For Former Northeastern Professor, Staying In Illinois Was ‘Too Big Of A Gamble’

empty college lecture hall
yusunkwon / Flickr
empty college lecture hall
yusunkwon / Flickr

For Former Northeastern Professor, Staying In Illinois Was ‘Too Big Of A Gamble’

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Illinois has now gone a full year without a comprehensive state budget.

Throughout that year, we’ve been telling the stories of people Caught in the Middle of the state budget impasse as some programs are forced to cut back- or end altogether.

Now, as the state hits this grim milestone, we’re checking in with some of the people we met.

In March, Northeastern Illinois University announced faculty and staff would be required to take one day off a week, and lose 20 percent of their pay.

We met theater professor Angela Sweigart-Gallagher a few days before that announcement.

Here’s what she had to say then, when the reductions were still just rumors:

“I will not be able to pay my mortgage at a 20 percent reduction of my pay. We’re going to start looking for an out, looking for another job, moving out of the state.”

We caught back up with Sweigart-Gallagher, while she was on vacation in Vermont.

Last we talked you were thinking about leaving Illinois. What did you decide to do?

We are, in fact, leaving Illinois. I’ve accepted a job at another university—St. Lawrence University in Canton New York— so my husband, myself and my daughter will all be relocating in about a month. 

Northeastern’s furlough days were suspended in April, but school administration warned they could come back in July without a full state budget. Did that uncertainty play any role in your decision to leave?

Not just the uncertainty of what was going to happen with my paycheck, but the uncertainty in the entire state. The drumbeat from every state university was layoffs, so when I received an offer from another university, a major part of the decision became: does Illinois seem stable? And it just didn’t. 

I mean, two out of the three of us—of my family—would have been negatively impacted by the lack of a state budget. Me, because I’m an employee of a state university, and my daughter because she would be attending CPS for the first year. And that seemed too big of a gamble.

You were about to receive tenure at Northeastern while you were looking at the job you ultimately accepted. Was that hard to give up?

It is tough and I’m sure that there were many academics wondering why I would give up a tenure track position, which sort of seems like a step backwards in some regards. But tenure just didn’t seem like a sure thing. It didn’t really seem like the protections it typically would be.

Was it a hard decision to make emotionally?

I was sitting in a faculty meeting when they made the announcement that we would be going on furlough so I was thinking … ‘OK, well I’ve just received an offer from another school, I’m about to get tenure here, now they’re announcing furloughs, there’s no way that they’re going to make a counteroffer that could really offset the risk of staying in this current climate.’

And I’m not embarrassed to say that I started crying in the middle of the meeting thinking ‘Well, they’ve taken what should have been a very hard decision and they’ve made it quite easy.’ So, congratulations Governor Rauner. Mission accomplished. One less public sector employee in Illinois.

How do you think this year’s cuts and the continuing uncertainty will affect your former colleagues going forward?

I think there are a lot of people who initially thought ‘Well why would you leave?’ and now they’re also going to be going on the job market. 

In fact, in a budget meeting with the provost and the president they included the idea of non-retention of faculty as one of their cost saving measures. So I think they were counting, frankly, on a couple of people leaving in order to make it through the budget impasse.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Illinois hasn’t had a budget since July 1, 2015. Listen to our collection of stories about the people Caught in the Middle of the impasse.