It's been about three years since the first public rumblings of a troubled future for Western Illinois University. With last week's news of more WIU layoffs in the face of declining enrollment and funding limitations, I went back to review this Facebook post that I wrote in April, 2016, after the musician Prince passed away:
If you want to continue not thinking about what is going on in Macomb, skip this post and continue reading instead about Prince's death and the touching tributes to him all over the country, where bridges and buildings and stadiums were lit in purple last night.
I write today about a local death.
The budget impasse truly came home to Macomb and WIU this week. Hundreds of layoffs have already occurred, and undoubtedly more will follow. Western has now tapped into a restricted account that represents some of the last funds available, and Western's VP says on the news that the account will last for perhaps the next 60 days.
Here is some reality. People would be foolish to choose Illinois universities for their children at this point. Current WIU professors are going to be looking hard for other jobs in systems that are stable. Businesses thinking about opening in or expansion in Macomb would be foolish not to shelve those plans until the crisis is resolved, and God help any existing business that does not have the cash reserves to make it through the next 6-9 months. People thinking about building a house, buying a house, or renovating a house will be assessing carefully whether they should be spending more money right now.
Today, whoever you are, and whatever you do, stop and think a bit about what Macomb is going to look like in the next 60 to 90 days.....the next six months......the next five years. This crisis will affect you, even if your family paycheck doesn't come directly from Western. See all those for sale signs in front of houses? How many of those homes will sell for what they were worth last month, or last year, and how soon will they sell? What are our houses worth now? Who will be left at Western after our most talented professors go to another university where there is no threat of closure or layoff? How many businesses that depend on WIU students, faculty, or our discretionary income will close?
Western is my alma mater, my former employer, my husband's employer, and the linchpin of my community.
And it is dying.
Don't get me wrong; I loved Prince, too. But if we light something up all in purple this week, it should be a tribute to Western Illinois University, which will never, ever, be the same after this terrible year.
As I read these words, written three years ago, and probably viewed with skepticism by some of my friends at the time, I take absolutely no pleasure that my prediction was fairly accurate. At home, my husband, who was laid off in the early rounds, retired ahead of what would have likely been a permanent layoff for him among others last Friday. Much of what I feared has taken place. And today, I take no pleasure in saying that I don’t know where bottom is for our University and community.
But what I can tell you today is that a piece of the solution is in our hands. It’s a small piece, but it is ours to seize. The community of and around this University needs to recognize the crisis that is at hand and behave as though it is a crisis. When your front porch is on fire, you don’t say to yourself, “well it doesn’t affect me, because I spend most of my time in the living room.” Western’s situation affects every single one of us citizens of McDonough County and the surrounding area. Although Macomb’s economy is said to be surprisingly strong on the manufacturing front, this community cannot survive in its present form without a vital Western.
Whoever you are, you can help. You can donate to Western. You can send your kids here. You can attend cultural events here. You can tell everyone you know that Western, and Macomb, are welcoming to students from all backgrounds and there is now an exciting opportunity to rejuvenate and rebuild this Century-and-a quarter-old institution. For three years, as this State convulsed through indignity after indignity, and the effects trickled down to Macomb, I’ve found myself wondering on more than one occasion what would happen if every community sent a busload or ten of its citizens to stand on the Capitol lawn to protest the madness of the non-working State of Illinois. What would happen if the 21,000 people from Macomb wrote or called the Governor and our other elected officials to insist that a plan that looks alarmingly like liquidation by inches at worst, or no plan at all at best, is not going to cut it?
Western employees, students, retirees, friends, community members, alums…we have to stop acting like this is a problem of ordinary proportions that others will solve without the need for us to get off the bench.
If you love Western…..if you love Macomb…...it’s time to get off the bench.
Alison Vawter is an attorney and mediator in Macomb
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.