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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.

Pushback on WIU Budget Cuts & Update on Open Meetings Violations

Rich Egger
WIU President Jack Thomas and BoT Chairperson Carolyn Ehlert Fuller during the December 2018 board meeting.

Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas has delayed an announcement on budget cuts.  But he is warning that deep cuts are still necessary.

“I remind our university community that reductions, reorganizations, and faculty, staff and administrative personnel layoffs must still take place,” Dr. Thomas said during the December 14, 2018 Board of Trustees (BoT) meeting.

The administration has said Western is coping with declining student enrollment plus more than a decade of declining state financial support, which was exacerbated by the two-year state budget impasse. Public universities received little state financial support during the impasse and funding remains below the level it was at before the stand-off.

As a result, WIU has been making budget cuts for several years now by imposing layoffs and furloughs, leaving vacant positions open, and by offering early retirement programs.

Administrators originally planned to announce more budget cuts in late January -- $5 million in cuts for the remainder of this fiscal year and $21 million for next fiscal year.

But after conferring with faculty leaders, administrators agreed to delay the announcement until the beginning of March.  That will give Western time to learn what J.B. Pritzker proposes for higher education funding when he gives his first budget address as governor in February.

Credit Rich Egger
WIU Faculty Senate Chairperson Christopher Pynes addresses the Board of Trustees during the December meeting.

The Response

Dr. Christopher Pynes, Chairperson of the Faculty Senate, said he is glad the administration decided to delay an announcement on cuts.  But during the BoT meeting, he criticized the overall messaging coming from the administration and the board.

“If you continue to tell people that we’ll be stronger by cutting things, then they’re gonna let you cut things. They’re gonna decrease your funding. You need to say, ‘We’re not gonna be stronger,’” Pynes said.

“By cutting programs, you weaken the university.  You weaken offerings. Part of your job is to understand how to run the university. That requires understanding what you do and what we do. And if you think we’re stronger when we cut, that’s failure.”

Eight people later addressed the BoT during the public comment period of its meeting. Six of them focused on the cuts and their impact on the university community. A sample of their comments:

  • Paula Wise, a retired psychology professor who said she represented the group Retirees for Western:  “While we continue to be concerned about enrollment on campus and the budget, we’ve been devastated to see the low morale on campus at all levels. This used to be such a wonderful place to work.”
  • Elaine Hopkins, a former journalist: “Stop the proposed cuts until the administration meets with the Pritzker education team.  And vote to provide funding to the NPR station, WIUM-FM. It’s a vital source of news to the region, as the many emails and letters sent to you have shown. It’s amazing you would cut that.”
  • Dorie Vallillo, former long-time general manager of Tri States Public Radio: “I’m here mostly to urge you to put Tri States Public Radio at the table in those discussions this time as you go forward. That 100% cut that has been proposed is all people. It’s all personnel dollars.”
  • Heather McMeekan, a webmaster in WIU’s Web Services Department: “Tri States Public Radio is our single best cheerleader for our domain and brings us in lots of web traffic. They do that through telling the stories of our people, our events, our programs, and weaving our history in a rich tapestry that emboldens and enriches and informs us all.”
  • Mark Bernards, who teaches in WIU’s School of Agriculture: “The response to every crisis, real or perceived, has been to cut budgets, cut positions, pull back all consequential decision making to Sherman Hall or closed session meetings, and hire only internally and on an interim basis for leadership positions. This has stifled creativity and sapped morale.”
  • Patrick McGinty, who teaches in WIU’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology: “Encourage the administration to go back to the faculty to continue conversations (and) honestly bring a bottom up – a faculty driven – change.”

Addressing OMA Violations

Now that the Illinois Attorney General’s office has found the WIU BoT violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act (OMA), trustees said they are working to be compliant in the future.

The Illinois Attorney General’s office this fall ruled the board violated the OMA during a closed door meeting held on June 28, 2018.  The state ordered Western to make public the minutes and verbatim recording of that meeting. 

On the recording, trustees and administrators are heard talking about budget matters and other items that the law requires to be discussed in public.  They also mention “opportunities” to discuss such matters again in future closed door meetings.

The Response

Reading from a prepared statement during the board’s public meeting held on December 14, 2018, Chairperson Carolyn Ehlert Fuller acknowledged the group violated the law.  She said trustees are fully committed to making sure it won’t happen again.

“We have requested special training on the Open Meetings Act by the Illinois Attorney General’s office at the soonest date at which they can be available to us.  The Attorney General has agreed to do this,” she said.

However, it should be noted the board's personnel is changing. Three of the eight board members who participated in the June meeting have already stepped down: Cathy Early, Lyneir Cole, and Wil Gradle.  And Ehlert Fuller and trustee Roger Clawson, both of whom were also present for the June meeting, also plan to leave the board when their terms expire next month. 

New General Counsel

It should also be noted the university hired a new legal counselor.  Liz Duvall began work in July. She replaced Bruce Biagini, who served in the role on an interim basis.  Biagini was the legal counsel in the room during the June 28 closed door meeting.

Credit Western Illinois University
Liz Duvall

Ehlert Fuller said in her statement that Duvall has carefully explained to the board the restrictions of the Open Meetings Act.  She also said the board voluntarily offered to give the Attorney General the materials from closed door meetings held in August and September.

“We have done this because we believe it will demonstrate our determined efforts to stay within the guidelines of the Open Meetings Act,” said Ehlert Fuller.

Members of the University Professionals of Illinois Local 4100, which represents WIU faculty, praised Duvall, saying they’ve talked with her and feel she will enforce the laws.

But they also criticized the board for an item on the agenda for the December 14 meeting.  It called for eliminating the verbatim records of closed door meetings held in July and September of 2017.

Faculty members said the board must wait at least 18 months before it can destroy such records, and they urged the board to maintain the recordings for historical preservation purposes.

The board ultimately chose to table the action.