Excerpts from editorials by Illinois newspapers

Associated Press

September 13, 2015

The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

SIU's enrollment numbers hide the real the story

They're not job mills. They're not community colleges. They're not staffing agents for multinational corporations.

The American public university is under attack, and anyone concerned with widening income inequality and the plight of the American middle class should be outraged.

It's too easy to look at this week's enrollment tally released by Southern Illinois University as merely a local problem.

The 2015-16 freshmen class count plunged another 700 students. More rigid admissions standards are to blame for a quarter of that drop, administrators contend.

Yet SIU's student body has fallen 30 percent since 1991, when it topped out at more than 24,000 students, as Illinois continues to hemorrhaging its up-and-coming minds. The state as a whole exports 16,000 more undergraduates than it brings in, Illinois Higher Education Director James Applegate recently told St. Louis Public Radio. Missouri particularly benefits from the undergrad exodus.

Admissions rates, however, cloak the real ongoing catastrophe in higher education. Students are more than mere consumers of local goods and services. And pitting states against one another misses the point.

Job-hungry lawmakers demand results, election season victories fit for a campaign flier. Campaign-funding businesses want workers. Both cohorts demand bolstered applied science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, labeled STEM. And the university, as an institution, is caught between its mission and the hand that feeds.

"There's a desire to see us more focused with programs that will be responsive to the regional economy, the state economy," SIU President Randy Dunn said this week.

The liberal arts -- the bastion of critical thought and holistic citizenship -- are under assault. To this editorial board, which includes products of public higher education, and a pair of anthropology majors, the trend is troubling. Too many state lawmakers no longer respect the inherent value in a well-rounded education.

We live in a shameful time when congressional committees mock NASA scientists who probe the universe for no other reason than knowledge. Governors, including Bruce Rauner, think axing higher ed budgets is acceptable policy.

All the while, public funding has fallen off a post-Great Recession cliff. Missouri axed support for its colleges and universities by 26 percent since 2009, while enrollment leapt 20 percent. Illinois's taxpayer contribution is veiled behind the all-consuming pension crisis. The raw numbers say the state has pumped 50 percent more cash into its higher education system. But that money was almost exclusively used to fund the state's failing retirement system. Remove that from the equation and Illinois is near the bottom of state-level support for higher education. Throughout the U.S., state funding has plunged since the recession, replaced by federal grants and loans.

Tuition jumped, enrollment dwindled. No surprises there. Student loan debt has surpassed $1.2 trillion nationally, a massive burden that will suck life from the economy for decades.

All of this has resulted in the great decline of the public university system. In the 1980s, for example, the University of California at Berkeley regularly sat top five in the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings. Berkeley remains the best of the public institutions, according to the magazine. But it ranks 20th now.

The Harvard's, Yale's and Princeton's indeed excel at STEM. But their students are also familiar with the classics, the evolution of ideas and the theory behind the machine they're expected to operate. They pump out senators, CEOs and presidents. Public schools produce the middle class. And it's the transition from citizen to laborer that is an attack on democracy itself.

Public universities, paired with the GI Bill, in the mid-20th century fueled what may be the pinnacle of American influence. While public schools remain a relative bargain -- annual tuition at an Illinois school is about 40 percent of in-state private schools -- the vocationalization of education is rotting academia to its core.

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September 10, 2015

Sauk Valley Media

Gratitude owed to U.S. Marshals

Back in the Old West, frontier townsfolk depended on U.S. marshals to enforce the law and set things right when lawlessness threatened the public welfare.

It's not so different for Dixonites in the 21st century.

The unlawful theft of more than $53 million in Dixon's public funds by ex-Comptroller Rita Crundwell - possibly the biggest such heist in American history - triggered a similar response from the U.S. Marshals Service.

Since Crundwell's 2012 arrest, marshals have been involved in seizing her ill-gotten gains from her quarter horse breeding empire, liquidating them, and turning over the proceeds to the city from which she stole.

A new example of the agency's diligence came last week when the Marshals Service's chief inspector of asset forfeiture announced the latest inventory of hundreds of items bought by Crundwell with stolen money.

By the numbers: 1,422 total articles of clothing, 527 horse statue trophies, 374 horse blankets, 152 belt buckles, 103 pieces of outdoor furniture, eight Rita Crundwell cowhide director chairs, six animal skins, a two-headed bear wooden sculpture, an ATV, and a football autographed by Terry Bradshaw.

One of the most jaw-dropping revelations on the list: the 122 St. John designer jackets that Crundwell purchased. The cost: $600 to $2,200 each.

After the items are sold at auction, likely this fall, Dixon should receive restitution in at least the five-figure range.

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Dixon owes a debt of gratitude to the federal public servants who put Crundwell in prison for a long time (19 years, 7 months, to be precise) and who continue to work to restore stolen assets to the community.

Members of the U.S. Marshals Service have been front and center in seeking justice in the wake of Crundwell's fiscal lawlessness.

Our hat is off to them.

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September 10, 2015

Ch

It's time for a Chicago blues museum. And here's the place.

Want to find the blues? Take a drive through Chicago's North Kenwood neighborhood on the South Side. Look for the vacant two-flat at 4339 S. Lake Park Ave., the one with boarded windows and a tattered awning over the front stoop. That's where Muddy Waters lived for about 20 years, until the mid-1970s.

Chicago historian Tim Samuelson calls it "Chicago's 'real House of Blues.'"

If you know where to look, you can find the history. But when it comes to honoring its musical heritage, Chicago has long been singing the blues.

Chicago may finally get its due. An organization called the Chicago Blues Experience is announcing this week an ambitious plan to bring a museum, educational and cultural complex to Navy Pier. After years of planning, 75 percent of the funding for the $45 million project has been secured, according to its backers. It is on track to open in fall 2017.

True, Navy Pier is not where we'd send a tourist looking for Chicago blues history. But that history has largely been relegated to empty houses and long-gone neighborhood clubs and obscure markers. Navy Pier is the city's top tourist attraction, it's undergoing a face-lift, and, if a neighborhood blues district just isn't in the cards, it's a fine spot to re-create the Chicago blues experience.

The project would include a museum, concert venue and restaurants. Chicago venture capitalist Sona Wang and her husband Bill Selonick are the driving force behind the project. Wang said it will be managed by music industry heavy-hitters Terry Stewart, who headed Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for 14 years, with consulting input from Bob Santelli, who developed Seattle's Experience Music Project Museum and has been executive director of Los Angeles' Grammy Museum.

Wang said VOA, the architecture firm that designed Navy Pier's makeover in the 1990s, is on board, along with BRC Imagination Arts, which designed the exhibits in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield. Levy Restaurants will develop and manage a blues-inspired dining space that will include a smaller, 150- to 200-seat music lounge. A large performance venue will hold 600 people, and live music will be handled by Chicago talent manager John Boncimino. The patriarch of Chicago blues, Buddy Guy, is an equity partner.

All told, Wang said, this will be a 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot attraction. It will include exhibits such as "A Recording Date at Chess Records," which will put visitors into simulated recording sessions with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy. A "Welcome to Chicago" exhibit that depicts the journey of the Great Migration of the 1930s and '40s is envisioned.

Nearly 9 million people visit Navy Pier each year, but it still has an out-of-towners, touristy feel. The CBE would join the Chicago Children's Museum and Chicago Shakespeare Theater as anchor attractions and add some much-needed local flavor. Navy Pier, gearing up for its centennial in 2016, would be a sweet home for a Chicago Blues Experience.

Come on, baby don't you wanna go ...

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