The President of Western Illinois University said it's time to put apprehension behind and move forward with enthusiasm and optimism. Dr. Jack Thomas made the remark during Thursday morning's State of the University speech, held just a few days before the new school year begins.
“The sun is rising on Western Illinois University,” Dr. Thomas told the crowd at Western Hall in Macomb. “We have weathered some difficult days. But through the midst of it all, we have created a solid foundation for future success.”
The “difficult days” were largely created by the state, which provided little funding for public higher education during the two year budget impasse. The university has broken down its recent state funding as follows (information provided in July by Matt Bierman, WIU Vice President for Administrative Services):
- $51.4 million FY15
- $14.9 million FY16
- $31.4 (stop gap budget) + $8.4 (IBHE distribution) = $38.9 million FY17 as of June 30, 2017 (FY17).
- $20.1 million more bringing our FY17 total to $59 million
- $10.9 million FY17 Full MAP
- $46.3 million in FY18 (this is a 10% reduction from FY15 levels)
- $10.4 million FY18 Full MAP grant funding (estimated)
After the speech, President Thomas told reporters that he considered the State of the University to be “okay.”
“We have gotten funding from the state and we can start doing some planning and we can start moving forward with some of the goals that we have planned for the university,” he said.
“It’s certainly been a relief for us that we have received a state appropriation.”
Thomas said given what happened the past couple years, WIU has to question whether the state will continue to come through with funding for public higher education. He hoped it will.
During his speech, Thomas outlined goals in WIU’s 2017-18 Strategic Plan Supplement that he said will help the university achieve future success – goals that he said can be met by working together as a university community:
- Increase enrollment and stabilize it at around 10,000 students
- Expand and enhance educational opportunities, including online courses
- Expand community engagement
- Increase external funding
- Support planning and conservative fiscal management
Faculty Reaction to the Speech
Tri States Public Radio spoke to a few of the faculty members in attendance.
History Professor Ginny Boynton said she feels like the university is on track despite the lack of state support over the last two years.
“The university is holding strong but under fire. So, we have to hang tough and keep working at it, but it’s not always made easier by our leaders in state government who do not provide a predictable budget environment for us to live in. We do our best with what they give us,” Boynton said.
The Executive Director of School of Distance Learning, International Studies and Outreach, Jeff Hancks, said there are certainly challenges ahead, but he believes the university remains committed to its mission and goals.
Hancks said he is optimistic it will be a good school year despite international student enrollment being down for the fall. He said that’s a national trend that the university is working to combat.
Western’s President of the University Professionals of Illinois union, Bill Thompson, said he liked the positive message that the president included toward the end of his address. He was also happy to hear the administration recognize employee’s contributions over the last two year.
He agreed with President Thomas that the biggest challenge will be maintaining and ideally growing student enrollment.
“We are right now, I hope, at the beginning of the end of the bad times that we have just been through. I do hope the sun is rising. I look forward, I think as we all do, to teaching the student. I look forward to learning just how the university plans to position itself for our future students. That’s kind of how I see the university right now that phrase ‘looking forward’. I think we are all looking forward, we would rather not look backward,” Thompson said.
WIU School of Engineering Director Bill Pratt said going into the university assembly, he was most concerned about the school’s budget situation given the “severe financial storm” the university has weathered. But after getting some reassurance from the administration that things are improving, Pratt turned his attention to student enrollment.
Pratt said engineering is a signature program on the Quad Cities campus. He said enrollment is down this year, but he believes they have figured out why and will be able to address the problem, though he declined to provide specifics.
He said the real reason members of his department came to the assembly in Macomb was to “feel like we are part of the university and get psyched up to go and teach our students.”
Professor and College Student Personnel Program Coordinator, Tracy Davis said he doesn’t believe Western is out of the woods just yet. “Until the public realizes the importance of public education we are going to continue to have these struggles,” Davis said.
But overall he said the university is moving in a good direction. “I genuinely believe the president and the administration have put us in a terrific position to continue to serve the state and the students.”