CHICAGO -- As Chicago State University senior Charles Preston plans his future, he's contending with a unique variable most other college students will never face: the possibility that his school will close before he can finish his degree.
Shutdown looms for the nearly 150-year-old school -- the only majority black public university on Chicago's South Side -- due to a state budget impasse in Springfield that has remained unresolved since last June.
CSU officials project its reserve funds will run out by March 1, more than two months before the end of the current semester. CSU relies on the state for approximately 30 percent of its budget, or about $36 million.
"The current budget situation is historically unprecedented and therefore makes it very difficult to predict exactly how it will eventually be resolved," newly installed CSU President Thomas Calhoun Jr. said in a Jan. 14 memo to staff and students.
While the school committed to finishing the semester, Calhoun warned the financial crunch "may lead to a massive disruption of services."
Neither students nor school officials are sure what that means in actual terms of staff payment or administrative function. CSU spokesman Tom Wogan said everyone at the school is dealing with the issue "day by day."
“We have to get to the end of the semester one way or the other," Wogan said Sunday. "We have a moral, legal and ethical obligation to do that."
Preston, who has one additional semester left before graduation, said a school shutdown would not only jeopardize his future, but most certainly drive him deeper into student loan debt.
"I would be stuck in limbo," Preston said, noting that his African-American studies major is not widely offered at other schools. "A lot of my credits would be untransferable to another school."
“This university is basically an oasis in the desert."”
A coalition of CSU students have organized to pressure lawmakers into passing a budget, though Preston said the group is at a disadvantage with the shutdown threat less than six weeks away. Rumors of a possible shutdown didn't start bubbling up on campus until about December.
"The lawmakers in the state tend to look at us as numbers, not as lives," Preston said.
The majority Democratic legislature and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner have been at odds for months over who's to blame for the lack of budget, but it's Rauner who is drawing the ire of the CSU community.
Rauner's deputy chief of staff on Wednesday sent a memo to the Illinois legislature criticizing CSU's pleas for financial help. Richard Goldberg wrote the school's financial mismanagement was rife with "waste" and "cronyism," according to The Associated Press.
“For them to all of a sudden go, ‘Hey, we’re sorta more broke than most,’ while they’ve been throwing money down the toilet -- you know what? Let’s have some standards of behavior," Rauner said a day after the memo's release.
CSU faculty voiced concerns about patronage and cronyism during the tenure of previous President Wayne Watson, who resigned under fire in 2015. (Watson ceased his role in January, but his resignation isn't effective until June.) The CSU Faculty Voice blog criticized Watson for patronage hiring after he brought on a slew of well-paid administrators he worked with in his prior role as chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, and noted that the number of executive leadership and administrative roles ballooned under Watson.
Calhoun immediately sent an open letter to the governor criticizing Rauner's office for crafting "misleading statistics" about CSU's graduation rate and for failing to recognize the unique challenges that come with a nontraditional student body; more than 40 percent of CSU's students are the first in their family to attend college and more than half come from families living below the poverty line.
"This university is basically an oasis in the desert," Preston said. "It’s a resource -- whether it’s jobs, mental health, or mentorship or people coming to the school to engage politically."
"[Rauner’s] not just withholding funds," Preston added. "He’s withholding futures."
Yvonne Pugh, a 1966 CSU alumna, said she had heard "some things that weren't agreeable" regarding the school's previous fiscal management but said the university was still "necessary and should be allowed to flourish and reach its potential."
"I think a university should have a tremendously positive impact in the community in terms of housing, job and health development," Pugh said, noting the value the school adds to its lower middle-class neighborhood of Roseland.
Preston, who lives in the neighborhood, uses his own life as an example of just how critical the need is for a school like CSU in a place like Roseland.
“Back in 2013 I was diagnosed with clinical depression and suicidal ideation. In order to get that diagnoses, I had to go through three doctors at Chicago State," Preston said. "And you see the city already closing half of its mental health facilities. You have a free service here on the South Side of Chicago, free to CSU students."
"CSU provides mentoring for incoming freshman, and even high school seniors, to get adjusted to college life," Preston added. "Especially if they come from a bad community or a community with a lot of obstacles."
Preston said CSU is a second-chance school of sorts.
"People getting their life back together attend CSU. I know a nursing major who is 51 years old. She had troubles with drug addiction and totally turned herself around," Preston said. "And for this school to close after all she’s been through, what happens to her? It’s a very scary situation."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article listed the year of Watson's resignation as 2009. Watson resigned from the City Colleges of Chicago in 2009 and announced his resignation from CSU in 2015.
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