Faculty members at Chicago State University, Illinois’ only predominantly Black public university, walked off the job on Monday for better pay and a reduced workload. That’s after 10 months of negotiations failed to bring an agreement between staff and university administrators.
Some 160 professors, lecturers, and academic and technical support professionals at Chicago State on the Far South Side are represented by University Professors of Illinois Local 4100.
The institution serves 2,366 undergraduate and graduate students, according to federal data. Nearly seven out of 10 are Black.
The spring semester ends in less than six weeks on May 13, with final exams starting on May 8.
Data from the state and from the National Education Association show that professors at the university are among the lowest paid in Illinois.
Faculty are planning a rally and picketing on campus on Monday. They are expected to be joined by the leaders of the American and Illinois Federation of Teachers as well as the Chicago Teachers Union.
In a written statement released over the weekend, university administrators said all support services and most, if not all, classes would continue during the strike. They said they have offered an additional bargaining session on Tuesday, but the union has yet to confirm it.
“We have achieved agreement on significant issues, including workload, office hours, parental leave and other points as they were raised during our bargaining sessions,” the university statement reads. “Yet the financial realities at the University remain. We intensely recognize the dedication and needs of our faculty, but must also ensure that CSU can continue its commitment to our students, staff and community into the future.”
In response to administrators’ claims about financial claims, union leaders have criticized the fact that Chicago State University President Zaldwaynaka Scott is one of the highest-paid university leaders in the state.
According to data from the Illinois Board of Higher Education, she earned $395,000 during fiscal year 2021. That was the fourth highest salary for public university presidents in the state that year. Scott has served as president since 2018.
The decision to continue classes also raised faculty concerns.
“They can actually think about and are moving towards hiring people to replace us in the classroom, but not actually putting money towards what would be a fair proposal for us,” said Valerie Goss, chemistry professor and faculty union president. “It seems a little bit disingenuous.”
Ninety-eight percent of voting faculty union members voted to authorize a strike in early March. Bargaining following that vote did not bring agreement on issues of compensation and workload, so union leaders filed notice of their intent to strike on March 23.
Goss said she knows first hand how the school serves these students. She grew up nearby in Roseland and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
“I would not have had an opportunity to go even down to [the University of Illinois Chicago],” she said. “I was married earlier and I had children and I worked. This would have been my only shot to have a chance for college.”
Federal data show that half of the students at Chicago State are 25 or older. Forty-five percent receive Pell Grants reserved for students from families with the most financial need.
“These regional institutions play a very important role,” said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “And when they’re underfunded, or when the employer isn’t properly valuing the work of the educators inside their system, they’re also dismissing and having a negative impact on the student body that’s going to attend Chicago State.”
Before the strike, Bruno said he wasn’t surprised that faculty unions at Chicago State and other institutions in the state were inching towards strikes.
Faculty at Eastern Illinois University could strike as early as April 6. Faculty at Governors State University in south suburban University Park also could strike as early as April 7. UIC went on strike for five days in January to secure a contract.
“It speaks to the lack of support for those institutions, which puts pressure of course on the employer,” Bruno said. “But it also cascades down to the people that work there … The staff isn’t going to grow, enrollment hasn’t grown, fallen state support hasn’t kept up to meet what the needs are. So on one hand, the employer is going to feel like its resources aren’t ample enough. But the workers are going to feel the increased burden that’s placed.”
State funding for higher education has been on the rise since Gov. JB Pritzker took office in 2019, but levels are still below what they were two decades ago. That puts an additional financial burden on smaller universities that rely more heavily on public funding as opposed to tuition revenue.
“The state has an obligation to address racial and economic inequities,” Bruno said. “And one of the best ways to do it is to fund colleges like Chicago State.”