Western Illinois University hired Dr. Martin Abraham about a year ago to serve as its next provost. But when President Jack Thomas announced he would step down at the end of June, 2019, the university's Board of Trustees asked Abraham to serve as acting president.
Abraham had to hit the ground running when he arrived on campus last summer. The university faced difficult challenges with its finances and enrollment. And now he’s dealing with challenges related to the global coronavirus pandemic.
“I think you just described the new president’s nightmares,” Abraham said in an interview with Tri States Public Radio.
“It’s been a tremendous challenge. It’s been very much a learning experience for me. But it’s also been tremendously gratifying. I wouldn’t switch it out for anything in the world. It’s been a tremendously worthwhile and uplifting experience despite all the challenges.”
Abraham -- who is now interim president -- said the challenges related to the pandemic are manageable because Western’s leadership team came together and addressed some of the university’s financial and enrollment issues in the fall.
“I thank God every day that I get to work with these wonderful people and do good things on behalf of our students,” he said.
Abraham said Western refunded housing and dining fees for students for the second half of the current semester. Most students did not come back to campus after spring break because of the pandemic.
Abraham said the refunds cost the university about $2.6 million.
“It’s a difficult challenge but you have to go back to figuring out what is the right thing to do. What are the services that you are providing to the students, what are the costs that are associated with providing those services – or in this case, not providing those services, and how do you do the things that are in the best interest of the university and the best interest of the students,” Abraham said.
He said the money will come from the federal CARES Act, which will provide funding to colleges and universities to help them through the pandemic. He said WIU will receive roughly $8 million from the relief package. Half of that must go directly to students; the rest can be put toward university operations. Abraham said the best information he has so far indicates the money for the refunds must come from the operational appropriation.
WIU faculty members are still teaching but all classes are now taking place online. Abraham said he has heard some praise and some complaints from students about the quick switch to online courses. He said Western is working to help students who have expressed concerns. He said he has heard only around a dozen concerns from the more than 7,000 students taking classes at WIU.
Abraham also said no faculty or staff have been furloughed or laid off in response to the pandemic. He hopes that remains the case.
“I have learned in the past month not to predict what’s going to happen down the road. At the moment, things are still looking positive, they’re still looking good. But everything could change tomorrow.”
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