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Chicago State is struggling in survival mode

It isn’t an HBCU, but the university with 70 percent black enrollment has similar challenges

A calm breeze blows through the green and white college banners that dangle from the street poles surrounding Chicago State University in a corner of the far South Side of Chicago.

Come off the edge of 95th Street and South Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and you can stroll through a sea of ash trees and walk onto the campus that opened as the Cook County Normal School in 1867 as a teacher training institution.

Over the years, CSU has grown into a predominantly black institution. More than 70 percent of its enrollment of nearly 5,200 students is African-American. The school is attractive to students because of its relatively low cost of about $12,000 per year. Close to 80 percent qualify for federal and state grants, and at least one in four black students who earn a college degree in Chicago are graduates of CSU, so the school is a lifeline.

But just as CSU is about to celebrate its 150th year in the fall of 2017, the school’s survival is in question. Bickering over the budget by the Republican governor and Democratic State House and Senate has left colleges that depend so much on assistance — like Chicago State — in a desperate situation. Things were so dire that CSU declared a financial emergency last February, canceled spring break and moved up commencement so students could graduate before the limited funding dried up.

“It was very disappointing when I heard about the budget cuts,” said Aaron Williams, a 2014 graduate and former CSU basketball player. “This school has been a part of this community for years. It’s a place where African-Americans can come and get a quality education for not that much money. It’s a home for many of us in this community. There isn’t a lot of places for black kids to go and feel safe. They’re safe here.”

CSU laid off more than 300 employees at the end of this past school year, and the athletic department cut so many corners that recruiting at the Division I school in the Western Athletic Conference came down to scouting for players on YouTube or within a 200-mile radius because administrators had to slash the travel budget.

“If we can’t drive to see a player, we’re recruiting off the phone or internet,” said CSU basketball coach and athletic director Tracy Dildy. “We’ve signed kids where we see them face to face for the first time when they come to campus to enroll.”

Questions about the stability of CSU hurt recruiting, especially when players asked out of their commitments.

“There were students that got nervous and transferred,” said Carynne Lloyd, a senior on the tennis team. “When all of this was happening, I wondered if I needed to leave. I talked with my teammates about reaching out to other programs, but I didn’t. I only needed three courses to graduate, and that would’ve made it difficult to get a scholarship at another school.”

Jerry Eaves, whose son Anthony is a sophomore on the basketball team, was a starter on the 1980 Louisville NCAA Champions and is also a former head coach at North Carolina A&T and a former NBA assistant coach. Eaves is not too concerned because he believes his son is good enough to land another scholarship elsewhere if Chicago State is forced to close. Eaves’ bigger concern is with the students, not his son’s scholarship.

In this April 12, 2016 photo, Robert Bionaz, an associate professor of history at Chicago State University, lectures during a class at the university in Chicago. The school has a troubled history and has been hard hit by the state budget crisis, but students and experts say it remains a last shot for many to get a degree.

In this April 12, 2016 photo, Robert Bionaz, an associate professor of history at Chicago State University, lectures during a class at the university in Chicago. The school has a troubled history and has been hard hit by the state budget crisis, but students and experts say it remains a last shot for many to get a degree.

AP Photo/David Mercer

“This isn’t all about Anthony,” said Eaves, now coach of Simmons College of Kentucky. “What about the student who’s not on scholarship and this is the only school they can afford, and they’re trying to change their lives? How would a student not being able to go to school benefit African-Americans as a whole?”

These current budget issues are a far cry from the mid- to late 1990s, when Illinois was the top performing state in helping residents obtain higher education through need-based grants and affordable tuitions, according to a report by the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education. That same report concluded that such efforts helped communities of color.

Until early summer, the crisis left many students wondering whether the school would even open this fall. But classes began last week because of an emergency package finally agreed upon by Illinois legislators, allowing financial distributions to universities and colleges, including about $21.7 million to Chicago State.

The money did not stop the finger-pointing between the two parties despite the temporary solution. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic State House Speaker Michael Madigan remained at odds. Madigan spokesman Steve Brown told The Undefeated that throughout the budget impasse, Madigan has consistently supported full funding for all the state universities and community colleges — including Chicago State, and that he understands the uniqueness CSU plays in the state system. And the speaker is very disappointed by the governor’s “destructive approach” to higher education in Illinois.

