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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 Delays Decisions About Fall Staffing Levels

Rich Egger

Western Illinois University is taking a wait-and-see approach to renewing the contracts of some of its professors for the fall semester. The decision follows the Illinois Legislature adjourning the spring legislative session without passing a state budget. Illinois is wrapping up the second fiscal year without a comprehensive spending plan.

Non-tenure track professors at Western were supposed to be notified by Thursday, June 1 as to whether the university would automatically renew their contracts. Instead, the administration sent a letter to all 118 Unit B faculty members, informing them that their employment status for next year would be delayed until further notice.

Bill Thompson is President of Western’s chapter of University Professionals of Illinois, which is the union representing all faculty including unit B professors. He said the delay and undefined timeline puts everyone in a holding pattern.

“UPI has serious concerns about how long is a delay. Realistically, when should people start looking for jobs? Realistically when should they begin thinking about what happens if I don’t have a job and having those kinds of conversations,” Thompson said.

He said Unit B professors are separated into three categories:

  • those who have been at the university less than 5 years
  • those whose tenure is between five and nine years
  • those senior associate faculty who have worked at Western for more than nine years

Thompson said he’s encouraged by the fact that the schedules of Unit A professors, that includes tenure and tenure track, have not changed for the fall.
“That means the administration really is thinking it’s going to re-employ Unit B in the fall because if there was a layoff going on or imagined, Unit A schedules would be in flux,” Thompson said.

Thompson added that frustration with the situation should be directed to Springfield, not Sherman Hall.

Thompson said if layoffs are eventually considered, the union contract spells out two situations for which that is possible: general decline in enrollment across the university or financial exigency. He said the university's administration and the union recently completed arbitration regarding a disagreement about how layoff notices are to be issued. That decision is expected in early August.  

Thompson said according to the union’s contract, senior associate faculty in Unit B must be given  nine months notice that their contract will not be renewed.

Western’s President Jack Thomas said the temporary inaction is not tied to job performance but due solely to the university’s financial constraints.

“We are acting more like a private institution because we are located here in the state but we have not received any appropriation from the state this year,” Thomas said.

The last time Western received state funding was in 2016, in the form of two separate cash infusions as part of stop-gap spending plans. At the end of this month, Illinois will wrap up its second fiscal year without a budget as the political divide in Springfield continues to keep lawmakers from reaching an agreement.

“These are unprecedented times,” Thomas said. “We haven’t seen these kinds of things. It’s all hard to predict. We do have contingency plans in place that we will enact if need be.”

Thomas declined to elaborate what those plans involve. But over the last two years, drastic cuts in state funding forced Western to issue furloughs, layoffs and salary reductions in addition to cutting some academic programs.

Thomas said he hopes further reductions can be avoided by the legislature passing a state budget or another stop gap spending plan for higher education.

Emily Boyer is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.