Funding our Future

I arrived at the march 30 minutes early. I milled around the vacant west entrance of the Donald S. Spencer Student Recreation Center, checking the compass app on my phone to make sure that, yes, it was the west entrance and no, I was not in the wrong place. I was waiting for the start of the Fund Our Future March, an event hosted by the local teacher’s union, University Professionals of Illinois (UPI). The march was organized to advocate the passing of a bill which would have the state of Illinois fund students’ MAP grants. The bill, SB 2043, had passed both houses of the Illinois General Assembly and only needed the Governor’s signature to come into effect. But Governor Rauner pledged to veto the bill. Faculty, students, and community members were to band together on an overcast Tuesday, the 16th of February.

The first signs of life were the media and a lone professor, Professor Sandage of the Sociology Department. I had taken one of Professor Sandage’s classes in the past, and I was immediately impressed by her thoughtfulness and passion. We caught up, and I mentioned my anxiety over the lack of people. “I’m planning on writing an article about this,” I told her, gesturing to the camera crews setting up for a ghost crowd. “I hope it’s not going to end up being a sad one.”

Governor Rauner’s refusal to fund student MAP grants is not an unforeseen aberration but rather follows a larger pattern of defunding higher education and the liberal arts. UPI’s involvement in the protest is unsurprising; many students at Western are able to attend because of their MAP grants. If students are no longer receiving their MAP grant money, then the entire university and Macomb will be affected. The message Illinois politicians are sending to students is clear: you are not important.

When the rest of the protestors arrived, they did so in droves. Groups of professors drifted towards us—some joking and laughing, others more somber. Students arrived in nervous solitude or excited pairs. Alumni and community members also added themselves to the growing mass of people, and signs were handed out. The English Department in particular was out in force– I saw English undergraduate and graduate students, along with almost every single English professor I’ve taken. In minutes, the west entrance of the Recreation Center was swelling with around 200 people so vastly different but so intimately connected: all of our lives are choreographed by the nation’s higher education system. All politicians are quick to emphasize the importance of higher education, but some merely pantomime support while displaying, through their actions, a shocking lack of empathy for underprivileged students.

Frustration and a sense of betrayal latently saturated the atmosphere of the march as we began to rally across campus to Sherman Hall before looping around to the University Union. But there was also a sense of pride: in our university, in the achievements of our students and faculty members, and in the protesters who refused to sit in the comfortable rhythms of apathetic normalcy. Students who usually had class, or homework, or other obligations took the time to disrupt their own busy schedules to tell Illinois politicians that yes, we do matter and no, we will not accept duplicitous promises.

When the mFFM6arch reached its final destination at the University Union, concerned community members gave impassioned speeches about their own perspectives on the MAP grant funding and the state of higher education. As each person went up in front of the crowd and started speaking, flanked by a small cadre of recording journalists, there was a palpable sense of agency. As I stood there and listened to all their voices float through the chilly air, I thought this: on a dreary Tuesday afternoon we had all marched, chanted, and spoken out against powerful people who care so little. We had traded in defeated shrugs and forlorn sighs for signs and speeches. But I also I stood there and thought, would they listen?

On February 19th, Governor Rauner officially vetoed SB 2043. It seems that politicians continue to favor their games over an atrophying educational system. Marches and rallies all across the state, even in Springfield, had gone completely ignored. We are in a sad state of affairs; intellectual communities vibrant with critical thought, diversity, and expertise have been atrophying while politicians hover protectively over their bloated political games. It is sad that entire areas of study critical to a well-rounded education are going to be discarded like useless trash. It is sad that the voices of students, the future of our state, matter so little. It is sad that 200 passionate and dedicated community members rallied together on a busy Tuesday afternoon, but many others couldn’t bother to stop for just a moment, and listen.