To Be Real?

The State of Illinois remains in crisis. We’ve no budget. We’ve no leadership. We’ve charted no course to stability as a fiscal entity.

I’m going to talk about higher education. What a pathetic state of affairs. Several universities have received emergency funding, but our elected officials don’t have the courage to pass a budget. In the midst of this failure of state government, too many resort to scapegoating and to blaming the wrong parties instead of looking in the mirror. Our lawmakers act like they have the authority to operate without a budget and expect colleges and universities to survive on their own. Too many major media join in and encourage inaction by framing the problem in familiar oppositions between those who deserve help and those who don’t.

Illinois’ state colleges and universities continue their good work, including the great Chicago State University. The grand bargain of public funding has died, at least for now, but the failure of Illinois state government has been displaced onto higher education institutions themselves. They are blamed and cited as the sources of the problem in too many places.

To observe the treatment of higher education by too many lawmakers and the media today puts me in the mind of the Cheryl Lynn song, “Got To Be Real”. The lyrics say in part, “What you find . . . What you feel . . . What you know . . .” Too many in Illinois prefer finding and feeling misinformation and not to know the real. There’s just not much love. Do we lack the humanity to state this?

It’s definitely time to be real, but I’m increasingly afraid that we as citizens and as consumers of media are being fooled. Many lawmakers and major media sow discord, enmity, and stasis. We need to stop accepting trifling government and fawning media. We need to put down and turn off media that don’t seek the truth. We need to stop electing lawmakers who put their personal agendas before their constitutional duties. We need to demand a pragmatic compromise and a budget.

It’s inexcusable to hear some compare universities to failing corporations. Higher education institutions aren’t companies. They shouldn’t try to be so. When I read some of the coverage of my university, I too rarely find the media reminding citizens and leaders of the heroic efforts that have occurred. Chicago State deserves the opposite of scorn for bringing the real impacts of the Illinois morass to the public eye. Last year and continuing to now, our students and employees have not hidden from the public but have put the needs of our students in the public’s field of vision.

No public university in Illinois has the level of funding it deserves, but not all of them have stood up to say so. This situation creates a context in which all of the institutions take extraordinary measures, which they’re doing. Chicago State has painfully adjusted to an inexcusable and inadequate set of state inactions and actions. The reality should cause the public to pressure lawmakers to act. However, what some prefer is to accept the extraordinary measures as signs of failures by the universities themselves.

UCLA Professor Emeritus Joel Handler showed us long ago with respect to American political culture that injustice is coined on efforts to distinguish the deserving and the undeserving. In the present situation, this puritanical and philistine tendency works to disadvantage colleges and universities like Chicago State University. The majority of Illinois publics don’t have the luxury of being research dominant universities or institutions catering to the wealthy, advantaged, and middle-class. We should beware the game of just deserts that is playing us at the moment in Illinois.

By isolating one university, any one, and by using it to talk about a more general situation, the public is misled. For example, the enrollment declines at specific universities form part of a statewide problem, a problem stemming from the lack of a budget and waves of negative publicity this travesty extends. That’s an inconvenient truth for our political leaders and a boring subject for the media it seems.

Consider that many public universities, including Chicago State, serve populations of able students with lower incomes, mature students, African-Americans and Latinos, and first-generation college goers. The contributions of these groups to the life of our shared democracy seem to pale by comparison with the false importance of misleading rhetoric and statistics. As another example, federal graduation rates say very little as indices of institutional effort, in particular for institutions that graduate large numbers of transfer students.

Neither political party has the power to hold sway in the General Assembly. The Governor’s siege with millions is just another gambit. Ideologies and big bucks have replaced responsibilities as the mantra for the politically correct. My university is treated to vague and self-serving efforts to smear the work of 150 years and tens of thousands of academic professionals and students. Some of the phrases and epithets thrown at Chicago State smack of yellow journalism: “long list of troubles”, “big expenses on tap”, “special treatment”, “administrative bloat”, and unnecessary expenses. It’s easy for the pedestrian lawmaker, journalist or television station to descend to nitpicking.

Other stories and commentary piggyback on major media, and there is little to no real fact checking of what the major media put out. Ignorance and prejudice spread under the guise of award-winning journalism. Instead of passing a real budget for institutions that have slashed administrators and staff, laid-off faculty, closed programs, and yet work to continue providing quality education and extracurricular programming, we have scapegoating by the press, by lawmakers, and by the misinformed.

Public universities provide critical spaces and places for our citizens to grow into adults and to advance their personal and professional goals. The neglect at work presently in the inability of our governor and legislature to govern effectively endangers the higher education enterprise of this state. (There are similar stories for social service agencies and other areas of state funding too.) To be real you’ve got to be real. It’s high time we demand precisely that from our lawmakers, and from their mouthpieces.

These opinions represent my own and are not an official statement on behalf of Chicago State University, its administration, faculty, staff, students, alumni or the Board of Trustees. I do love Chicago State University.

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