Budget ax falls at SIU

Southern Illinois University administrators spend tens of thousands on all sort of campus projects, but say they can't keep a health center open. Adam Turl reports.

A health clinic at Southern Illinois UniversityA health clinic at Southern Illinois University

THE HIGHLY paid administrators at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (SIUC) are once again swinging their budget-cutting ax--with little to no regard for who gets hurt in the process.

This time, they're taking aim at the Student Heath Assessment Center (SHAC). The SHAC is a satellite office of the main Student Health Center (SHC), and unlike the SHC, it's located in the center of the campus in the Student Center--in the highest traffic area. Despite administration claims that it's redundant and only a "convenience" issue, SHAC provides essential health care to the student body.

Over the years, the SHAC has become a major resource for disabled students, students with chronic health problems and emergency medical care in the campus' central area. In addition, many international students regularly use its services.

Diabetic students use the facility to check insulin levels or to check blood pressure. Disabled students use the facility for regular care, like daily changing of external catheters. The SHAC also provides vaccinations, checks weight, distributes condoms and information on venereal disease, and refers students in emergency situations either to the SHC or Carbondale Memorial Hospital. In such emergencies, patients can receive medical care from a Registered Nurse (RN) until an ambulance or campus transit arrives.

Word of the SHAC's closing first got around after Nick Rion, a returning student majoring in history, stopped by for a regular checkup. Rion has diabetes, and because he's on a fixed income, he regularly relied on the SHAC for blood tests and blood pressure checkups. When he found out the SHAC was closed, he began to talk with other students. "I discovered all sorts of people used [the SHAC]," Rion said, "so I said, here's an issue, let's organize."

Students began tabling and petitioning to save the SHAC, and on July 15, dozens of students met with SHC Director Ted Grace. Students discovered that the university had shut down the SHAC in violation of its own rules, which require the consultation of the Student Health Assessment Board (SHAB).

The SHAB is supposed to assess whether students are using health services. However, since the administration conspired to close the SHAC during the summer break, most of the student board members weren't available to weigh in.

Grace also claimed the SHAC had to be closed because it would cost $60,000 to $200,000 (the numbers seemed to change with the conversation) to renovate, upgrade and operate the facility for another year. Grace cynically used the excuse that renovations were necessary to make the SHAC compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and that $20,000 was needed for computer upgrades. But as students pointed out, this is a small sum compared with other (clearly less needed) funding priorities.

"They seem to find the pots of money for everything they want to do except when it comes to the students," James Reeves, a student in paralegal studies, said. "Eight-thousand-dollar signs, a new stadium, but they can't keep the SHAC open? It seems like all the stuff they are finding money for has nothing to do with students."

"If this was $60,000 to get a statue of somebody [on campus] they would find the money," Rion said.

A cursory review of SIUC's finances show that, while the budget crisis is real, administrators continue to pull down six-figure salaries--more than three quarters of a million dollars for the football coach alone--and administrators continue to funnel millions of dollars in student fees to pet projects like a new football stadium and a new $38 million "welcome center."

At their meeting with Grace, students were essentially told that the SHAC's location in the Student Center was in large part a question of convenience.

But the main health center, the SHC, is located across a busy highway away from the center of campus. This creates a real hardship for disabled students. For example, Casey, one of the students organizing to save the SHAC, is disabled and relies on the SHAC for daily external catheter changes. Casey can't turn his head left or right, which makes the trip across the highway highly dangerous.

The Disabled Student Services (DSS) is supposed to provide transportation for disabled students. However students told countless stories of long waits--sometimes in the pouring rain--as they sat in their wheelchairs. Worse, such services are "at the discretion" of DSS--meaning that they are not obligated to provide transportation if they decide not to.

Students requested hard data on how many disabled students use the SHAC--but were told that information was not collected.

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THE REAL motivation for administrators may be even more sinister than just ill-conceived and callous budget cuts. Students have learned that Chartwells, the contractor that operates food services in the Student Center may have its eye on the SHAC's current location for new office space.

In this case, a vital service for students would be removed, with little to no cost savings, but a major corporation would get yet more space to continue gouging students with overpriced (and often unhealthy) food, while underpaying its employees.

Chartwells just went through a contract battle with its SIUC campus employees, who are represented by Service Workers United (SWU). The workers were able to win a moderate pay increase with the help of students who organized several solidarity actions. Unfortunately, Chartwells workers still make less than food service workers employed directly by the university. Of course, Chartwells and other subcontractors long ago replaced the Student Center cafeteria with a host of fast food franchises.

As Nick Rion argued, they are turning the Student Center into a "shopping mall." "There is a health epidemic in this country," Rion argued. "And they're taking health services out and leaving us McDonald's?"

"Everybody should be involved," Rion argued. "This is ultimately about the big picture. We need to send a message that we've had enough." Rion argued that the SHAC was the "tip of the iceberg" of more budget cuts and cuts to student services to come. "I think it is just the first step," organizer Joe Lane agreed.

Rion and Lane are right. At the meeting with Grace, students were told that 10 positions had already been cut from the SHC--undermining the health care provided to students overall.

And the cuts don't stop at the SHC. SIUC plans to implement across-the-board 4 percent cuts in each school and department in the fall. SIUC's new Chancellor Rita Cheng--whose annual salary alone could easily pay for three years of the SHAC's services--told the faculty senate on July 13 that staff could expect unpaid furlough days--at least four--in the coming semester.

Every student, faculty and staff member has a stake in the fight to save the SHAC. First of all, it is the right thing to do. Secondly, if they get away with cutting the SHAC, where will administrators swing the ax next? What if they demand more unpaid furlough days? What if they try to abolish the GLBT (Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender) Resource Center? What if they escalate furloughs to full-scale layoffs?

We have to stop them here and now. As the old labor slogan says, "An injury to one is an injury to all."