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The "Crisis of Confidence" series is a multi-year effort by the Tri States Public Radio to document the impact the two-year state budget impasse had on Western Illinois University and the ongoing recovery efforts at WIU. State support for public higher education institutions has been steadily declining in Illinois for more than a decade. But the issue was compounded, during the state's historic two-year budget impasse during Fiscal Years '16 and '17 which left public colleges and universities with little state financial support. At Western Illinois University, that drastic cut in state appropriations resulted in significant budget cuts, employee furloughs, and layoffs.

Time for a Change of Direction and Leadership

Western Illinois University

This is a Commentary.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.

Basic Premises

It has become clear to many retired Western Illinois University (WIU) employees, as well as many current employees and alumni, and Macomb/McDonough County community members, that our university is facing unprecedented problems. 

I understand the following:

  • The times and higher education have changed, and we cannot expect WIU to stay the same as it was 20, 30, or more years ago.
  • Socioeconomic changes can cause students to decide whether or not to seek higher education, which university to attend, and what major to choose, in order to maximize their career options and opportunities.
  • Those who administer the university at all levels –- Board of Trustees, President, Provost, other Vice Presidents, Deans, and Department Chairs – may have different ideas and goals for the university than those that were previously pursued.
  • The political climate in Illinois has had a negative impact on state-supported universities – on their budget, accreditation, and standards.

But at the same time, I believe that higher education should continue to play an important role in producing well-educated citizens who can communicate, reason, solve problems, and understand complicated issues.  Furthermore, a college education should foster an understanding of civility, diversity, personal responsibility, and core values. This necessitates a liberal arts perspective.
Considering these basic premises, I believe that the problems currently confronting WIU go far beyond the challenges apparent in socioeconomic changes or the general political climate found in Illinois.

What Are The Underlying Problems?

At the onset we must consider the financial problems and some of the underlying reasons for them.  WIU receives less than 25% of its budget from the state.  A cut in this support certainly impacts on budget decisions, but it is not a crisis.  Other state supported institutions have weathered these cuts much better than WIU.  A look at the budget priorities at WIU is interesting, to say the least. 

Robert Fischer

First, “Shuffling the deck chairs,” as suggested by the administration’s reorganization plan, and staff reductions, are not an answer to the real problem.  Furthermore, the administration’s inconsistency in budget considerations is clear when premier programs cannot fill faculty vacancies.  In addition, a report on expenditures at the Quad Cities Campus, requested by Trustee Todd Lester and released by the Faculty Senate, suggests that the Quad Cities campus is a drain on an already challenged budget.  Another example of unacceptable fiscal priorities is the administration’s plan to cut $20 million from the 2020 budget, while at the same time asking the State to release $89 million to fund a Performing Arts Center.  While the funds come from different state “pots,” the perception created by requesting  these funds while also laying off over 100 people creates a disconnect for many. 

I suggest to the President that “cutting the fat is fine, but cutting into the muscle is crippling.” The administration should cut those services which are beneficial but not essential, but should not reduce the budget for quality education and premier programs!  With enrollment declining, decisions to support admissions and outreach with sufficient budgetary support should have been obvious, since the primary source of funding comes from tuition and fees! Instead, cuts to faculty and staff were made and NO new money was allocated to admissions.  To date the President has not explained his logic in making the choices that have now been made

Second, there appears to be a perception that anyone can get accepted at WIU.  During the past several years, when enrollment numbers started to fall at many universities, they tried to find ways to stop or reverse the process. While the published admissions standards at WIU are comparable to our sister institutions, the caveat appears to be in the exceptions WIU has recently made to those standards. Students who do not meet minimum published standards may apply using additional materials to support their application.  These often include letters of support from teachers and community leaders.  At one time the university had a multi-layered system to review these special requests.  The process involved faculty, admissions, and the Office of Academic Services.  Students who were admitted under this process were generally more likely to succeed than those under general admissions, due to the efforts of the Office of Academic Services.  However, that is not the policy today. Decisions regarding admissions are at the discretion of the admissions office.   It is unfortunate that some of these accepted students do not have the educational background and basic skills needed to succeed at a university.  Acceptance does not translate to success, and many of these students leave the university after their first year due to academic problems.  Low retention rates translate to falling enrollments. Falling enrollment mean less income

