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The "Crisis of Confidence" series is a multi-year effort by the Tri States Public Radio to document the impact the two-year state budget impasse had on Western Illinois University and the ongoing recovery efforts at WIU. State support for public higher education institutions has been steadily declining in Illinois for more than a decade. But the issue was compounded, during the state's historic two-year budget impasse during Fiscal Years '16 and '17 which left public colleges and universities with little state financial support. At Western Illinois University, that drastic cut in state appropriations resulted in significant budget cuts, employee furloughs, and layoffs.

WIU Administration, Unions Still Negotiating on Cuts

Jonathan Ahl
WIU President Jack Thomas (left) and UPI Chapter President Bill Thompson (right) speak with News Director Rich Egger

The Western Illinois University administration has met with employee groups several times in the past week, trying to find a way to save money while also saving jobs.

Bill Thompson, Chapter President of the University Professionals of Illinois Local 4100, believes they’re making progress.

“Both sides are dedicated to getting that layoff list as far down toward zero (as possible),” said Thompson during an interview at the Tri States Public Radio studios. WIU President Jack Thomas also participated in the interview.

Thomas said the school must reduce spending by an estimated $7 - $11 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2016.

The WIU Board of Trustees was originally scheduled to vote last month on budget cuts that would have cost dozens of people their jobs. But the BoT agreed to delay the decision to see if negotiators could come up with a different plan.

Thomas said the layoff list has not been pared down since December, though it’s being discussed during the meetings with workers.

Thompson said attrition is one way to reduce personnel costs instead of layoffs, and he said UPI would like to see an aggressive retirement incentive that would be appealing to faculty.

Credit Jonathan Ahl
Dr Jack Thomas (left) and Bill Thompson listen to a question during Wednesday morning's interview.

But Thomas said the university cannot achieve its needed savings entirely through attrition and retirements.

Thomas said other options, such as furloughs and salary reductions, would “help tremendously.” And Thomas said members of his leadership team have agreed to cut their pay, including himself, vice presidents, and deans.  But he did not know how much money that would save.

“I have that number somewhere. I just don’t recall it at the moment,” Thomas said.  Other members of his team who were in the studio at the time also did not know the projected savings from the pay cuts.

Thomas emphasized the state caused the budget problem and that WIU is not alone in facing budget challenges.

“Western is no different from other institutions in the state. We’re all dealing with the same situations here. All of the public institutions have had budget reductions since 2002,” said Thomas, adding this year’s budget impasse is causing further harm.  The state has provided no funding to public colleges and universities since the fiscal year began more than six months ago.

Thompson concurred, saying the governor made K-through-12 funding a priority this year while treating higher education as a luxury.

Both men said more meetings will be held.

“We have a lot to talk about,” said Thompson.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.