| by Hannah Manion

Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) Interim President Richard Helldobler recently declared the university to be in a financial “state of emergency” because of Illinois’ budget impasse. He declared, “On a scale of 1 to 10, my frustration level is at a 22.”

The school even cancelled three days of class and closed the campus this past semester due to its lack of funds.

Yet despite Helldobler’s fiery words, NEIU’s recent actions have spoken louder to a public institution seemingly more concerned with bringing VIPs to campus than responsibly serving students and protecting taxpayer money.

In April, it was revealed that NEIU signed a contract agreeing to pay former White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett $30,000 to speak before 900 students at the school’s commencement ceremony. It was also announced that the university board is planning to drop $98,000 to hire a firm to search for a new president. All this is being accomplished with student tuition dollars and public (taxpayer) funds.

Having a memorable graduation speaker or ensuring a qualified president is hired are laudable goals. But for a school that should be dedicated to helping students to slam the state government for fiscal mismanagement, and then spend $128,000 on tasks that could be accomplished for much less, is questionable at best.

The biggest priority of Illinois colleges and universities should be to allocate their money most effectively to help and serve students’ educational needs. In the wake of Illinois’ current budget crisis, this is more important than ever.

Students will never hear the commencement speech if they can’t afford tuition in the first place.

This issue is not new: Lawmakers in Illinois previously introduced a bill to ban state colleges from using public money on commencement speakers. So far, all attempts have failed.

The Monetary Award Program (MAP) grant is just one example of the significant need of Illinois college students. MAP grants provide Illinois residents attending approved in-state colleges with tuition money that does not need to be repaid. But the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, through which the MAP grant is administered, is required to wait until a state budget is approved to know exactly how much money is available and to make payments to students. So with the state’s budget impasse, MAP grant students have not been guaranteed their estimated grant amounts—or any grant at all. This leaves a lot of students in the lurch and at risk of being unable to afford the increasingly exorbitant cost of tuition.

In response to criticism leveled against NEIU for the cost of Jarrett’s speech, Helldobler said, “For our students, this is the first commencement in their family for many of them. Why should they have any less? To me, it sends a message that first-generation minority students should somehow have a lesser commencement than someone at an elite instruction.”

It’s not wrong for an institution to want students to have a memorable graduation ceremony, but universities must be realistic with their expenditures. Spending $30,000 on a commencement speech equates to a whopping $2,000 per minute. It doesn’t take an accounting major to see that’s unaffordable.

Approximately 57 percent of students receiving the MAP grant are first-generation students. Many of those students rely on the grant to cover tuition expenses. The university could more effectively aid students, not by providing them with a pricey 15-minute speech, but by alleviating any of the financial burdens an expensive education causes.

What could NEIU do instead with the $30,000 for Jarrett’s speech? What about giving 10 students a $2,987 scholarship (the average MAP grant scholarship)? Or what about granting 3 students with a full-ride scholarship for a semester’s worth of tuition? NEIU’s tuition cost is $9,055.65 for Fall 2017.

Most students would likely prefer the opportunity to attend school and earn their degree over reading about a flashy graduation speech at home.

Eventually, a donor came forward to pay the fee for Jarrett. Jarrett later waived the fee herself, saying she didn’t realize the university’s financial troubles when she originally agreed on the $30,000 speaking fee.

This was all done after the university had already signed the contract and agreed to pay the $30,000 expense. Would Jarrett have waived the fee from the very beginning if NEIU had simply taken the time to explain its budget dilemma? Perhaps President Helldobler asked her on the dais.

It is unfair to students for NEIU to close campus and cancel three days of class in order to save money and then turn around and unnecessarily fritter away funds.

The state budget is an entire issue of its own, with many competing interests and few blameless parties. While there are many differing opinions on the right solutions for the state’s budget impasse, the impasse itself has exposed a plethora of underlying budgetary, funding and spending problems within the state’s university sphere.

During this critical time, students need the help of their schools more than ever. Regardless of what political or policy motivations anyone has, it is the undeniable responsibility of the university to support its students. Irresponsible spending like that at NEIU is a stark example of how some state universities are failing to meet many students’ needs.

 

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