Chicago State University students and supporters demonstrated in the Loop in early February. Credit: Rich Hein/Sun-Times

When Bernie Sanders brought his political revolution pep fest to Illinois last week, he took it to those esteemed bastions of higher education, the University of Chicago (his own alma mater) and Chicago State University.

CSU is a great university, Sanders told a hyped, young, mostly white audience of more than 6,000 supporters there, eliciting a mighty cheer for a school that’s become an unlikely champion in the struggle to keep Illinois’s public higher-education system afloat while a deadlocked state government withholds its funding.

He may not be aware of how odd that seems.

For years now, if CSU got any attention at all, it was for purportedly graduating students without basic literacy and math skills, and the follies of its past administrators, including a $3 million award in a 2014 whistle-blower lawsuit brought by its former top lawyer.

Well, that, and the fact that Kanye West was once a student there.

So how did this outlier school become the flag bearer for a system that includes the University of Illinois and UIC?

CSU history professor (and union chapter president) Robert Bionaz, who has his own pending lawsuit against former university president Wayne Watson and other officials for attempting to shut down a faculty blog, says this is “primarily because we’ve been forthright about telling people that we’re in financial difficulty.”

While all state schools are feeling the crunch, most of them are trying to be circumspect about it, Bionaz says, because broadcasting your financial crisis is not a great strategy for recruiting new students. CSU, where enrollment has already tanked 45 percent since the mid-1990s and financial reserves are minimal, is just putting itself “out there,” with students and faculty taking to the streets and traveling to Springfield to protest the budget deadlock.

But it was a comment by university spokesman Tom Wogan (a former aide to Democratic party leader Michael Madigan), buried in an Associated Press story in January, that apparently singled CSU out as the target for a full-on attack by Republican governor Bruce Rauner.

On January 13, as a bill to restore MAP grants, a form of low-income student funding, was filed in the state senate, the governor’s office released a memo to legislators arguing that public universities need to make major financial reforms before the state gives them any more money. The memo, from deputy chief of staff Richard Goldberg, said these schools need to root out cronyism and cut wasteful spending on things like private jets and country-club memberships.

“Nobody can sustain a lack of state appropriations for very long. We were just in the most dire situation, so we made it public.”

—CSU professor Robert Bionaz­

Wogan’s comment to the AP was a response: he said those complaints don’t apply to CSU, which is a 150-year-old school on the far south side with a nontraditional student body.

On January 19, the governor’s office issued another memo from Goldberg to the general assembly, this one consisting entirely of charges against CSU. The first was a stunner: a claim that the largely black university serves its white students much better than its students of color.

According to the memo, CSU graduates 83 percent of its white students in six years, compared to only 19 percent of its black students and 15 percent of Latinos. That gives CSU the second-lowest public university graduation rate for African-Americans in the state, and strangely, the state’s second-highest graduation rate for white students.

That should have set off alarm bells in the governor’s office, but it didn’t. So CSU’s new president, Thomas Calhoun Jr., got the chance to explain a fundamental lesson from Statistics 101: sample size matters.

In a notably cordial letter to Rauner dated January 21, Calhoun pointed out that the total pool of white students in the data cited by Goldberg consisted of six individuals.

“For point of reference,” Calhoun wrote, “CSU issues on average 800 degrees annually, graduates 1 out of 2 African Americans receiving a bachelor’s degree from a public university in Chicago and 1 out of 6 in Illinois.”

Calhoun also thought the governor should know that the incredibly low CSU four-year graduation rates cited by Goldberg (2 to 4 percent) are grossly misleading, drawn from a federal data system that fails to count (among others) the full-time and part-time transfer students who make up a majority of the CSU student body. In fact, in the cohort of students referenced by Goldberg, Calhoun wrote, “only 9% [of the CSU student body] would be counted.” The graduation rate for full-time transfer students in that cohort? Fifty-one percent.

On February 23, in an attempt to finish the semester before the school runs out of cash, CSU canceled its spring break.

And then something surprising happened. The governor—who vetoed the MAP grant funding bill last month and can be seen on video accusing CSU of “throwing money down the toilet”—did an about-face.

Rauner said he’s now found a bill he can support, one that’ll provide funds for all state colleges and universities, including CSU. That’s HB 6409, introduced last week by “rogue” Democratic representative and occasional Rauner ally Ken Dunkin—three weeks after Dunkin’s campaign fund got a jaw-dropping $500,000 infusion from the Illinois Opportunity Project, a conservative public policy group with strong Republican ties.

Which hasn’t endeared him to his fellow Democrats in Springfield.

But there’s a catch: even if passed, 6409 will go into effect only if another bill, one that allows the governor to take money out of various special state funds and never pay it back, also passes.

Word is that neither Dunkin’s bill nor one introduced in January by Democratic state senator Emil Jones III (which would benefit CSU only) is likely to get much traction.

Last week, CSU sent notices to all its employees, including tenured faculty, warning of layoffs. v