“The Rauner plan is to continue to cut higher education and whenever he offers a budget, he wants to offer less money for higher education because he believes there’s a lot of waste in higher education and he’s not been able to document any of that,” Brown said.

Rauner spokesperson Catherine Kelly directed The Undefeated to the governor’s previous statements about the recent emergency funding serving as a bridge to reform and not wanting any school to close. Rauner also blamed Democrats for the crisis, accusing the supermajority in the legislature of using Chicago State and many other service providers in Illinois as leverage to try to force a massive tax hike.

Not so, said civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, a long supporter of Chicago State and CSU’s commencement speaker last spring. Jackson said this issue is about priorities and allocations.

“An investment in Chicago State is an investment in teachers, nurses, computer science majors and athletes who all come out of Chicago State, and that’s a great asset to the city,” said Jackson, whose son Jonathan is a business professor at the school. “Keeping Chicago State running is something for the kids in Chicago’s public schools to look forward to.”

But the amount that will keep the doors open at Chicago State still fell short of the 30 percent the university typically receives. For example, the total operating budget in 2015 was $106.5 million and the state provided $38.2 million. In 2016, the total operating budget is $82.3 million with $21.7 million provided by Illinois. The operating budget for 2017 is $72.5 million, the state has only approved $14.3 million so far.

In 2015, Chicago State’s athletic budget, which supports 13 varsity sports, was $6.2 million. Now it’s reduced to about half of that amount, which presents another challenge for Dildy, a South Side native.

A love for the school

Dildy had his sights on the white and evergreen colors of the Cougars long before the current situation arrived. He grew up about two blocks from the CSU and he attended nearby local prep power Martin Luther King High School, where he was an honorable mention All-American and All-State point guard as a senior. Dildy averaged 15 points and eight assists per game his senior year and led his squad to a No. 1 national preseason ranking.

“I’m connected to the university because I spent a lot of time here,” said Dildy, 49. “I played in the summer leagues here when I was in high school. Before high school I was on campus in the swimming pool. After high school I was here in the Pro Summer League.”

Despite his love for CSU, Dildy signed with San Diego State and shortly transferred to University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), where he finished his two-year career there with the eighth-most assists (260) in school history.

“I didn’t sign with Chicago State out of high school because they weren’t Division I at the time and they didn’t have dorms on campus,” Dildy said. “But I couldn’t stay away. I had to come here to take a course because it wasn’t offered at UIC. I couldn’t graduate unless I took the class . . . I love this city. It’s my community.”

Dildy went into coaching after graduation at UIC. He became an assistant at seven different colleges but remained focused on CSU. Once Dildy returned to UIC as an assistant, a head coaching position at CSU became open. He applied and became the Cougars’ coach for the 2010-11 season.

“It was a dream come true,” he said.

Dildy’s dream quickly turned and the new coach wondered if this was indeed the place for him to begin his head coaching career, especially when the school was put on probation his first two years for a poor Academic Progress Rate (APR) under the supervision of the previous coaching staff. Probation also included a reduction in scholarships and reduced practice time.

“And to make matters even worse, is that the school held the conference tournament on campus and we couldn’t participate because of probation,” Dildy said. “I wondered if this was where I was supposed to be.”

In this April 12, 2016 photo, a sign is seen at the entrance to Chicago State University in Chicago.

In this April 12, 2016 photo, a sign is seen at the entrance to Chicago State University in Chicago.

AP Photo/David Mercer

Dildy did not have to wonder for long. In his third season he led the school to the conference tournament championship title and Chicago State advanced to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT).

“Even better than that, we’ve had one of the highest graduation rates [over 70 percent] and highest APRs in the country,” said Dildy about the team’s 3.2 GPA. “We’ve stayed away from penalties because we’ve created a culture within athletics that is truly about being a student-athlete. I tell my players that we can discuss many things, but there’s no debate when it comes to academics. You’re going to study. You’re going to class. There’s no wiggle room.”

Twenty-five is the average age of a typical Chicago State University student, according to school spokesperson Sabrina Land. Many students enroll at CSU after spending time in the military or as transfer students, or as students looking for a chance just to attend school.

The general student body is similar to the student-athletes on the various Cougars’ rosters. Dildy said CSU gets the student-athletes other colleges didn’t recruit because of various reasons — the belief of not being good enough.

