Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Fighting to Survive

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Fighting to Survive

Article excerpt

East St. Louis struggles to keep its college and its hopes alive

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. -- This slowly decaying, city, once called "America's Soweto," is so impoverished that it lost its city hall six years ago in a court judgement to a creditor.

Since then, the city government, local public schools, public housing authority, and community college in this Mississippi River bottom town of 40,000 all have been seized by the state. Yet residents, 98 percent of whom are Black and more than half of whom qualify for welfare, appear determined not to lose the one institution they believe could help their blighted city: Metropolitan Community College.

"East of anywhere often evokes the other side of the tracks," author Jonathan Kozol wrote of the city in 1991. "But for a first-time visitor, ... East St. Louis might suggest another world."

He describes it in his book, Savage Inequalities, as a city "full of bars and liquor stores and lots of ads for cigarettes that feature pictures of Black people.

"Assemble all the worst things in America -- gambling, liquor, cigarettes and toxic fumes, sewage, waste disposal, prostitution -- put it all together. Then you dump it on Black people."

Some elected officials here have filed a lawsuit that they hope will prevent the Illinois Community College Board from closing the beleaguered 400-student college by year's end. Such a closure would be unprecedented, national experts say. Only two community colleges have been forcibly shut down in recent memory -- one in Baltimore, and the other, Metropolitan's predecessor fight here in East St. Louis. In both cases, the colleges swiftly reopened under new names and new administrations, says Dr. Joshua L. Smith, director of New York University's urban community college leadership program.

"A well-functioning community college in East St. Louis could lead a lot of people off welfare" Smith said. "It ought to be a symbol of hope for a lot of residents to improve themselves.

"The services that a community college provides are absolutely necessary in a community as downtrodden as that one," he added. "Closing it eliminates that possibility. I view that as tragic."

State officials contend the college, plagued with problems since its opening two-and-a-half years ago, has become so dysfunctional that its numerous deficiencies can't possibly be fixed. The latest evidence that the college is out of control is an inquiry launched by the FBI and the Illinois State Police into missing equipment and inventory valued at more than $1 million. Authorities also are trying to determine who inflated student enrollment records for the 1997 fiscal year that netted the college about $700,000 in state funding it did not deserve.

"The way it was run was an invitation to steal," said Dr. Joseph Cipfl, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Community College Board and a former college president himself.

The state board is scheduled to decide this week whether it will run a community college here or turn control over to another school, such as nearby Belleville Area College.

Some elected officials here cast Metropolitan's closure as a "racist" act by a "paternalistic" board that needs an excuse to seize the college's valuable thirty-four-acre river front campus.

"This is like a war," declared state Rep. Wyvetter Younge (D-East St. Louis) who won a twelfth term in the legislature this month. "What they are doing to us is like what the Nazis did to the Jews."

Trustee Edna Allen, a founding board member and former East St. Louis public school official, said, "Cipfl could not have been able to do this to any White community."

A Troubled Past

Metropolitan's troubles, like the other social ills that have turned this once-integrated city into a drug-infested slum and one-time U.S. murder capital, date back three decades. …

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