The third contributing factor is the belief that the current administration (under President Jack Thomas) does not have the support of the University’s faculty and staff.  Last year, a vote of “No Confidence” was taken on the administration.  Depending on the interpretation, the majority of the faculty does not appear to have faith in the direction of the current administration.    Furthermore, cuts to faculty staffing seem to violate the current agreement between the University administration and faculty union, even though the current contract includes a provision for reductions when enrollment declines.  In addition, the Illinois Attorney General’s findings that the Board of Trustees violated the Open Meeting Act last year have added to the mistrust!  Recently, faculty and staff morale, which was already poor due to layoffs last year, declined even further with new layoffs announced on March 1. These layoffs came on top of the report that furthers a perception that the Quad Cities Campus appears to be a financial drain on the University. This discord, which is reported in the local media, doesn’t support confidence in institutional stability.

Fourth, there is a misperception that WIU is not a safe campus.  According to all published reports concerning crime in the past few years, WIU is safer than most campuses.  The source of this misperception is a 2012 Business Insider article that listed WIU as one of the top 20 most unsafe campuses in the United States.  However, that year was an anomaly! Macomb’s reported crime over the years, which includes WIU’s reporting, is actually low compared to similar communities.  A check of crime statistics for Macomb based on the FBI Uniform Crime Reports indicates that Macomb has consistently had less crime than the national average across all classifications.

Poor Decisions?

WIU’s Office of the President and Board of Trustees have addressed our budgetary problems and declining enrollment in a variety of ways. They have:

  • provided more online offerings,
  • increased special admissions exemptions for those who do not meet regular standards,
  • targeted departmental consolidation,
  • eliminated programs,
  • implemented faculty layoffs including those of some tenured faculty,
  • reduced civil service and other staff,
  • not increased funding for “premier programs,” while focusing recruitment on these same programs,
  • not increased funding for admissions and promotion of the university, even though tuition and fees are the largest contributor to the overall budget.

The Result

  • Enrollments continue to fall in most majors, resulting in even less tuition revenue.
  • Personnel cuts and threats of further cuts, along with additional program eliminations, have led to poor morale on campus with many faculty members searching for positions at other institutions, and civil service employees wondering whether they will be the next to be laid off.
  • Communication with, and service to, the public has declined — phone calls go unanswered and when there  is no one in an office, prospective students and parents are sometimes left to fend for themselves.
  • There is a lack of civil service personnel to handle routine jobs--  for example empty, trash cans, clean floors, remove snow, greet visitors and answer phones.

I also believe that a lack of transparency on the part of the Board of Trustees and the President’s Office is part of our current difficulty. I believe that important decisions are being made without consulting those who will be most affected – faculty, staff, and students. As noted earlier, this belief was recently substantiated when an audiotape of a Board of Trustees meeting was released to the public, showing a total disregard for even the slightest amount of openness. At one point a comment was made that the faculty were examining possible program eliminations, but if the Administration and Board are not in agreement with the faculty report, the faculty report would be ignored. The future of Western Illinois University should not rest with a small group of WIU administrators, several of whom have very limited experience in higher education administration. What has happened to the idea of shared governance?  While the Board of Trustees is the final decision maker regarding policy, they can only make good decisions when they have accurate information!
Where Do We Go From Here?

