Western Illinois University is currently undergoing a period of change, but this is not the first time and likely won't be the last.
During a news conference in July, WIU President Jack Thomas and Interim Academic Provost Kathy Neumann outlined the administration’s realignment plan for Western. It aims to help WIU recover from the two year state budget impasse and declining student enrollment. Dr. Thomas announced he will explain more about the plan during a University Assembly on August 16.
Western Illinois University Professor Emeritus Dr. John Hallwas has studied WIU's history and he has written several books about the region including First Century: A Pictorial History of Western Illinois University.
He spoke with Tri States Public Radio about periods of change at the university.
On Western’s beginnings as a teaching institution
I like to emphasize that among Illinois’ public higher education institutions, Western is the only one that was really initiated by a distinctive social cause.
Illinois had at the start of the 20th Century a vast number of country schools that had poorly prepared teachers for the most part. Grades 1-8, often in a single room. One teacher was trying to manage and often that teacher had no teacher training or college at all.
Some people recognized that was a tremendous social disadvantage for rural youngsters, of which there were more rural youngsters in those days than, of course, there are now.
So, Western was set up to prepare teachers for just the lower grades 1-8 and especially to have them available to teach in rural schools.
Western Illinois State Normal School opened its doors in 1902.
On whether Western’s mission and core values remain 100+ years later
It still has a similar mission to what has had in recent decades: a variety of fine programs for people to choose from and high quality in a lot of ways in terms of teaching. So we have the basis for coming back as a university that has a broad and important purpose in the state of Illinois.
On what the future holds for WIU given the two-year state budget impasse and the announcement of a realignment plan
Ultimately, it’s hard for any of us, even administrators at this point, to know exactly whether Western is going to change its focus and become a more technical kind of school rather than a comprehensive university. Ultimately, I don’t know. It’s possible, but I kind of doubt it.
We’ve got so many good people here already in a variety of fields and we have a good reputation for graduating students in a wide variety of school.
On whether becoming a technical school would mesh with Western’s founding principles
If you become a technical training school and you still have a commitment to a deep, social purpose in educating people so they understand the world they live in, they can help cope with the problems in it, then you’re still Western. You’re still an extension of what Western used to be.
But if you’re simply turning out people because they can make more money in this field than they can in another field, than you’ve kissed a lot of Western’s values from the past, what really made it significant, you’ve kissed them goodbye.
Western should really be still emphasizing that kind of thing, social concern. That is our heritage. That, I think, a lot goes toward producing students who have had a very positive attitude toward their experience at Western. It was a life changing thing for them, really opened them up, and deepened them a great deal.
On how cultural change can affect academic offerings
One of the keys about Western outside of its intense sense of community and its social purpose is adapting to social change. And the World War II developments in the curriculum are a prime example of that.
There’s always fluctuation because of cultural change. Home economics was big years ago because so many young women took that and then went out and taught home economics in high school. Cultural change takes place so you have those things replaced or altered significantly to create other kinds of related fields.
On whether Western will be here another 100+ years
I think it will be, but the question is: how will it be changed and reshaped over the time?
Again, my caution would be that we remain aware of our heritage and remain aware of social commitment here at Western and do the best as we adapt our programs to cultural change to have a broader vision of things.