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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.

A Conversation with the New Chairperson of WIU's Board

Rich Egger
Greg Aguilar

Members of Western Illinois University's new Board of Trustees barely got to introduce themselves to each other before holding their first meeting.  And even though they are just getting to know each other, one of their first tasks was to elect a new chairperson.

They chose Greg Aguilar of East Moline.  He works for the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce. He previously worked for the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

After the new board’s first meeting (held on March 29, 2019), TSPR talked to Aguilar about the university and the challenges ahead. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.

Aguilar started by stating it’s important for the board to listen.  During the meeting, the BoT agreed to double the amount of time allowed for public comments during their meetings – 20 minutes will still be set aside at the beginning of the agenda and the board added another 20 at the end of meetings.

Aguilar:  Leadership and shared governance is challenging but it works when we all listen to each other.  There are tough times, as we have experienced recently. But I think it’s important that we listen and we talk and we move forward together.

What I’m very happy about right now is seeing how many people are here.  (Editor’s note: the meeting room was filled to capacity and extra chairs and audio speakers were set up in the lounge outside the room) When we need to start worrying is when people stop showing up and when people stop talking to each other. That’s when we have a problem.

I’m very proud of the students, the faculty, and the administration for being vocal on how they feel and sharing the human factor of their experiences because as leaders it’s important that we know all of that.

TSPR: Do you feel listening has been a problem in the past?

Aguilar: I think everywhere listening has been a problem. We have two ears and one mouth and I think we should try to use our ears twice as much as we use our mouths.  And I think that’s part of the culture that I want to help lead here. We listen, and we talk, and we work through solutions together.

TSPR: Do you feel the board can reverse some of the program cuts and the layoffs that have been taking place in the past year?

Aguilar: It’s too soon for me to know that. My hope is that we could certainly take another hard look and see if those were the right – I do believe that people felt that those were the right decisions.  We also had to deal with a couple years when there was no (state) budget, which caused a lot of strain and caused a lot of challenges for the region, especially for Western Illinois University. So I would like for us to take another look if that’s possible for us to do.

TSPR: Have you had a chance to study the (WIU administration's) restructuring plan that was unveiled last summer? If so, what do you think of it?

Aguilar:  Unfortunately I have not been able to look at that as in-depth as I would like to.

TSPR: Transparency, shared governance. What can you do to ensure that as we move ahead?

Aguilar:  I think two things. One, of course, as a trustee, show up to office hours.  Be involved with the community. Listen to what’s on people’s minds in Macomb. I’m in the Quad Cities so I’m there and I’m listening to that. But I want to encourage all our trustees and I also want to encourage all of our faculty, staff, and students – let’s start opening up this dialogue and these conversations.

I also think it’s important we go together when it comes time to discuss issues in Springfield. We are better together. We are stronger together. And I think that was a strong message that came from the faculty side (today), which I really appreciated because if we’re in this together we’re going to have to lobby and  talk to Springfield  together to ensure that we have what we need to be successful and graduate our students.

TSPR: Do you anticipate scheduling a special meeting between now and June (the next regularly scheduled meeting) just to focus on just a few specific issues?

Aguilar:  Yeah, there are a few specific issues that I’m very interested in especially when it comes to marketing, admissions, (and) enrollment. And I like that the Board of Trustees were willing to meet. I know we have a quarterly schedule and that’s certainly appreciated but right now we have some items that are very important to this campus – all of our campuses – and I do feel that it will probably be a good move and we will most likely go in that direction.

This story was produced by Tri States Public Radio.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the important issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.