CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy has attacked prominent leaders in his own party during his primary campaign, routinely accusing them of trapping poor people of color in a broken system of “economic servitude” entrenched by an “educational underclass.”
“We are allowing economic oppression to force these young people into a life of crime or force them out of our city,” Kennedy said at an early campaign stop at a church on Chicago’s south side in July. “We are using strategic gentrification as a weapon against the poor and people of color,” he said to applause from the audience.
Evan F. Moore, an adjunct journalism professor for Chicago’s DePaul University who has written extensively on education, violence and Chicago culture, says “People have been saying this stuff for years, for decades before Kennedy showed up. So it’s one of those things where the message is solid, but the messenger probably shouldn’t be the one giving the message,” adding that Kennedy donated to Emanuel’s mayoral campaign before the controversial police shooting of Laquan McDonald.
In his campaign speeches, Kennedy holds up higher education as the life boat to help rescue people from an island of poverty. But while he was Chairman of the Board at the University of Illinois, he repeatedly increased the cost of tuition while African American student enrollment suffered.
“When you have a 27 percent increase of tuition between 2009-2014 for in-state residents, you are talking about at least $2,500 extra in money,” said Gus Wood, an African American Studies Ph.D. student at the Urbana-Champaign campus. “I tie the rising of tuition directly to the pricing out and the lack of African-American people on the campus,” Wood said.
Moore said, “When the school raises tuition, that pushes out students, especially poor students. There is definitely a correlation there.”
The year before Kennedy became board chairman, African American enrollment was at 2,596 students, which made up 6.44 percent of the total student population according to data compiled by the Division of Management Information. The university raised tuition by 9.5 percent in 2010, 6.9 percent in 2011, 4.8 percent in 2012 and 1.7 percent in 2013.
In 2009, African American enrollment slipped slightly down to 2,572 students before a significant dropoff down to 2,276 in 2010. Black student enrollment eroded each consecutive year Kennedy was in charge for a total decline of nearly 15 percent until the admissions office reported a slight uptick in 2015, his final year on the board.
Kennedy denied there was a correlation between rising cost of tuition and the broadening diversity gap on campus during an interview with WCIA on Monday morning.
“No, I don’t think that is what occurred,” Kennedy said, suggesting the problems were already set in motion before he took the job. “I think the major decline in African American enrollment at the University of Illinois occurred between 2009 and 2010 before anything the new board did could have possibly affected those outcomes.
Kennedy recently defended his attacks against Mayor Emanuel in a WGN Radio interview, arguing that outcomes, not intentions, determine whether or not a civil rights violation has occurred. Yet he blamed his own poor outcomes in improving African American enrollment on the global economy.
“We were coming into it — I was at least — in 2009 when the great recession all over the world was having a devastating impact on the economy. That certainly contributed to what was going on,” Kennedy said.
However, the recession didn’t negatively impact the overall student enrollment. In fact, those numbers steadily increased under the same period of time.
Wood, who also serves as the president of the Graduate Employees Organization Union, was less forgiving.
“Right now we have 500 black graduate students on this campus out of 13,210 graduate students,” Wood said on Monday. “That’s 3.8 percent. That is incredibly embarrassing and terrible.”
“These policies continue,” Wood went on. “[Kennedy] has not answered for these other than given us this ‘things are complicated. I was trying to do this. There was a recession.’ But yet tuition goes up?”
“Sure, because we needed to fund greater scholarship dollars to make school more affordable to people who were not at the top end of economic spectrum,” Kennedy replied.
A 2014 report from the Illinois State Board of Higher Education acknowledges a statewide decline in African American enrollment at state universities, citing a lagging economy, cuts to the Monetary Award Program (MAP grants), budget fights and educational challenges for some students in earlier grades.
Kennedy also says underperforming enrollment rates in the African American community stem from poor outcomes at public schools.
“13 percent of all the kids who graduate from any public high school in the city of Chicago graduate college ready, ready to enter the workplace,” Kennedy said. “They are not ready to go to college.”
Kennedy says he would increase funding to elementary, middle and high schools if he becomes governor.
“It all ties together,” Moore said. “If communities don’t have the resources they need, people don’t feel safe and then violence happens.
“When you close the school, you are not only taking away jobs, you are taking away after school programs, you are taking away a lifeline of that specific neighborhood that is somewhere for kids to go,” said Moore.
How do voters know Kennedy isn’t just making up empty campaign promises?
“The truth is, I have been punished for telling the truth and other people have been rewarded for telling lies,” Kennedy proclaimed, later suggesting the media and the Democratic party are the ones he believes are punishing him.
“I think when the public sees someone who is punished for telling the truth, then I think they will believe in it even more strongly,” Kennedy said.
The University of Illinois said in an email that “Mr. Kennedy’s leadership fixed tuition increases at or below the rate of inflation and precipitated a downward trend for the rate of tuition increases that continues.”