Chicago State University professor Mary Bowman marched down King Drive on Chicago’s Far South Side on a recent Monday, walking alongside several hundred fellow faculty, students, and alumni. Everyone wore green and white: Chicago State University colors.
Their message was clear.
“We're still here,” said Bowman, also an alumna. “And we are the South Side — the school that represents the South Side.”
Universities rarely host back-to-school parades, but for many at CSU, the start of classes was a real milestone. The school almost shut its doors a few years ago. It felt like this day might not happen. That’s what prompted Zaldwaynaka “Z” Scott, the public university’s new president, to organize the event.
“Some people, they don’t even know Chicago State was able to remain open ... that was the purpose of the parade, to put a stake in the ground. We are eager, open and eager to engage.”
Chicago State University isn’t a historically black college or university, or HBCU, but it’s long been a public university with a majority black student population. For many low- and middle-income students, the school has been a shining light on Chicago’s South Side — a place where students can get a quality education that’s affordable and conveniently located. But over the years, scandal and financial crises have tarnished the institution’s reputation. As the university starts the school year, many faculty and students are looking to President Scott to lead the beleaguered university forward.
As a former federal prosecutor, Scott is new to higher education administration. She served on the university’s board of trustees and taught law at the college level. But she has no university administration experience, which is unusual. Still, the board — and many faculty and students — think she is the right person for the job. Scott thinks she can bring a fresh perspective.
“We have great faculty, we have students who are committed to pursuing a degree in higher education,” Scott said. “The issues are business issues … that require strategy and focus and business concepts to try and move forward.”
‘Wrecked Our Brand’
With undergraduate tuition a little less than $6,000 a year, Chicago State has long served as a stepping stone for low- and middle-income students from the South Side and across Chicagoland to get a degree after high school.
One hundred and fifty years ago, it started as a teachers college and was known for turning out many of the city’s public school teachers. Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson got her bachelor’s and master’s from the school. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks taught there for years. Today, its pharmacy doctorate program attracts students from around the world.
But a few years ago, it wasn’t clear it would survive the state’s budget impasse.
Chicago State depends heavily on state funding; it covers about a third of its budget. Without that money, spending was slashed. Library hours reduced. And, there were layoffs.
“It was heartbreaking to see colleagues go,” said Aida Abraha, another alumna and interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
All of that was exacerbated by leadership issues at the school. There have been five presidents in the past four years. And a 2011 audit revealed financial mismanagement. During that time, faculty members issued three votes of no confidence in school leadership, including Kelly Harris, who has taught at the university for eight years.
“The problem wasn't about the teaching,” said Harris, interim dean of the Honors College and an African-American studies professor. “It was really administrative issues, and that wrecked our brand and made us look like a joke as an institution.”
Harris said all of the negative publicity pushed students away. Enrollment took a nosedive to 3,100 in 2017 from 6,800 in 2008. So did the school’s graduation rate. In 2015, the graduation rate was 11 percent for first-time, full-time students. For students who transferred in — a far higher percentage of the total student body — it was around 40 percent.
Harris argues that these numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“We serve a lot of working adults, single parents,” Harris said. “Life happens, and often time, it’s hard to go straight through for four years ... they can’t afford a semester, family problems that don’t allow them to come to school straight through, many have to go part time and go at night. Those things are very real for our students.”
Students who attend part time or unenroll for a semester, but still earn a degree, aren’t counted toward the graduation rate under the official formula used by the federal government.
The negative attention also perpetuated racist stereotypes about the school and the students it serves, Harris said.
“People go in with the assumption that predominantly black means inferior, and that’s the history of America, unfortunately,” Harris said. “So when you see the issues that are coming out, people are willing to say, ‘Of course, it’s predominantly black, it’s on the Far South Side, what do you expect?’”
For many faculty and students, that line of thinking shows how little people outside Chicago State know about the school, which is frustrating for many there who see positive things happening. President Scott acknowledged that and said it’s time for Chicago State to tell its own story.
‘A Safe Space’
African-American studies professor Kim Dulaney has three degrees from Chicago State. Like many of her students, she decided to attend because it’s a quality university close to home.
“It's convenient if you're from here and if you have other family obligations that require you to be here and work and help out,” Dulaney said while sitting outside her African-American studies class one morning this month.
And Dulaney said it’s also a place where black students feel comfortable.
“What I see it providing for students is a safe space, like HBCUs do,” Dulaney said. “It’s a safe space for people to come where they’re not being assaulted, their personhood is not being challenged every day. So, they can dig into who they are and be their best selves.”
President Scott sees her job as not only preserving that space for black students, but helping it thrive. That’s one reason she’s focused on addressing the challenges that prevent so many students from coming back each year and graduating. Some 55 percent of students come from low-income areas, she said.
“So some of the things they’re experiencing in their neighborhoods come into school with them,” said Scott, a former chair of the Chicago Housing Authority board. “These are things like food insecurity, housing insecurity, child care needs, financial needs, and trauma.”
Scott is making sure every student is evaluated and connected to services they might need. She wants to start a day care center and a food pantry, hopefully by tapping into private donations or federal grants.
Professor Kelly Harris sees this as a positive first step.
“We lose a lot of students because of life issues, and they think they don’t have any way out,” Harris said. “If the university can lend a helping hand, this is what we’re supposed to do.”
And, of course, President Scott is also concerned about academics. Using her contacts from across the city, she’s tapped local business leaders to assess the school’s curriculum.
“We need to make sure what we’re offering our students is what a 21st-century employer would want,” Scott said. “We’re going to tackle the tough issues of whether we’re doing the right things.” She plans to release a report with recommendations this fall.
A balancing act
Chicago State is entering this school year with guaranteed money from the state, and that stability is allowing Scott to dream big. But she has some tough decisions to make, too. More than half the buildings have roof leaks. Generators aren’t working. And there’s no money to fix it. Scott said she’s not ruling out tuition increases for future students as a last resort.
“We’re going to try to hold the line on that, but we have to take a look at that,” Scott said. “But when we do that, we don’t want to lose students, even though our tuition is one of the lowest in the state.”
At a school where just 118 freshmen enrolled last year, Chicago State can’t afford to lose students. But it also can’t afford to ignore critical needs either.
Striking that balance is important in retaining new students like Arianna Allen.
At the back-to-school parade earlier this month, Allen, 27, marched near the front, dancing and clapping as if she’d been at Chicago State for years.
Allen had originally wanted to attend Chicago State, but was scared off by the budget impasse and threats of closure. After first attending community college, she transferred to Purdue University Northwest in Indiana. But she decided to switch to Chicago State because she never felt comfortable at Purdue as a black student on a predominantly white campus.
“If you don’t feel comfortable at the school you’re going to, it especially affects you emotionally and scholastically,” Allen said. “By coming here … it’s like when you ain't seen your best friend in a long time, but you know there’s trust, there’s a bond, it’s family, it’s hope. That’s what Chicago State brings to me.”
As the school year gets underway, Chicago State leaders are geared up to get that message out. And with President Scott at the helm, many faculty and students are confident it will finally happen.