Advocating for Education
GSU Faculty Travel to Springfield
The concrete ribbon of Interstate 57 rolled out in front of Dr. Cyrus Ellis, associate professor in the Division of Psychology and Counseling at Governors State University, early in the morning on April 27. A 20-degree drop in temperature and rainy skies had discouraged some of his colleagues at GSU from boarding the chartered bus, leaving room for him to post up in the very front seat and let his tall frame stretch out for the three-hour ride to Springfield. He and 30 others were headed to Teach-Out Illinois, a union-planned day of protest against the 22-month budget stalemate that has left all of the state's public institutions, including GSU, without appropriation funding.
For GSU faculty, the day in Springfield was a call to arms letting those in Springfield know that enough is enough. While Illinois students advocating for higher education have voiced concerns over diminishing resources, professors have faced a unique set of struggles and concerns.
"Because of the budget, we’ve had curriculum changes, and we’ve had class changes," Ellis said. "We're losing our traditions."
During a time that some see as the fiscal strangulation of higher education, there is a fear that educators might choose to migrate out of public universities—or even the state—their hands forced by a lack of support and funding from Illinois. At Governors State University, familial devotion to the surrounding community and to the students of Chicago's South Side keeps faculty grounded and in the fight for funding.
For several weeks before the rally, GSU's halls were papered with signs letting students know that their professors would be absent that day. Even those who knew they wouldn't be able to attend the rally posted them in a show of solidarity and support.
"My students know that I need to do this," Ellis said. "I would rather be in class—thinking, writing, facilitating for my students as they grow and develop in the professional discipline of counseling. That’s where my time is best spent. They are happy, though, that someone is willing to go down to Springfield and do whatever they can to advocate for them. In my case, what I can do is communicate that we need to fund higher education.”
Across the aisle from Dr. Ellis, another member of GSU's faculty filled a cup of coffee. Someone else rummaged through a box of doughnuts. The breakfast came courtesy of Dr. Elaine Maimon, the university's president and a relentless defender of higher ed. The rally—organized by Local 4100 University Professionals of Illinois (UPI)—wouldn't take place until the afternoon, and no food is allowed in the capitol building.
A few seats back, Dr. Ellie Walsh talked about sacrifice.
"The decision to come today was difficult. This is the end of the semester. This is a really critical time." Dr. Walsh paused, not to search for words but to increase their weight with their measure. "My first-year students, who are working on a very big, exciting human rights project, are missing face-to-face time. I left them work to do in groups, but they have sacrificed today."
Dr. Walsh teaches in the History and Gender and Sexuality Studies programs in the College of Arts and Sciences. She said that to compensate for her absence, she held five extra office hours the day before the rally. On Friday, the day after, she would hold three more.
In the capitol building, GSU faculty members broke off with small groups on the rotunda floor for "Teach-Out" sessions—eight minute conversations with students from across the state about the impact of the budget stalemate on their institutions and lives. Beneath the stained glass dome, they listened to the struggles of students from Eastern, Southern, and other public universities in the state, and they traded encouragement and reinforced camaraderie with faculty members from the same.
Shortly after 1 p.m., the rally started. Graduate student Michael Vanarsdale, an activist and former president of GSU's student senate, waited for his turn to speak on the steps of the Lincoln statue. Throughout the speeches of gubernatorial hopefuls—Chicago billionaire J.B. Pritzker and Senator Dan Biss both spoke at the rally—the gravity of higher education's plight reflected in Vanarsdale's face. He appeared stoic and concerned. When he took the podium, he spoke with conviction.
"The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny lies in keeping them ignorant. ... Students across the state are slowly but surely arriving to one conclusion: that our state leadership does not value our future and our state leadership certainly does not value our education. ... Allowing public universities to bleed out and suffer program cuts is an intellectual crime, and it's being committed by the people who represent us," he said.
The sun still shrouded, the ground still dry, the rally ended in the mid-afternoon. Signs and banners were loaded back onto buses, and the motor coaches departed the capitol.
Returning home, Dr. Elizabeth Essex, associate professor of Social Work at GSU and a lifelong political activist (she marched in Washington with Dr. King when she was just a teen), seemed emboldened by the day. She talked about the role of public education in Illinois.
"One important aspect of public education is that it creates future leaders," she said. "It creates leaders for the state. I think it has always done that, and we need it to continue."
In the back of the bus, Benjamin Ginther intermittently nodded out. One of several students who attended the rally, Ginther will graduate in May with a Master of Social Work degree. He said he hopes to obtain work with the Veterans' Administration as a counselor. The day was taxing for him—Ginther suffers from adrenomyeloneuropathy, an inherited condition that affects the spinal cord, not unlike multiple sclerosis he said. Still, it was the second day in April he'd spent in Springfield. He was one of about 100 students who had attended the National Association of Social Workers Advocacy Day on April 4..
"We had a choice of writing a letter to a representative for our assignment," he said, "or going to Springfield today. I would much rather be a part of this today."