“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” — Eugene V. Debs
In June 2017, top administrators at the University of Illinois sent an open letter to state legislators, warning them that failure to agree on a 2018 fiscal budget will “drive up construction costs, disrupt teaching, research, and campus life” at the Champaign-Urbana site. This followed the University’s preposterous request for $662.1 million from the state for operating costs for FY2018, a sharp increase from the $40 million requested for FY2016. While on the surface this seems reasonable because of the state revenue (not budget) crisis, these University appeals for increased fiscal support are a manipulative sleight of hand that masks the University’s booming profit with a dishonest narrative of poverty and forced austerity. The financial reality of the University of Illinois is that it has more money than it has ever had before. Between FY2005 and FY2015, tuition and fee revenue increased by a staggering $668 million, or 155.5%, while state funding decreased by only $36 million, or 5.2%, over that same ten-year period. Additionally, the University currently has a $3.2 billion total endowment, and received close to $300 million in state appropriations for FY2015 and FY2016. Even if we exclude other revenue-generating juggernauts like the Big Ten television deal and athletics, the University’s insistence in continuing this false narrative of poverty and austerity is reprehensibly fraudulent. In fact, the University unevenly distributes its grossly exorbitant profits to a small percentage of bureaucratic bloat at the expense of graduate employees, staff, undergraduate students, and tenured and non-tenured faculty. This deliberate monopoly of resources forces us to face ever-increasing material hardships that threaten our health, working conditions, and productivity as workers and scholars.
As UIUC graduate employee Grace Herbert argued in her exemplary April 2016 Public I article, “UIUC is Balancing a False Budget ‘Crisis’ on the Backs of Students and Faculty,” the University’s financial sleight of hand is dependent on its devious expense reporting. The University combines its financial data for Springfield, Champaign-Urbana, and Chicago, thus making it impossible to approximate the distribution, expenses, and revenues for each individual campus. As Herbert points out, the budget reports for each campus are individually structured, but they only report expected expenditures, which allows the University to escape questions and accountability for its regressive resource distribution.
Instead, when we look past the administrative sleight of hand, the University’s recent financial maneuvers delegitimize its scarcity claims and expose its willingness to position graduate employees, tenured and non-tenured faculty, and students as low priority for the institution. Firstly, UIUC continues a media campaign celebrating its “tuition freeze” without providing any concrete details. The reality is that UIUC is only freezing tuition for in-state students, while the most expensive tuition rates, for out-of-state and international students, continue to rise. Because this year’s freshman class is the largest in UIUC history, this ploy will prove the most lucrative for the administration. UIUC signed head football coach Lovie Smith to a six-year, $29 million contract, with another $4 million allocated for his staff. Lastly, the University is planning a $250 million renovation project at the Illini Union, the largest campus renovation in the school’s history. The UIUC administration would not propose such a risky, long-term project if it did not possess an excessive surplus of funds. Consequently, this reprehensible dishonesty demonstrates that the University prioritizes its profit-inducing projects much higher than its actual poverty-stricken teaching assistants, who average $16,360 per year in pay, well below the $22,314 per year recommended cost of living for a graduate employee.
Exorbitant administrative pay is crucial to this sleight-of-hand strategy. Nationwide, public university presidents and chancellor compensation (including base salary, bonuses, severance packages, etc.) rose by 4.3% last year, with the median now at $431,000. The University of Illinois is a primary catalyst for this increase, with Illinois system president Tim Killeen’s $600,000 base salary (with an extra $100,000 in performance bonus) positioning him in the top 20 percent of public university presidents in the United States. Besides Killeen, other administrative salaries are as follows: Chancellor Robert Jones: $649,000; Executive Vice President and Vice President of Academic Affairs Barbara Wilson: $450,000; College of Medicine Dean Kin Li: $650,000; Interim Provost Edward Feser: $330,500; Chief Information Officer Mark Henderson: $320,000; Dean of the College of Education Jim Anderson: $245,843; Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost John P. Wilkin: $249,000; Vice Provost for International Affairs and Global Strategies Reitumetse Obakeng Mabokela: $230,000; Director of Labor and Employee Relations Leslie N. Arvan: $127,558.12; Vice Provost for Academic Affairs William T. Bernhard: $245,061; Vice Provost of Budget and Resource Planning Paul N Ellinger: $245,000; Vice Provost Elabbas Benmamoun: $230,000; Dean of College of ACES Robert J. Hauser: $319,735; and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Marieke Schoen: $183,530.
This administrative sleight of hand at UIUC not only fattens the top execs’ pockets, but also reduces opportunities for other campus entities on the ground level to preserve or improve working and living conditions. The University Administration directs departments to cut staff and teaching assistants, and asks that they somehow manage overflowing freshmen classes every year. As a result, faculty must overload their work duties with professional tasks such as academic advising, a full-time service that toes the line of violating the job duties set forth for teaching faculty. Academic Advisor and Black Studies scholar Lou Turner was one such casualty last year, as the African American Studies Department chair, Ronald Bailey, unfairly targeted and fired Turner, effectively destabilizing the department and placing the students, graduate assistants, and faculty in jeopardy. Additionally, departments are forced to enact hiring freezes so tenured and non-tenured faculty teaching loads dramatically increase. Academic spaces like Altgeld Hall, Coble Hall, and the English building have multiple workplace safety hazards (mold, asbestos, rats and roaches, and crumbling infrastructure) that require significant renovations; however, departments in those buildings, like the Math Department, are repeatedly told the school has no money for those repairs.
Unfortunately, the new Illinois state budget, passed and celebrated by both Democrats and Republican legislators, cuts higher education by ten percent, further exacerbating the burden of educational costs on the backs of graduate employees and undergraduate students and their families whose means have been increasingly constrained by stagnant wages and the rising cost of living. These hardships mean that working class employees and students will amass crippling debt to address social crises such as food insecurity, healthcare costs, student fees, child care services, and housing instability.
The UIUC administration willingly constructs a fabricated financial crisis on the campus that simultaneously increases its revenue streams and endangers the social realities of workers across Champaign County. As scholars, activists, and concerned citizens, we must hold the University accountable for its fraudulent claims by taking control of the narrative, exposing the UIUC administration for its role in subordinating multiple groups on the campus, and centralizing our struggle, as graduate workers, tenured and non-tenured faculty, staff, and students, to obtain the fair wages and working conditions we deserve as the lifeblood of the university. If we drive the narrative consistently, the administrative sleight of hand fails. Our liberation is at stake.
Gus Wood is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Co-President of the Graduate Employees Organization, a trustee on the Champaign County AFL-CIO Executive Board, Co-Host of the World Labor Hour on WRFU Radio, and an organizer for Black Students for Revolution, North End Breakfast Club, and the Speak Truth Collective. He studies social movements and political economy in Black urban history and Black labor history.