Western Illinois University began offering classes in the Quad Cities in the late 1960s. After years of hosting classes in various locations, the university opened a riverfront campus in Moline in 2014.
The complex was supposed to allow Western to grow in the Quad Cities, but instead enrollment has shrunk, which has caused some leaders in the Quad Cities to criticize the university's direction.
When Dr. Guiyou Huang took over as the new president of Western Illinois University on January 1, 2021, he already faced some serious challenges, including falling enrollment and unreliable state support.
But then he began hearing from business and government leaders in the Quad Cities, who were quite unhappy with WIU and thinking about possible replacements.
Moline Mayor Stephanie Acri was the most vocal critic. She said after meeting with President Huang, that his plans focused on Macomb and not enough on the Quad Cities.
“When I look at the strategy, I see some components of some kind of feeder courses for finishing at Macomb, and then some adult courses, but that's not our vision for that campus,” she said.
Acri said when the Quad Cities campus expanded into new buildings on the Moline riverfront, she was led to expect an enrollment goal of 3,000, but she said that hasn't happened.
And she said that for her city to grow and prosper, it needs "a university that has a diverse academic program and a diverse student body."
President Huang said the university is committed to the Quad Cities campus. He told the WIU Board of Trustees in March that during his first few months on the job, he visited the campus seven times.
“I hope that tells you something. Seven times in 70 days. That’s a lot of time spent on the campus,” he said, adding that he has been back a number of times since then.
Huang said Western has many good ideas for the campus and those will be reflected in the new strategic plan that the university is developing.
Kristi Mindrup, the WIU Vice President who oversees the Quad Cities campus, told the Board that Western’s leadership team is a constant presence there, whether in-person or online.
“I think that shows a commitment to the Quad Cities campus, both in our words – in what we’re saying – but also in our actions and the way we interact with each other on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
Mindrup said Western has developed partnerships in the Quad Cities that many people might not know about. She said, for example, the School of Engineering has partnered with K through 12 schools as well as community colleges in the region.
In addition, she said Chris Merrett, Director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at WIU, has worked with the community on small business development and minority entrepreneurship outreach.
She said planning is ongoing for moving the campus forward and further engaging with the community.
While enrollment for the campus remains a concern, Bill Thompson said some of Western’s challenges in the Quad Cities were beyond the university’s control.
“The fact that (former Governor Bruce) Rauner fiscally assaulted us and that resulted in a two-year disaster with our finances,” Thompson said. “And then there are also all the questions about declining demographic enrollment, (and) the University of Iowa is only 50 miles away.”
Thompson is President of the University Professionals of Illinois Local 4100, which represents faculty at Western. He said the union wants both campuses to thrive. He said the question is: How does Western make that happen?
What Does the IBHE Think?
We contacted the Illinois Board of Higher Education to learn its thoughts about the kerfuffle over the Quad Cities campus but were unable to get any information.
Spokesperson Melissa Hahn didn’t respond to our initial inquiry. A follow up email netted the response “Between the board meeting tomorrow and strategic planning, I don’t know if anyone’s free.” We then offered some flexibility over scheduling the interview, which yielded the response, “There isn’t anyone available given all the strategic planning work on the schedule.”
She did not respond to subsequent requests.
Who Owns the Campus?
According to the Rock Island County Clerk, Western Illinois University owns the Quad Cities campus in Moline. The information can be found on the assessor’s property tax website.
And according to university leaders, WIU intends to stay.
The controversy over its "performance" or lack of performance in the Quad Cities seems to have died down since the first reports in February and March, partly because Stephanie Acri lost her bid for re-election in April.
And perhaps the possible winding down of the pandemic and the development of an updated strategic plan under Western’s new leadership will help the university raise its enrollment in the Quad Cities.