Fix the existing campus first.
Chicago State University — yes, the one that had to close its cafeteria for several weeks, that limited its library hours, that needs $59 million in maintenance — is thinking about building a second campus on the West Side.
We actually understand impulse. Chicago State, on the city’s South Side, historically has served an important role in local higher education, offering a degree to working people very close to home. To offer that same chance so close to home on the West Side, too, is a laudable goal — maybe someday.
But it makes no sense for Chicago State to even think about expanding to a second campus when its first campus is doing so poorly — and when help, in the form of much better management, might finally be on the way.
Enrollment has dropped by more than half since 2010, and now stands at just 3,600 students. In the fall, only 86 new, full-time freshmen enrolled. The most recent president got a $600,000 severance as he left after just nine months. Finances — further imperiled by a whistle-blower lawsuit — are so bad that Chicago State’s accreditation is at risk.
Some of Chicago State’s problems are of its own making, but other problems can be chalked up to the ax that Springfield has taken to public higher education. Funding for Illinois public higher education has declined for two decades, a trend that accelerated with the election of Gov. Bruce Rauner, who called for a cut in state funding of more than 30 percent and has presided over a drastic cut in state support. As state funding around the county rose by 3.4 percent in the past fiscal year, Illinois has done nothing but slash.
That’s not a fiscal environment that supports a push to build a new campus, especially for a school like Chicago State, which has limited non-state resources and was forced to declare a fiscal emergency last year.
Earlier this year, however, Rauner also did CSU a big favor. He appointed an eight-member advisory board and four new highly qualified university trustees, including Paul Vallas, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO. It’s a good team that might just get something good done. And we would hope the first thing they do is mothball this second campus idea.
That decision actually should have been made years ago. But, as the Chicago Tribune reported this week, Chicago State has spent at least $370,000 planning for the new campus on property in the West Side’s Homan Square neighborhood; they have even chosen an architect. Nearly eight years ago, the state agreed to pony up $40 million for the second campus, although so far it only has coughed up $1 million, in 2011. The grant officially expired in 2015, but Rauner and school officials have asked that it be renewed.
Vallas, for one, seems to get it. He told the Tribune if a second campus opens, it would have to pay its way without much help from the state. He also said Chicago State would first have to do a lot of work to increase enrollment significantly.
As the nation moves toward a knowledge economy, higher education will play an increasingly significant role. A campus that helps young people on the West Side move into the knowledge economy could be a powerful asset for the city and the state.
But at this time — when Chicago State’s flagship campus is in terrible shape and other public universities worry about keeping their doors open — it makes no sense.
In Springfield on Wednesday, Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas warned, “We are on the verge of a complete collapse of the Illinois higher education system.”
Moreover, the crisis in higher education is “sending our intellectual capital our of the state,” Thomas said.
We need to keep that intellectual capital in Illinois. And one way to do it is to make Chicago State an institution that impressively fulfills its mission before spending money on opening yet another campus.
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February 8, 2017 at 11:05AM