Given the above realities, what should WIU do?  We must face the realities and rethink the purpose of our institution.  It appears that the majority of student interest is in several programs.  These programs should be supported with adequate tenure track/tenured faculty.  However, WIU should also continue to be a multi-purpose, liberal arts institution.  This means that WIU should:

  1. Consider the importance of a liberal arts background.  Programs such as English, History, Political Science, Sociology, Chemistry, Physics, Philosophy, and Mathematics need to be protected. Higher education should still be focused on producing a “thinking” graduate.  Specialization may be important, but most organizations really want a well-rounded person who can analyze situations and make sound decisions. 
  2. Review general education requirements for relevancy, but do not eliminate or reduce them. Liberal arts standards need to be retained and promoted as a necessary partnership with selected majors.  This partnership is essential to developing a critical thinking and well-rounded career prepared graduate.
  3. Increase standards for acceptance at the institution, with exceptions being made via a multi-layered process.  Encourage those who do not meet standards to attend a community college in order to improve their academic skills.
  4. In advertisements for admissions, stress the reputation of the “Premier” programs, along with the desire to only have the best of the best. 
  5. Increase the availability of the most advanced technology. 
  6. Offer support for computers, personal communication devices, and other technologies in residential facilities. 
  7. Promote on campus living. 
  8. Promote a program of faculty mentorship, where selected volunteer faculty actually live in the residential facilities and interact with students.
  9. Promote WIU as the first choice for students, rather than as a 2nd or 3rd choice.  The Institution has programs that rate among the top in the state, if not the nation.  We should be promoting these programs, as well as our fine record with veterans, LGTB groups, and others.    Also, WIU should promote the success of graduates, such as Brian Cox (Chicago Bears), Rick Reuschel (Chicago Cubs), Robert Nardelli (Home Depot), John Milner (Illinois State Senator), Michael Boatman (actor), and the late John Mahoney (actor), to name only a few. 
  10. Encourage group experiences among majors by developing a program of residential housing where majors share the same floor.
  11. Encourage interested faculty to serve as mentors, by providing housing in residential facilities where they can interact with students outside the classroom environment.
  12. Insure that the most significant input should be flowing upward from those involved directly in the educational efforts, not from the top down.  Other important input should come from those units that directly support the education efforts-- e.g., recruitment.
  13. Involve students and alumni in decisions.  They should be asked for opinions on a regular basis, regarding how to improve programs and better market the university. 
  14. Involve alumni and employers in promoting the value of the WIU experience. Encourage regional career fairs featuring faculty/recruiters/alumni/employers.
  15. Determine how the WIU “brand” is perceived by high school guidance counselors and the consumer public. 
  16. Address the issue of low morale among the campus community.

It is my belief that the issues discussed here exist because of a management style that did not focus on the future.  Rather, the Board of Trustees and the President’s administration reacted to budget cuts by the State without recognizing the consequences of their actions.  There is no clear vision for a WIU in 2019.  Instead, poor choices have led to declining revenues. 
We need to be heard by the incoming Board, and hopefully a new WIU president.  The current President and his immediate circle of advisors need to go! A recent petition to Governor Pritzker is asking for an expedited appointment of a new Board of Trustees and a $6 million emergency allocation to help postpone any additional layoffs or reorganization plans.

We are the Leathernecks, a top institution for teacher education, agriculture, nursing, law enforcement, accountancy and many other programs that have state and national reputations. Let’s get WIU on the right track.  We need to start with clear goals which focus on rebuilding the WIU brand.  WIU needs to promote its image as a school for the best students wanting the best programs.  The image that we create is critical to recruiting efforts.  At the same time, “right sizing” the institution to reflect the reality of the coming decline in college age students is imperative.    Enrollment is critical to stabilizing the budget.  A new Board of Trustees that can develop a vision for the next 20 years must be appointed.

Robert Fischer is professor emeritus, Law Enforcement and Justice Administration (LEJA).  He served as department head of LEJA for 10 years.  He also served as the Director of the Illinois Law Enforcement Executive Institute, a project of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standard Board, before retiring in 2001. 

 The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.