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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 Sheds Little Light on TSPR Defunding Decision

Rich Egger

Tri States Public Radio filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Western Illinois University, hoping to gain more insight about how the administration came to the decision to zero-out appropriated funding for TSPR beginning March 1, 2019.

You can read our FOIA request [.pdf].

The Response

The university handed over more than 300 emails, many of which are straightforward interview requests made by TSPR news reporters.

The earliest mention of making changes to TSPR comes on July 6, 2015, which was a few days into what would become a two year state budget impasse.  In that email [.pdf], Matt Bierman, who at that time was WIU’s budget director, pitched a long list of cost saving ideas to Interim Provost Kathy Neumann. 

They include reducing services that he described as “not core to student learning.” Public radio is listed under that bullet point along with the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, the Quad Cities Manufacturing Lab, and Non-Credit Programs. 

No dollar figures are attached to any of the proposals.

Bierman brought up the idea again on January 29, 2016 in an email [.pdf] to Joe Rives, Western’s Senior Vice President for Strategic Planning & Initiatives and the Vice President for the Quad Cities campus, Planning, and Technology.

Bierman named public radio and the IIRA as examples of external units that could be shifted to self-supporting.  Again, he mentioned those as general ideas and no dollar figures were attached.  He did not explain how such entities could feasibly operate as self-supporting.

Bierman sent the suggestions in response to this email [.pdf]from Rives:

Please remember to send me your ideas for cost reductions before the end of the day Monday, so I have time to prepare for Leadership Team. Please also remember that you were looking to document budget cuts in your divisions. I will try and get a template to you this afternoon. Thanks, Joe

None of the documentation or templates mentioned by Rives were provided to TSPR even though such information should be included under our FOIA request.

In November 2017, Rives emailed [.pdf] Renee Georges of the Budget Office asking for budget information for several departments, including Tri States Public Radio, for “the president’s Monday afternoon meetings with trustees.”

No meeting dates, times, locations, or documents were provided from such meetings between the president and trustees.

A university spokesperson told TSPR that the decision to eliminate appropriated funding for TSPR was most likely discussed during the president’s weekly meetings with vice presidents. But we received no documents, minutes, or other information through our FOIA request.

Negative Publicity

President Jack Thomas and others from the administration have consistently called for people to be positive when talking about Western.

Several of the emails released to TSPR show top administrators and University Relations emailing each other links to TSPR news reports about WIU, some of which are about Western’s ongoing fiscal woes.

One email [.pdf] reads "More negative publicity thanks to Tri States Radio and a FOIA from the librarians” in reference to the news report detailing the elimination of 62 vacant positions at Western.  Another email [.pdf], which includes a link to a news story explaining that the administration was not prepared to release details of its financial contingency plan, gets the response, “Typical Rich.”

During the August BoT meeting, WIU President Jack Thomas said, “We all have rights, freedom of speech and expression granted by our glorious Constitution. However, with these rights comes great responsibility. Your expression, your speech, and your rights will never be stifled or curtailed. I simply want to point out that we sometimes do the greatest harm to ourselves.

Every negative comment that is made in private conversations or in public settings may have an impact on the reputation of the university. Every negative story harms the reputation of this university and makes recruiting and retaining students much more difficult."

Why Defund TSPR?

The university did not provide any email communication or other documents to show why the administration decided specifically to defund TSPR.

The first communication about that decision came in an email from University Relations in mid-August that included a suggested statement to several top administrators about how to respond to queries about the defunding decision.

Further emails show the administration and BoT received a flood of emails and calls from concerned and upset TSPR listeners and supporters.

Emailed responses from BoT members and administrators generally stuck with the suggested remarks and later with the sentiment outlined in President Thomas’ August 21 message to the community regarding the TSPR defunding decision.

But on several occasions, BoT Vice Chairperson Yvonne Savala also replied, “Please share your solutions - nothing is written in stone.”

In reality, almost nothing appears even committed to paper about the decision. The administration has not provided any documentation detailing how it came to the conclusion to defund TSPR.

Tying Up the Public’s Time for Comments

Many people lined up to address the Board of Trustees during its August 24 meeting, which was the first meeting after the defunding decision became public.

Some of those who wanted to speak during the public comment section were shut out when the 20 minute period allotted for comments expired and BoT Chairperson Carolyn Ehlert Fuller declined to extend the time.

The emails obtained by TSPR show one of the people who did get the chance to speak received direction from the administration on what to say. 

This email [.pdf]from Joe Rives, copied to Paul Schlag, the Chief of Staff/Assistant to President Jack Thomas, was sent to Paul Plagenz, the Director of Development at WIU’s Quad Cities campus.

Paul, Here are your suggested remarks. Short, sweet and to the point. Thank you for supporting administration and the BOT with this. They all extend their appreciation. Good Morning and thank you for giving me the opportunity to address the Board this morning. Being a long-time listener and viewer of public media, I would like to volunteer my help to TriStates public radio in becoming self-sufficient. Both regionally and nationally changes in funding models is a reality. Locally, we have seen changes in funding in Moline, Rock Island Galesburg, Peoria and Missouri. What I have learned in the success stories is that we must think beyond our immediate region for funding. Streaming and alumni around the world give us a regional, national and global base for potential donors and I would be honored to help the radio station think of possibilities. Thank you again for your time.

The idea of having Plagenz speak came from the Board chairperson herself, as per these lines in an email [.pdf] from Ehlert Fuller to Rives:

I asked if he (Plagenz) thought it would be good idea for him to step up in the public comment period to offer some words of wisdom. He said maybe but he would check with you Joe. If you agree, it probably would help tamp things down some if the public and the station employees get a glimpse of how to proceed or that some advice/help could be made available.

Western’s Financial Situation

The university is struggling with its finances in the aftermath of the state budget impasse. Public higher education received little state funding support during the impasse, forcing Western to spend down its reserves.  That’s been accompanied by sharp drops in the university’s student enrollment.

Western says it finished last fiscal year $4 million in the red and the administration has said the university faces another year of deficit spending this fiscal year, though it has not yet said how large the deficit might be.

When asked by TSPR about Western’s decision to end appropriated funding for the public radio station, President Thomas and other university leaders have pointed to the budget deficit and the desire to protect the “nucleus” of the institution.

But there are no budget spreadsheets, no meeting minutes, no metrics, no records of discussions during Board of Trustees meetings, and no data demonstrating why TSPR was cut instead of other university offerings.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.