Like faculty and staff at other institutions, those at Eastern Illinois University face an administration that continues to operate as if austerity is the only way. Yet upon closer examination, the University finances reveal a different story.

By Camden Burd 

On Thursday, April 6, members of the Eastern Illinois University Faculty Union, Illinois IFT Local 4100, went on strike to demand a fair contract. The action comes after stalled negotiations at an institution where tenure-track and annually contracted faculty and staff have been working without a contract since August 2022. The actions of Eastern Illinois University are the latest amid a wave of labor activism across the country. Strikes, unionization drives, and other rallies at a range of institutions including the University of California, Eastern Michigan University, Temple University, and Yale University demonstrate that working conditions for graduate students, contract lecturers, tenure-track faculty, and other precariously employed staff at American institutions of higher education are unsustainable and exploitative. In Charleston, Illinois, home of Eastern Illinois University, faculty face a similar situation where University administrators are currently proposing to increase faculty workload with lower proportional pay.

The reality at Eastern Illinois University reflects a longer history of deteriorating working conditions at public universities and colleges across the State of Illinois. For nearly a decade, several institutions have been recovering from a budget impasse that rocked Illinois government from 2015-2017. It was during this time that the newly elected Governor, Bruce Rauner, attempted to make good on his campaign promise to “shake up Springfield.” The once-private equity executive made it his mission to radically cut the State’ budget, including plans to reduce public spending on medical and education services as well as slashing the public pension system. Refusing to sign several proposed budgets offered by the Illinois lawmakers over the course of two years, Illinois Rauner’s conservative commitments helped tank the State’s credit rating and place unnecessary harm on public schools across the state.

At Eastern Illinois University, the budget crisis was especially disastrous. Enrollments slipped from 8,520 students in Fall of 2015 to 7,030 by the Fall of 2017. The decreased enrollments combined with the austere conditions of the two-year budget impasse shaved the overall operating budget. Eastern Illinois University saw a loss of $30 million due to gutted appropriations in 2016 alone. As Rauner continued to wage his ideological battle against public institutions, University administrators were forced to cut, laying-off nearly 400 employees during the crisis. With the looming threat of layoffs, the faculty union stepped-up to save the institution. In 2015, the faculty voted to postpone the already negotiated pay-raises in order to support university operations and, most importantly, save the positions of 29 annually-contracted faculty members. Of course, the work necessary to run a university remained. The surviving faculty and staff took-on additional teaching and service loads—many of which have remained in the place in the five years since the impasse. Faculty and staff took on these tasks out of a sense of solidarity to the students and the underlying mission of a public education. This led faculty and staff to champion a new philosophy—“All In.” The phrase became a sort of mantra of solidarity—an axiom championed by employees who came to work, each day, despite the looming threat of layoff or school closure.

Similar stories can be found throughout Illinois. Faculty and staff across the state continued to feel the effects of the impasse since 2017. Austerity remained in place at institutions that were forced to restore emergency funds and assure potential students of their institution’s solvency. As a result, working conditions for Illinois higher education employees worsened. With decreased funding and gashed reserves, administrators chose to enact a state of near-permanent austerity including slow wage-growth and increased workloads. Six years later, employees are beginning to fight back. In May, members of the faculty union at University of Illinois-Springfield nearly went on strike after administration refused pay raises. It was only until the strike vote was taken that administrators decided to take negotiations seriously. More recently, 1,500 members of the University of Illinois-Chicago went on strike and successfully negotiated a 5% across-the-board raise of tenure-track and contract faculty. In nearby DeKalb, faculty at Northern Illinois University worked secured a contract after working without for nearly a year. On Monday, April 3, 160 faculty and staff at Chicago State University began went on strike. On Tuesday, April 11, faculty and staff at Governors State University will do the same. The flurry of labor activism across Illinois institutions of higher education reveals that employees are no longer willing to put-up with the declining working conditions that have defined these schools since the impasse.

The story at Eastern Illinois University is not dissimilar. Like faculty and staff at other institutions, those at Eastern Illinois University face an administration that continues to operate as if austerity is the only way. Yet upon closer examination, the University finances reveal a different story. Since the impasse administrators refilled the emergency funds that were depleted during the worst years. The University even netted an additional $15 million in revenue during the 2021-2022 academic year. Signs of increased funding from Springfield even seem possible after Governor J.B. Pritzker proposed a 7% increase to community colleges and universities in his February State of the Budget Address. Despite this, administrators persist they have no money. They continue to propose higher workloads with a minimal raise that—a combination that lead negotiator Dr. Billy Hung rightly notes, serves as “an effective pay cut.”

At EIU, administrators have even attempted to dilute the solidarity that was born in the hardest moments of the budget impasse. “All-In”— no longer became a symbol of union, but a clever marketing campaign. The phrase soon appeared on billboards, websites, and other promotional materials. What was born out of solidarity morphed into a blunt instrument to squash dissent. To criticize the university, express displeasure with particular policies, or advocate for institutional change was to stray from this new marketing mission. As negotiations stalled, administrators made their positions clear: “All-In” no longer includes the faculty and staff who ushered the university through its hardest years.

In the end, administrators hope that faculty and staff are too burnt out, worn down, and exhausted from working for nearly a decade in ever-austere conditions that they won’t have the energy to advocate for their students and themselves. For those paying attention to the developments at Eastern Illinois University and around the state, the image is clearer. The administrators are wrong.

Camden Burd is an assistant professor of history at Eastern Illinois University. He has published on topics related to the environmental and political history of the American Midwest.