Chicago State lays off a third of its staff

By Jodi S. Cohen, Chicago Tribune

Chicago State University on Friday said more than 300 employees are being laid off, a dramatic downsizing a week after the school received some long-awaited money from the state, the Tribune has learned.

The layoffs — which equal about one-third of the workforce — are effective immediately.

“It’s dreadful. I have spoken to people as they have been packing up their offices,” Chicago State President Thomas Calhoun Jr. said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. But, he said, “It is not disheartening for the future of the university. The university has been here 150 years and will continue to be here.”


Calhoun said the cuts will touch every area of the university — from associate vice presidents to police officers, counselors and carpenters — and will reduce the number of noninstructional employees by nearly half. Faculty members were spared during this initial wave of cuts but are likely to be affected later.

The cuts will save about 40 percent in payroll costs, or about $2 million a month, Calhoun said. They come after Chicago State and other Illinois schools went nearly the entire academic year without state money as lawmakers were unable to agree on a budget.

Last week, lawmakers approved $20.1 million in emergency funding for Chicago State, part of a larger funding package for public universities, but it proved to be too little, too late.

“It was less than what we needed and later than we needed it, as much as we appreciated getting it,” Calhoun said. “It really is a Band-Aid and not the solution.”

Chicago State employees have been on edge since February, when officials sent notices of potential layoffs to all 900 employees. The university said it would not be able to meet payroll costs past April without state money.

Earlier this month, Calhoun instructed administrators and civil service employees not to return to work after April 30 unless specifically told otherwise through a recall notice.

Then, in a process that began Thursday and will likely continue through the weekend, some employees were “recalled,” or told that their jobs were safe for now. Employees who did not get notified should understand that their jobs were cut, Calhoun said.


Calhoun also said employees can be recalled in the future if the university realizes their positions are needed.

“The recall process really is a process,” he said. “If we find, for example, that we are short in an area that is creating a bottleneck or a way in which we cannot function … we will make note of that and recall appropriately.

“We are hoping not to have a dramatic impact on the student experience because we want students to have a fulfilling day every day they come to the campus.”

Located on the Far South Side, Chicago State serves about 4,500 mostly minority and low-income students from the city.

It had nearly depleted its cash reserves when the state approved the emergency funding — less than 60 percent of what the university had expected to receive this fiscal year. The funding was part of a $600 million stopgap measure to ensure that struggling campuses would stay open through the summer after the longest budget delay in state history.

Of the $600 million, $356 million is for universities, $74 million for community colleges and $170 million for Monetary Award Program scholarships for low-income students. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the bill Monday.

While the cash influx provided some relief, it was not enough to prevent the layoffs. Some of the money needs to go toward outstanding vendor bills. The university also has to prepare for a tenuous future, with uncertainty about student enrollment this fall and continued questions about if and when the state will approve more funding.

Deep partisan rifts remain over the state budget.

Some lawmakers have hinted that last week’s funding could be the only state money that universities will receive for the 2015-16 school year, and the uncertainty will likely extend to next fiscal year, which begins in July.

Faculty members remain in limbo.

Calhoun previously told them to work until May 15, the day their annual contracts end, and he said Friday that those positions are still being evaluated.

“I do expect there is a likelihood that not all faculty will be recalled,” he said.

He also said the university will close some buildings this summer to reduce utility and maintenance costs and will evaluate academic programs, a routine process that will involve more scrutiny this year because of the fiscal situation.

“There are those kinds of tough decisions that certainly will be made as we go through this program review process,” Calhoun said.

On Friday, Chicago State employees said they were left largely in the dark, not knowing whether they would be laid off or how many of their colleagues would be let go.

“This is a staggering number. It is a lot more than I expected,” said Robert Bionaz, president of the faculty union, which represents some academic service professionals who were laid off. “It’s profound that you talk about laying off half of your noninstructional staff. I just don’t know who is going to do the work.”

Other schools also have cut staff this year.

Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago eliminated 65 noninstructional positions. Western Illinois University has cut 147 positions, including 30 faculty jobs, and about 500 employees are taking furlough days and pay cuts this spring. Northern Illinois University avoided layoffs during the budget impasse but has left 116 jobs unfilled during this academic year.

While all public institutions have suffered this year, Chicago State has been the hardest-hit. The semester ended Thursday — two weeks early — to ensure that students could graduate before the money ran out.


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