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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 BoT Hears More Criticism of TSPR Funding Cut

Rich Egger
Tim Howe addresses the BoT during its September 28, 2018 meeting

More members of the public are asking the decision-makers at Western Illinois University to restore funding to its public radio station. Half-a-dozen people used the public comment period during the September 28 Board of Trustees meeting to address the administration's plan to end appropriated funding for Tri States Public Radio on March 1, 2019.

  • Dorie Vallillo (long time General Manager of TSPR, now retired): I can tell from the frenzy of very positive postings on social media about Western’s many fine qualities that, town and gown alike, we are all under the gun to enhance Western’s image and increase enrollment. But if you are concerned about Western putting its best foot forward in our region, you ought not chop that foot off. Defunding your public radio service is a huge mistake.
  • Polly Radosh: In the three decades that I’ve been here, I’ve never seen so much anger, frustration, disappointment directed toward the university. If this decision is going to help raise enrollment, improve faculty morale, improve the quality of education, or meet some other goal you have found to be associated with this cut, you need to explain it. You must have done cost-benefit analysis, research into the regional effects of this decision, or some analysis that ties the decision to the strategic goals of the institution. That analysis should be shared.
  • Elaine Hopkins: The public – your public – doesn’t want this and you know this now.  You’ve received dozens and dozens of pleas from the fans of this station not to withdraw the WIU funding from it.
  • Tim Howe: We understand that cuts need to be made all over. And what I ask is that rather than – I hate to use the phrase pulling the rug out from underneath the station – but six months seems like that. If you need to defund, if you need to cut funding, do a phase down. Work with the station and do a phase down and perhaps we’ll have more left rather than nothing at all.
  • Bill Thompson: If WIUM is not part of the nucleus of this institution, why is the golf course part of the nucleus of this institution?
  • Anne Burton: The decision appears to be very arbitrary and capricious. It appears to be done – the decision to defund WIUM – it appears to be done without a lot of forethought or analysis. And in my opinion, it appears to be done as a reaction to the reporting of bad news. There has been a lot of tone policing on campus lately, a lot of rah-rah-rah, but you can’t expect the community to sit down and shut up when something very bad like this happens.

Deception from Leadership?

Burton and Thompson also took the BoT and administration to task for lining up an administrator to speak during the public comment period of the August BoT meeting.

That detail was uncovered as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by TSPR as it sought more insight into the defunding decision.

An email from Board Chairperson Carolyn Ehlert Fuller shows she asked Paul Plagenz, the Director of Development at WIU’s Quad Cities campus, to use some of the public comment period in August to offer “some words of wisdom.”  Ehlert Fuller said his comments might “help tamp things down.”

A follow up email from Joseph Rives, Western’s Senior Vice President for Planning and Initiatives and Vice President for the Quad Cities campus, Planning, and Technology, offers suggestions to Plagenz regarding what he should say:

“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.”

Burton scolded the BoT and administration for the behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

“That’s not public comment. That’s a show of cowardly behavior. What are you afraid of? Perhaps the public’s opinion of you, I guess? Why couldn’t the public comment without that plant? It’s very disappointing,” said Burton.

Ehlert Fuller acknowledged talking to Plagenz.  She said she did so because she thought he could be helpful.

“He has a long background in fundraising for public entities. And then I believe afterwards he met with the director of WIUM to offer his help.  And he did that on his own time. It was strictly a way to try to be helpful,” said Ehlert Fuller.

But Thompson – who’s a WIU professor and president of Western’s chapter of the University Professionals of Illinois (UPI), which represents WIU faculty, said the email exchange shows the Board and administration created a deception.

“Whether it was for good or ill that’s what you did.  And as a result, the next administrator that comes into some kind of event and speaks up, then we’re going to think that’s a plant,” Thompson said.

Still No Explanation

TSPR and its listeners are still seeking a more detailed explanation of how the defunding decision was made.   

The information provided to TSPR through its FOIA request sheds little light.  We received several hundred emails that don’t provide that detail. They do show an administration obsessed with media coverage and at times snarky about TSPR’s coverage of the financial crisis at Western.

But the administration says it has 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.

The administration said it’s sticking with its decision and the BoT has said it supports the administration and the difficult decisions it’s made as Western struggles with its finances in the aftermath of the two year state budget impasse. Public universities received little state financial support during the impasse, and Western says it was forced to spend down its reserves.

The administration also has said Western ran a $4 million deficit last fiscal year and its budget will be in the red for this fiscal year too, though it has not yet said by how much. President Jack Thomas has said everything is on the table when it comes to potential cuts, but no one has been able to provide the criteria used to determine what is maintained and what is eliminated.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.