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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.

Life after Layoff from WIU

Rich Egger/Emily Boyer
Jacque Wilson, Kim Rice, and Michele Mussatto (left to right)

Western Illinois University's Fact Book shows the school's workforce decreased around 12% in the past four years – from 2,403 employees in the fall of 2015 to 2,113 this fall.  The decrease can be attributed to layoffs, resignations, attrition, and early retirement programs.  Tri States Public Radio spoke with three WIU employees who received layoff notices to learn how they're doing now.

Dr. Kim Rice

Credit Rich Egger
Dr. Kim Rice is now a senior data scientist with a Fortune 100 company. “I think a lot about Western when I do the work because they do a lot of things that could really help an institution with forecasting and financials.”

Kim Rice is one of the seven tenured professors who received a layoff notice at the end of June, 2018.  The administration also sent layoff notices at that time to 17 non-tenured faculty members and a couple other workers.  In addition, the administration announced it would not fill 60 other teaching positions that either are vacant or soon will be vacant due to resignations and retirements.

The administration still has not provided data to show how it decided who to layoff or which academic departments would sustain cuts.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: By the Numbers: A Look at WIU's Faculty Layoffs

Credit Graph created by Emily Boyer
This chart shows civil service has sustained the largest percentage loss of employees at WIU in recent years. It also indicates Western is increasingly relying on adjunct instructors to teach classes.

Those laid off received a one-year notice but Rice did not wait around. She quickly found a data science job in the private sector near Milwaukee, WI, though she told Tri States Public Radio that she now wishes she had acted less hastily.

“It was incredibly hard and to be completely frank, it’s a decision I regret,” said Rice.

“But we had just found out we were pregnant and you can’t be on the job market flying around the country when you’re about to have a baby.”

Rice taught in the Department of Political Science at WIU, specializing in judicial politics and pre-law, and she oversaw the university’s mock trial team. She’s now making twice as much money as she did at Western and she’s living in the area where she grew up -- yet she yearns for a return to Western and the classroom.

“If you told me tomorrow that I could go back to what I was doing – it was my dream job -- I would do it in a heartbeat. And I’m saying this as someone who the current position I’m in has been ranked the number one job in this country the past three years. But when you do what we do as faculty, it is not a career, it’s a calling,” said Rice.

Rice and others TSPR spoke with don’t seem angry about the layoffs and don’t feel they were targeted. Rather, they’re sad about what’s happening and perplexed by the administration’s decision-making process.

“I would want to tell the administration that layoffs will never improve enrollment, and that the only way to get out of this -- the only way out -- is through,” Rice said.

“No more layoffs. Focus on enrollment. And if you can push through and get enrollment up by keeping quality programs, faculty, classes, that we really can all see the other side of this together. I truly do believe that.”

Rice said she considers Macomb a magical place and she believes Western continues to be “a really great institution.”

Dr. Jacque Wilson

Credit Rich Egger
Dr. Jacque Wilson is fighting to reverse the layoff notice she received six months ago. “I love Macomb. I love the community. I love the university. So it’s very difficult to feel separated from that.”

Jacque Wilson from the Department of English also received a one-year layoff notice at the end of June, 2018. But Wilson chose to fight back and file a grievance.

Wilson said she wants to remain in Macomb. She said her daughter just started high school and is enjoying Macomb High.  Wilson also said she has strong ties to Western – she came to WIU from rural Iowa in 1983 when she was a student and has been in Macomb ever since.

“I love Western. I have two degrees from Western. And I really have a lot of loyalty to the institution,” said Wilson.

Wilson is the coordinator of English 100, which is the university’s developmental writing class.  She’s done this for 13 years.

Wilson feels Western has always been strong at teaching freshmen and at-risk students, which is why she’s baffled by the decision to lay off her and six other non-tenure track faculty in English.  She said it feels as though the administration is gutting the English department.

“I understand that we’re in hard times, but I feel like the interests of the students should be first and foremost,” she said.

Wilson ended our conversation by again bringing up her English 100 students. She said they are not prepared for the university’s regular composition sequence, so to build their confidence Wilson asks them to write about any topic – it’s their choice. She said many choose to write about a traumatic experience.

“I became aware that I was teaching students from some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States. Every semester I have students who have lost brothers, cousins, friends to gun violence in Chicago. And often they need to tell this story,” Wilson said, adding the military veterans she teaches often also choose to write about a traumatic experience.

Wilson said she wants a chance to continue helping such students succeed in their pursuit of a higher education degree.

Michele Mussatto

Credit Rich Egger
Michele Mussatto left Macomb after she got laid off a couple years ago. “I’m glad for the good people that are still here in Macomb and at Western and I hope they can continue to make it a great place because Western is a fine institution and Macomb is a great town.”

If you’ve ever driven around Macomb, you have probably seen the Mussatto name attached to WIU’s golf course. Michele Mussatto said it is named after her father, Harry Mussatto.

“He dedicated his life to not only the golf team at Western but to that golf course. So it’s fitting,” said Michele Mussatto, who grew up in Macomb, moved to Chicago as an adult, then returned to Macomb in 2013. 

Michele Mussatto worked in Western’s Department of Curriculum & Instruction as an office manager, which is a civil service position. Someone with more seniority got a lay-off notice, but instead of leaving that person agreed to take Mussatto’s job for less pay.  The process is called bumping and is permitted under the state’s civil service system.

Credit Rich Egger
This marker at WIU’s Harry Mussatto Golf Course outlines his many accomplishments.

Even though Mussatto had to pack up her bags and move again, she feels things eventually worked out for her.

“I’m happy. And Missouri seems to be a solid state for now and Kansas City is a growing community. So yeah, I’m one of the lucky ones I guess you could say. I escaped Illinois. I’m an Illinois refugee,” she said.

Mussatto said she now has a great job as a digital marketing manager. She said she lives in a community that’s beautiful and fun, yet she would trade it “in a hot minute” if she could be living and working back in Macomb.

“I love this place. I love every blade of grass. I love every dandelion. I love every crack in every sidewalk that I used to jog up and down. It was hard, y’know?” Mussatto said.

“You can rationalize it any way you want but when it’s your home and when it’s what you’re familiar with, you never want to leave it.”

More Layoffs on the Horizon

WIU has been struggling financially, especially the past four years. Public higher education in Illinois received little state funding during the state’s historic two-year budget impasse and funding this year fell well short of where it was before the standoff.

That, combined with a precipitous drop in student enrollment (11,094 students in fall 2015; 8,502 in fall 2018), contributed to the deep financial hole and crisis of confidence at Western. The result: a loss of jobs and an exodus of workers to other communities, sometimes in other states.  Even WIU President Jack Thomas has looked for opportunities elsewhere. He was a finalist for positions at three other universities last spring, though he did not get any of the jobs.

Now, more budget cuts appear imminent at WIU.

Credit Rich Egger
WIU President Jack Thomas during a Board of Trustees meeting in December, 2017.

Dr. Thomas has said another $5 million in budget cuts must be made this fiscal year and $21 million for next fiscal year. 

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

The administration originally said it would announce its plans at the end of January, 2019. But the announcement has been pushed back to the beginning of March, which will give the administration time to learn what Democrat J.B. Pritzker proposes for higher education funding. Pritzker will be sworn in as governor in mid-January and will give his budget address in February.

In the meantime, WIU teachers and staff members who’ve seen friends and colleagues lose their jobs in recent years will have reason to worry about their futures at Western Illinois University.