ROSELAND — More than 100 students and faculty from Chicago State University shrugged off nagging rain Saturday to demand that state officials pass a budget to guarantee their school's funding.
The university, 9501 S. King Dr., has been running on reserve funds since last July, when Illinois blew past its deadline to pass a budget for the fiscal year 2016. Six months later, with Springfield still gridlocked, administrators say they have until March until the school runs out of cash entirely.
Led by a makeshift color guard and protected by a police escort, the protesters — mostly students, trailed by a handful of faculty and community members — marched down 95th Street chanting slogans like "Black education is good for health, Save CSU, budget or else."
Students hold a prayer on the Chicago State University campus before beginning their march down 95th Street. [DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin]
The event materialized after about a dozen student leaders representing different campus groups came together in common cause, according to Student Council President Paris Griffin.
"We all knew we had to get our message out somehow, so we thought the best way would be to just bring it out through our own community here on the South Side of Chicago," said Griffin, who majors in public relations. "We just want the state government to know that it's their responsibility to support higher education in this state — not just at Chicago State, but everywhere in Illinois."
"[State elected officials] all had access to higher education, but they didn't have to fight for it like we do," she added. "Education is something we all deserve."
Founded nearly 150 years ago, Chicago State University has been operating at the corner of 95th Street and Martin Luther King Drive since 1972. Students representing Greek organizations, advocacy causes and extra-curricular groups all described the school as an anchor of hope and stability in the economically depressed Roseland neighborhood.
"You look around this neighborhood you see divested institutions — closed businesses, closed schools — and we don't want our university to be next," said Charles Preston, president of Teaching and Educating Men of Black Origin (TEMBO), a student-led community service group. "We've been trying to get Springfield to hear us, but it's hard because we're not Northwestern, we're not the University of Chicago — we're just a small, predominantly black school trying to preserve all the good that's being done here."
About 7,200 students are enrolled at the university this year, according to its website.
David Flynn, president of Word Up, a spoken word group on campus, said he's seen countless examples of local youths with criminal backgrounds "transform" once they enrolled at Chicago State.
"[Elected officials] need to know how much of an oasis Chicago State University is in this community — it's taking students from troubled situations and low economic backgrounds, and giving them an opportunity to get an affordable education," said Flynn, who grew up in the neighborhood. "So many people depend on this school — not just for education, but for the service and mentorships we're involved in — this community would be in terrible shape if we lost the ability to do that."
Organizer Charles Preston leads students down 95th Street through the Roseland neighborhood. [DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin]
Before the march, University President Thomas Calhoun praised the students for their fortitude, telling them he was "spending a lot of time talking to legislators" over possible ways to keep the university running if the budget gridlock endures into the spring.
"I want you to know you're bringing honor to the university with what you're doing," Calhoun said, days after assuming his new title. "We have every intention of getting the money this university deserves. You're now part of that, and I'm proud of you for that."
Griffin said student leaders would reconvene later in the week and decide the next steps of a continuing activism campaign. Until then, students said, onlookers can support their campaign on social media with "#BudgetOrElse" or "#CSU."
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