Talk to enough faculty and staff at Northeastern Illinois University about why they wanted to work at the campus on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side, and you start to hear a pattern.

“It made education this thing that was not just for wealthier people and their kids. It was not for predominantly white kids,” said Chris Merchant, an associate professor of psychology.

He started at Northeastern in 2010. In 1997, it became the first university in Illinois to receive federal designation as a Hispanic-serving institution. Nearly 40% of students are Latino, according to the most recent federal data. Four in 10 are over the age of 25.

“It was something for people coming back to school, it was something for Black and brown people, it was something for incarcerated people,” said Merchant. “It was really this place where … we’re taking all of the barriers to education, and we’re just knocking them down, and … whoever wants one, here it is. ”

But faculty at Northeastern say this mission of offering affordable four-year degrees to communities who haven’t historically had access is in peril. Undergraduate enrollment stood at 9,400 in 2010, according to federal data. In just over a decade, it’s been cut in half. As of 2021, 4,600 undergraduates were enrolled.

Fewer students means less tuition revenue, and the school has already suffered financially. State funding for public universities has been cut nearly in half in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past two decades, according to data from the Illinois Board of Higher Education. It nearly dried up during the 2016 state budget impasse. The pandemic followed not long after.

While many large public universities in Illinois have begun to recover, smaller campuses that serve significant numbers of students of color and working adults, like Northeastern and Chicago State University, continue to struggle.

“Unless the state is going to come in and fund you more, you have to cut spending,” said Frank Fernandez, a professor of higher education at the University of Florida.

“And when you’ve got fewer student services, you’ve got fewer classes, you start cutting programs, well, then fewer students are going to enroll because you’ve got fewer services, you’ve got fewer classes, fewer programs. And you get kind of caught in the cycle of, ‘Well, how do we ever find the money to invest into expanding again?’ ”

A news writing class at Northeastern. The class used to enroll 18. Now it’s down to six. Lisa Philip / WBEZ

Fighting over which students to serve

On a recent morning, six students gathered in Northeastern’s student newspaper office for an introductory class on news writing. According to the professor, the class enrolled 18 students and had a waitlist just a few years ago.

While the small class size might allow for closer interactions between students and their professor, it is a visible reminder of the university’s troubles.

“There’s no sense of specific dedication to going out and finding the students who would benefit from what we can do here, bringing them in, and then actually funding the support,” Merchant said.

Instead of focusing on recruiting and serving first-generation and working adult students central to the university’s history, faculty say recent presidents and trustees have diverted resources trying to recruit a different kind of student: fresh out of high school 18-year-olds who can live off meal plans in the dorms.

In 2016, Northeastern administrators used eminent domain to take over a neighboring block on Bryn Mawr Avenue. Construction was starting on the school’s first dorm and leaders wanted to add a second to attract more residential students. It was never built, and to this day, much of the block remains vacant — not unlike what the campus looks like these days.

Xiaodan Hu, a professor of higher education at Northern Illinois University, said it’s no surprise a cash-strapped regional university like Northeastern would try to recruit students who just graduated high school and, as a result, need less academic support as they start college.

“It’s less of a funding stress,” said Hu. “And these students are going to graduate, they’re going to take courses, they’re going to earn the credits. You’re going to meet those goals and graduate, so you have higher graduation rates. People look at those things.”

But the university has not seen a boost in younger or older student enrollment.

“It’s so sad, because it’s not that we haven’t tried to show them what we can do together,” said Gabriel Cortez, a professor of higher education at Northeastern. “It’s that they refuse to listen to us.”

Some faculty say these issues existed before the president, Gloria Gibson, took office in 2018. But they say that under Gibson they have hit a new low. The faculty have been in contract talks with her administration since July, and will take a strike vote this week.

Gibson denied a request for an interview. Her contract is up in June. After the faculty senate passed a vote of no confidence in her leadership last fall, the university trustees decided not to renew it. The faculty also voted no confidence in the trustees. The majority of those members have since been replaced by the governor. They did not respond to interview requests by WBEZ.

Many faculty hope Gibson will be replaced by someone from within their ranks who prioritizes students not necessarily served by large public institutions like the University of Illinois Chicago: degree-seekers who have been out of high school for a few years, who have jobs and families, who have long commutes to campus by “L” or bus.

“You come across many faculty who understand that,” said Cortez, who has taught at Northeastern for 14 years. “They’re like, ‘No, no, no, these students need support.’ For different factors, right? They’re first generation so they’re probably not as prepared. [They] graduated from CPS and all of that. That understanding is golden because we have seen many successes of these students coming in, learning these skills and graduating.”

Professor Chris Merchant takes part in a union demonstration. Faculty are trying to negotiate a new contract with university administrators. Lisa Philip / WBEZ

Extra supports often needed for working, first-generation students

You can feel that sense of understanding in the smallest interaction between students and teachers on the North Park campus.

Stephanie Quintana has experienced it firsthand. She transferred from UIC to Northeastern last year because a few of the classes she needed to take at UIC were only offered during the day, when she works.

A couple weeks ago, she was late finishing an assignment for a class at Northeastern. She’s been juggling a full course load, caring for her two children, and a full-time job with the city. She reached out to her professor.

“Her response was, ‘I have a child. I know how life can be. Get it into me by Tuesday.’ That would have never been allowed at UIC, ever,” said Quintana, who is the first in her family to go to college. “That’s so special and hard to find … and it makes such a difference.”

Research shows this kind of staff-student relationship is crucial for first-generation students to make it through college. And it requires personnel, something the faculty at Northeastern say the administration has not prioritized.

Cortez and Merchant reference Project Success and Proyecto Pa’Lante — two programs aimed at recruiting and retaining local Black and Latino students. Since the 1960s and 70s, through advising and weekly seminars, they have served as national models for guiding first-generation students through college life.

In recent years, staffing for both programs have been gutted. Project Success used to have a director and several advisers. It’s down to one program specialist.

“We need the institution to support this thing that’s, in addition to all the good it does, has literal financial benefits,” Merchant said. “It brings students in and keeps students here, it graduates students. Throw some support behind that.”

Without that support, faculty members worry enrollment will continue to erode, and communities historically excluded from higher education — and the social mobility that often accompanies it — will continue to go without.

Lisa Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @LAPhilip.

Higher education reporter for WBEZ Chicago in partnership with Open Campus.