The president of Chicago State University says reports that the school has asked faculty to turn in their keys are false. Rather, Thomas Calhoun, Jr., says the school is just taking an inventory of keys to prepare for its first wave of mass layoffs a month from now.
Chicago State is one of many state universities that face dire choices as Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic legislators continue a standoff over the budget. Nine months into the 2016 fiscal year, Calhoun still hopes legislators will free up a $36 million appropriation for the South Side school that enrolls predominantly African-American and low-income students.
“We are, right now, in a fragile situation,” said Calhoun, “but we’re trying to send a message that’s not going to be long-lived, that the financial problems will be solved, and we are planning to be here.”
Calhoun says the university has doubled down on its recruitment efforts to find prospective students and reassure them that Chicago State will open in the fall. Still, he says, those assurances come with a caveat.
“We are not making the promise based on not getting any money. It is based on our belief that we will get some money,” he says. “If we don’t get any external funding, then we become a different university.”
Gabriel Gomez, professor of information studies at Chicago State, says news reports about the school’s precarious financial situation have helped raise awareness. But he also worries that the coverage may turn away current and prospective students.
“It’s just been terrible to try to explain to people that we’re going to be open,” said Gomez. “How do you explain to prospective students who have heard a soundbite (saying that) ‘CSU employees are turning in their keys’ (that) well, no, it’s going to be an inventory. Well, no, we’re not closing, we will be a different university but we will be open and we will have classes and we will have the programs we need.”
Already, Gomez says, one student emailed him about wanting to leave Chicago State because of fear that the school would close. Gomez says his department chair called that student and explained that the school would remain open. “That’s how we focus,” said Gomez. “We just say, OK, this is the new struggle for today. Now that we have that struggle in mind, let’s get back to work.”
Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.