an unexpected illness.

Some GAs are also afraid that SIUC might follow the lead of UIUC and other schools in trying to take away tuition wavers altogether. As one GA said: "Right now, I'm taking out the maximum in loans, and I'm still struggling to pay all of my bills. If I had medical problems, there is no way I could pay, even with the level of health care we have. At this rate, I'll be paying loans off for decades, and if I lose my tuition waver, I'm not sure I could complete my degree. I might have to just drop out."

Another GA said, "As an international graduate student, my GA salary might be cut in half which would leave me with $730 per month...I am not allowed to work off-campus as an international student. In such a scenario, I'll be forced to leave my program."

Dan Elgin, an active rank-and-file member of GA United, fears that the budget cuts will be used to roll back the gains of newly organized graduate student employees. "In many ways, we're seeing nationally a backlash against the movement that has been going on for 15 years to get graduate assistants organized, to get contracts and improve our working conditions," Elgin said.

Several graduate students feel like the administration is keeping them in the dark. "The administration required each of the colleges at the university to submit a plan for 10 percent cuts," Elgin said, "However, we really don't know what those are yet."

Meanwhile, SIUC civil service workers--members of the ACSE (Association of Civil Service Employees) union--have been working without a contract for months, and outsourced food service workers are struggling to get even a living wage from their employer Chartwells.

Phyllis Helsley, a food service worker at SIUC for 32 years, barely pulls down $10 an hour. As she is quoted on a union leaflet: "I love my job because I love taking care of the students. I'm not asking for much--just enough so I can save for retirement, be comfortable and not have to struggle. It would be wonderful to have the students' support!"

The outsourced food workers at SIUC make $3 to $4 less an hour than food service workers directly employed by the university. Of course, Chartwells is making plenty of money--they made $1.3 billion in profits last year.

While an overpaid administration sits at the top of the university, down below, thousands of students and campus workers--many who are barely making ends meet--live in fear stoked by administrators that things are about to get much worse.

THE ULTIMATE source of the problem is in the state capitol building in Springfield.

Over the past 30 years, state funding for higher education has plummeted (as a percentage of total funds), and been replaced by hikes in tuition and fees, essentially privatizing the social and economic costs of higher education. Students and their families now pay for most of what used to be considered a collective responsibility of the state.

At the same time, at both the state and federal level, neoliberal economic policies dictated that taxes should be reduced for the rich. The tax burden has increasingly been placed on working-class people. Illinois has a flat income tax. This means that working class people pay the same income tax rate as the richest 1 percent of Illinoisans.

According to Green Party candidate for Illinois governor, Rich Whitney, who spoke at the March 29 protest at SIU, between the state's regressive income tax, sales taxes and other sate fees, the poorest 25 percent of residents pay more in taxes than the rich. When the recession hit workers' incomes declined and as people lost their jobs, this undermined Illinois' tax base.

Springfield politicians--from both parties--seem utterly unable (or unwilling) to deal with the crisis. The only proposals on the table right now are a $1.2 billion statewide cut to education funding, a bill to allow universities to borrow money, and a 1 percent tax increase--or some combination of the three.

But Democratic politicians are afraid to raise taxes during an election year without Republican votes, which they won't get. And raising taxes on the wealthy is--according to them--out of the question.

SAUC is demanding a progressive income tax--and many students agree with Rich Whitney's proposal to implement a small tax on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the world's largest commodity trading market that is located right here in Illinois. That small tax could wipe out the state's budget shortfall.

On March 29, after the protest, several students went to a rally with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, held on campus that same day. When they asked about Whitney's proposal, they were told to "get real."

Of course, "reality" is no object when it comes to funding the a new stadium, state tax breaks for corporations, funding wars or giving trillions of dollars to Wall Street banks. The truth is that there is more than enough money. The priorities of both administrators and politicians are upside down.

As Nick Smilgo put it, "There is a lot of wealth in the state of Illinois, and those who have been lucky enough to accumulate it have done so with the help of the labor and infrastructure provided by other, poorer members of our state."

There is only one option left for the students, faculty and staff at SIUC--organize and fight. Either they pay, or we pay. As the Daily Egyptian argued in an April 2 editorial:

Students, take a stand. The amount of financial aid students are eligible for has gone down while tuition has gone up. A lot of students attend SIUC with zero support from their families--depending on MAP grants, campus jobs and student loans to get by. If students don't protest the system in a bold manner, like in Wisconsin, Washington and California, their frustrations will be ignored.

SIUC students should get involved with SAUC. Graduate students should get active in their union. All students and campus workers need to show solidarity with faculty and staff unions in upcoming contract negotiations. And we need to act--building on the momentum of the March 29 protest. We need to protest again. We need to sit in and strike if necessary. After all, we are fighting to defend our education and our very futures.

"Education is not a negotiable value, it is not a luxury," as Nick Smilgo put it, "and it isn't something that should be settled as an afterthought. It is a fundamental necessity for a democratic society."

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