“We don’t generally get the traditional high school graduate who goes on to college,” Dildy said. “So it hurts me when you have a threat about closing a college like this. With all of the violence going on in our city, an opportunity like this has saved some of our kids . . . We should be called ‘Chicago Hope,’ because this is like the last opportunity of getting a college degree for so many of our students. So how can someone try to take that away from people who have done all of the right things?”

Troubles before at the school


Everything is not perfect at the university. Currently, trustees are scheduled to meet at 8:30 a.m. CST Friday to discuss a separation agreement with school president Calhoun, according to the Crain’s Chicago Business article. Calhoun has only been president since last January, when he took over for Wayne Watson, who retired last year. When contacted by The Undefeated, school spokesperson Sabrina Land confirmed the agenda item but she did not have any further details.

Previously, there were charges that the school had financial mismanagement, and a Chicago Tribune article reported that the six-year graduation rate for the first-year, full-time freshman of 2009 was 11 percent.

But school administrators point to several factors that go into that low percentage. The school supports nontraditional students who don’t immediately enroll after high school graduation, like junior college transfers, which is not counted toward the incoming freshmen graduation rates.

“A lot of our freshmen come here and transfer, using us as a training ground to go somewhere else,” said Chicago State political science professor Thomas Rowan. “And if they leave, they are not counted in our graduation rate. We need to recruit and retain more freshmen.”

Recruiting and retention will not matter if CSU does not generate additional funds because of the unstable budget issues. The school did have a foundation, but fundraising was not one of its strengths. A new Chicago State University Foundation was recently created. It came with a new board and new strategies to be more effective.

Cecil Lucy, the school’s interim vice president of administration and finance, said the new foundation is composed of more aggressive members with the objective to develop more public and private partnerships. There’s a goal to produce restaurants and products to keep students and their extra dollars on campus.

“We have a concert this weekend with Ronnie Laws during our Founder’s Day Weekend,” Lucy said. “That’s one example of raising money that we can use for scholarships and for raising money for the university. Our first priority is to make sure our students have the funding to further their education.”

Disc jockey Steve Davis know on the WCSU airwaves as Master Blaster, watches as two people dance to a song he is broadcasting from the Chicago State University campus Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, in Chicago.

Disc jockey Steve Davis know on the WCSU airwaves as Master Blaster, watches as two people dance to a song he is broadcasting from the Chicago State University campus Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, in Chicago.

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Another strategy for raising funds is to develop better communication with its graduates. But several alumni, like former NHL goalie Bob Janecyk, 1976 Olympic silver medalist Rosalyn Bryant and rap artist Kanye West (who attended for one semester), have not been contacted.

Neither has former CSU basketball player Melvin Buckley.

“It’s important for the school to meet with alumni to see if we can garnish some support in some way,” said Buckley, owner of two McDonald’s franchises and a real estate company in the Chicago area. “A collection of alumni contributing won’t be able to correct what’s wrong in its entirety, but it would probably make it easier on the state and on the school if more of us get involved.”

Engagement with alumni is a part of the new aggressive strategy, and the administration plans to make that happen as changes develop. That change includes a new integrated database that will make it easier to contact alumni.

“We’ve taken a critical look at the way we’ve done things and now we’re making sure we have new strategies in place,” Lucy said.

Dildy said the athletic department has also reached out to the Chicago Bulls and marketing department about doing a scrimmage on campus to help generate funds. He has also met with local businesses that surround the campus about a partnership through advertising and about season ticket packages for the various sports.

“The companies have been very receptive,” Dildy said. “The response by the businesses in a partnership has been unbelievable. The local churches have also been receptive. That’s something we’ve never done in the past.”

Even some new financial success created by the school may not be enough to keep CSU alive. Unlike most of its in-state neighbors, CSU can’t fall back on funds from a large endowment like the $2 billion fund at the University of Illinois. CSU’s endowment is $3.7 million.

Rowan, in his 24th year at the school, got his start in teaching at CSU and he hopes for the same opportunity for current and future students. And he is reminded daily about his journey by an old railroad boxcar on campus between Douglas and Harold Washington halls.

“And that railroad car looks like how we often feel — which isn’t like a nice Rolls-Royce or a Maserati — but we get to the finish line,” Rowan said. “We’re in a fight. We’ll win to emerge for our 150th year ready to take all of these challenges and continue serving our students so they can have jobs that will improve their lives and make a contribution to society. “

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.