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A tale of two cities: Why the UIC faculty strike matters

University Illinois Chicago faculty members hold kick-off rally Tuesday before two-day strike. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

University of Illinois at Chicago faculty members hold a kick-off rally Tuesday before a two-day strike. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

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Updated: February 18, 2014 8:07PM

The fact that Chicago is two cities — one wealthy and the other very, very poor is hardly an issue of debate. There are many factors that have contributed to this condition, some out of the control of the citizenry, some within our control. A global economy and its implications for jobs and economic stability are largely out of our control. The public policies of our local government however, are certainly within our control in a representative democracy. For example, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has closed over 50 public schools in our poorest neighborhoods on the South and West sides, while making plans to open nearly as many charter schools. Policies like these, and there are plenty more examples, widen an already large color and wealth gap within our city. Elected representatives who, through votes and action, support the institutionalization and continuity of inequalities should and can be held accountable by an educated citizenry.

Ironically, one of the critical components of a functioning representative democracy is an educated citizenry. Public urban universities such as UIC play an important role in educating our citizens. These institutions are often the first point of entry into higher education for minorities, women, first generation, part-time, low-income and working-class students. UIC has greatly expanded access to higher education and provided opportunity to nontraditional and underserved populations throughout our metropolitan region and to students from across the globe.

In a city divided by wealth, our educational institutions reflect an organized hierarchy that is segregated, like our neighborhoods, into haves and have-nots. It is often easy to point out disparities in our K-12 system and to talk about equalizing funding and minimizing property tax inequalities. Few however, pay much attention to the inequalities of higher education in our city. Higher education in Chicago is also a tale of two cities. Within our metropolitan region, we have some of the most prestigious and competitive research universities in the world, alongside top-tier regional public and private colleges. Increasingly however, these institutions serve and cater to those who are able to pay $30,000 to 50,000 a year for tuition, fees, room and board. Even with scholarships and financial aid, many of these colleges and universities are outside the reach of everyday Chicagoans.

If Chicago is to remain competitive in a global economy, we must recognize the importance of human capital and the critical role our public colleges and universities play in developing this vital resource. As a city, we have made public policy choices that have undervalued students of color and low income throughout their K-12 educational paths. We can no longer afford to undervalue the college faculty who take on the challenging role of preparing these students to be informed members of our citizenry, contributing to the economic competitiveness of Chicago. Horace Mann said that education is the great equalizer. Yet, in the United States a quality university education is increasingly available only to those who can afford it or who take on enormous debt. Thus, higher education reinforces class distinctions rather than obliterating them. For all of us who value the equalizing effect of higher education and believe in the urban mission of UIC, the two-day faculty strike that began Tuesday matters.

Constance A. Mixon is Director of the Urban Studies Program at Elmhurst College and co-editor of T wenty-First Century Chicago.

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