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At NEIU: a painful lesson in mission creep

A welcoming committee armed with signs and slogans gathered outside Northeastern Illinois University’s iconic El Centro building last Thursday, an hour before the university Board of Trustees was scheduled to meet there.

“UNIVERSITIES ARE NOT BUSINESSES,” one sign read. “How much money have you spent hiring outside people to fire our own?” asked another.

Buoyed by suddenly summery weather and a DJ, members of the faculty union, NEIU-UPI (IFT local 4100, which includes librarians and advisors), and students who support them were there to call for action on contract negotiations that began last July and have stalled.

“I don’t want to strike, but I will if I have to,” they chanted. And “Ain’t no power like the power of the people.”

That doesn’t sound like a huge appetite for walking out, but the union put muscle behind the threat, filing an Intent to Strike notice with the state that same afternoon. Union chapter president and NEIU professor Nancy Matthews said 90 percent of chapter members had voted that week on the question of whether to authorize a strike if no contract agreement can be reached, and 95 percent of them favored striking.  

Issues to be resolved, according to the union, include resisting workload increases, encouraging more inclusive pedagogy, and—no surprise—compensation. Like just about every other working American, union members have, in effect, received a pay cut thanks to inflation.

“The university should care about us as much as they care about their bond rating,” Matthews told the crowd. “We see structural racism at work when the Illinois public universities that serve our communities of color are the ones with the lowest salaries and the worst offers.”

But a strike threat is only one of multiple problems at NEIU. This venerable institution, which was founded in 1867 as Cook County’s first teacher training school and, as recently as 2012, was cited by Newsweek as the “best university investment in Illinois,” says it is dealing with a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall this fiscal year. Enrollment has dropped from over 11,000 a decade ago to less than 6,000 for the fall 2022 term. The administration wants to consolidate and make cuts in course offerings in response.

Declining enrollment is an industry-wide problem for higher education, as ever-rising costs and consequent student debt have led more young people to question its value. But NEIU’s fall 2022 enrollment drop of 10.6 percent compared to the previous year, and nearly 30 percent since fall 2018, is worse than most. Union members blame years of administrative mismanagement—especially in student recruitment—that have turned the school away from its mission of serving “nontraditional” students, including transfer students and returning adults (many attending part-time) with the flexibility and economy of a “commuter campus.”

Matthews told me that NEIU, which was the first four-year college in Illinois to be designated a Hispanic Serving Institution (Latinx students make up about 40 percent of its enrollment), has “dropped the ball on the students we’ve traditionally served” in a misguided attempt to focus instead on first-time, full-time students. (Former president Sharon Hahs’s 2013 “Decade of Dreams” expansion plan led to the building of NEIU’s first and not-yet-fully-rented dormitory and to its purchase, including seizure through eminent domain, of commercial property on Bryn Mawr that it’s now trying to unload.)

Last fall the faculty passed votes of “no confidence” in both university president Gloria Gibson and the board of directors; the board subsequently decided not to renew Gibson’s contract, which expires June 30. WBEZ reported last month that Gibson complained to the governor’s office of a hostile work environment caused by racial and gender discrimination on the part of the board, and that she accused two board members of retaliating against her by blocking her contract extension after she refused their attempts to get scholarships for three students (including the wife of one of the board members) who weren’t eligible for that aid.

In late March, after it was revealed that Gibson had sought email records between Dan Maurer, a student journalist who’d been critical of her, and one of those two board members, the faculty senate passed a resolution asking the board to remove her immediately. They didn’t, but earlier this month Governor Pritzker appointed five new members to the board, including replacements for the two members Gibson complained about and for several appointees whose terms expired.

When Thursday’s board meeting got underway on El Centro’s third floor—with a standing-room-only crowd of demonstrators filling the room and a composed President Gibson in attendance—it was the need for new leadership that dominated the half hour allotted for public comment.

Just ten speakers were given three minutes each to address the board. Professor Isaura Pulido told them the next university president “must be local,” and faculty senate president Nancy Wrinkle made it clear that the faculty wants “to participate in the process of choosing an interim president.” And, in spite of the fact that Gibson was visibly still in place, four other speakers urged the board to immediately install Vice President of Finance and Administration Manish Kumar as interim president.

English department chair Timothy Scherman put it this way: “Accept that leader everyone is handing you, Manish Kumar. Appointing him this afternoon is your best option.”

That didn’t happen, and at press time no progress in contract negotiations, which are continuing this week, had been announced. That leaves open the possibility of an imminent, if reluctant, walkout. 

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