The Western Illinois University Board of Trustees held closed door meetings with the administration on June 1, 2018 and June 7, 2018. Many of the issues discussed during those meetings should have been talked about in public, as per the Illinois Open Meetings Act (OMA).
After the state received a complaint about the meetings, Western released the audio recordings of those illegal discussions accompanied by the following statement:
The Western Illinois University Board of Trustees willingly acknowledges that it did not comply with the Illinois Open Meetings Act. The Board of Trustees will participate in Open Meetings Act training in cooperation with the Illinois Attorney General Public Access Counselor (PAC).
Links to the recordings and minutes of the meetings can be found here.
Between the two dates, Western’s board and administration held more than three hours of illegal discussions.
Kathy Neumann, who was interim provost at the time, used the June 1 meeting to outline a massive plan to hand out one-year layoff notices to more than 25% of the university’s teachers.
“Current projections indicate that approximately 150 faculty positions will need to be eliminated. Target date for notification will be this July, so here in about four weeks. Estimated savings of about $11.4 million,” Neumann told the board.
Later in the June 1 meeting, Trustee Carolyn Ehlert Fuller referred to budget cutting across the university as an “opportunity.”
“I think when we’re making this strategic cut, I don’t know why we would not look at the library because you can always add back, as you’ve said. And we know it makes people feel good to be brought back,” said Ehlert Fuller.
A few minutes later, then-Board Chairperson Cathy Early suggested Western could benefit if it changed its thinking about who teaches students.
“Western has had a history of filling its teaching positions with tenure track professors rather than using even more adjuncts or using T.A.s or graduate students to teach the classes. And it’s been kind of a point of pride with us. But then when you look at the cost analysis, our pride is costing us a lot of money,” said Early.
Early, Ehlert Fuller, and others also said the board and administration should have a plan prepared to emphasize their vision for Western’s future and take the focus away from layoffs.
Early said, “I want to do this right because we’re only going to have one whack at making it right.”
WIU President Jack Thomas replied, “We have a very well detailed plan.”
These private discussions in June came just prior to the close of the university’s fiscal year. The administration was looking for ways to make large cuts in spending, and those possible cost savings dominated much of the discussion. By failing to follow the state law that requires such discussions to be held in public, university leaders were able to move forward quickly with their planning.
“Getting this much work done, I am quite impressed. I’m really pleased with how much has been done and how quickly it’s been done and it’s been well-thought through,” said Ehlert Fuller.
“I think we’re on a good path.”
Some of those plans were later unveiled in July, 2018 during a news conference detailing a university-wide academic realignment.
Elimination of Tri States Public Radio’s Funding
The recordings shed no light on the decision to eliminate appropriated funding to Tri States Public Radio. Joe Rives, who was Western’s Vice President for the Quad Cities and Planning, briefly mentioned it during the June 1 meeting.
“To provide notification, with everything occurring on July 1, to the radio station. You can see we’re starting to cost account out what the actual savings is so we can keep you updated as we go through this exercise,” said Rives.
The recording makes it sounds as though the decision to cut the station’s funding had already been made. But even now – more than nine months after the June meetings -- the station still has not been told when or how that decision was reached.
TSPR was notified of the 100% cut in appropriated funding in mid-August, 2018. A bit more than six months later -- on March 1, 2019 -- Western stopped providing appropriated funding to TSPR.
Elimination of Other Programs & Services
During the June 7 meeting, Ehlert Fuller suggested Western look at making even deeper cuts.
“I think we have to start thinking about what we can do without, what can we do better, how can we structure and think differently so that we can manage this,” she said.
President Thomas replied the administration would look at other possibilities to see how deep they could cut.
“We don’t want to starve certain programs – well, any of our programs – but at the same time we’ll go back and look at that,” Thomas said. “We’ve just gotta do it all at one time.”
Later during the meeting, Rives reviewed the work of several task forces, including the Outsourcing Task Force.
Rives said the group looked at what other Illinois universities are doing. He said it also discussed services Western might be able to do without.
“We asked ourselves, if students have to have insurance or proof of insurance, why do we even have a health center?” said Rives, referring to the Beau Health Center on the Macomb campus.
Other programs and services Rives mentioned as possibilities for outsourcing:
- The bookstore
- Building service workers
- Document and Publication Services (DPS)
- Fleet cars
- Visual Production Center (VPC)
A Pattern of Violating OMA
Western’s board and administration also violated the Open Meetings Act on June 28, 2018. The recording of that meeting was released last fall and TSPR reported on it at that time.
Western’s chapter of the University Professionals of Illinois filed the complaints that led to the release of the recordings. The union represents faculty, academic staff, and other employees at seven public universities, including WIU.
After the illegal discussions on June 28, the board held a public meeting to lay off 24 faculty members, including seven teachers who had already earned tenure.
It’s not known what happened to the plan to lay off 150 faculty members. But the cuts announced in late June were not the end of layoffs at Western. The administration on March 1, 2019 issued layoff notices to 132 employees, which is about 8% of the total workforce between Western’s two campuses.
Those let go include 29 faculty members and 89 civil service employees.
None of those laid off are members of the upper administration.
Turnover on the Board of Trustees
As noted above, the statement issued by the BoT in response to the OMA violations included the sentence:
The Board of Trustees will participate in Open Meetings Act training in cooperation with the Illinois Attorney General Public Access Counselor (PAC).
But seven of the eight trustees present for the illegal meetings are no longer on the board:
- Cathy Early, Steven Nelson, and Lyneir Cole each left the board before the end of the year.
- The terms of Carolyn Ehlert Fuller, Roger Clawson, and Yvonne Savala each expired in January. Ehlert Fuller and Clawson each said they would not seek reappointment.
- Student trustee William Gradle graduated from WIU.
The only remaining member is Todd Lester of Macomb.
The current student member of the BoT, Justin Brown, joined the board in July, 2018.
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