Near the beginning of Friday's six hour Board of Trustees meeting in Macomb, Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas talked about the various steering teams and task forces he has put together to help guide the university and position it for the future. But board members felt something was missing.
“I do have a concern that when we start having task forces we’re developing more paper. And I think we have an immediate issue here with enrollment,” said Trustee Jackie Thompson.
“We don’t have time to talk and write reports. We have to have action.”
Her comments were greeted with applause from the crowd that filled the meeting room and spilled out into the lounge outside the room in the University Union. Extra seats and audio speakers were set up in the lounge for those who were unable to get a seat in the room.
Thompson said she is not being critical of anyone. However, she said she is deeply concerned about the sharp decline in WIU’s student enrollment in recent years.
Trustee Nick Padgett concurred.
“In my opinion, the single most important objective right now for the university is to increase new student enrollment,” said Padgett.
“The facilities are so greatly under-utilized now. The faculty is under-utilized. The town of Macomb is under-utilized. The businesses are suffering. And this has to be the singular goal – to increase new student enrollment.”
Trustee Polly Radosh agreed with Thompson and Padgett. She also said Western is not doing enough to seek out opportunities that could attract students. As an example, Radosh cited the wind farm that’s about to be built just north of Macomb in McDonough and Warren counties.
“We need a partnership. GIS, Geography, Physics should be expanding,” Radosh said to applause from the audience. “We ought to be taking what we have and using it regionally to be a hook that can be a micro-lab for the entire state within our institution.”
The programs Radosh mentioned are about to take a hit. Western’s administration has announced plans to reduce the number of faculty members in each of those subjects, and the administration intends to end the degree program in Geography and GIS.
Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the new board members on Thursday, less than 24 hours before the meeting. Pritzker appointed seven people to the eight member board. The only holdover is student member Justin Brown, who was elected to the board last year by fellow students.
Board members chose Greg Aguilar of the Quad Cities to be their chairperson. Padgett, who lives in Chicago, was elected vice chairperson and Thompson, who is from Macomb, was chosen as board secretary.
Shortly after choosing officers, the board agreed to expand the public comment period during BoT meetings. 20 minutes will now be set aside at the beginning and conclusion of meetings. The previous board allowed just the single 20 minute comment period at the beginning of meetings.
After the opening comment period Friday, Aguilar said solutions will not happen overnight but he pledged to make sure the campus community works together to tackle the challenges facing Western.
“Some words I heard that echo in my heart and my mind have to do with how we will lead together. We will look at inclusion, equity, collaboration, and innovation to ensure student success (as well as) success to our professionals who have committed their lives to education,” said Aguilar.
The board is not scheduled to meet again until June. But trustees discussed the possibility of scheduling another meeting before then to focus solely on student recruitment and retention.
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