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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 Board Chairperson Talks About Presidential Separation Agreement

Rich Egger
Greg Aguilar

At the beginning of their June 14 meeting, Western Illinois University trustees agreed to a plan that calls for WIU President Jack Thomas to step down on June 30.  After the 7.5 hour meeting, Tri States Public Radio talked to Board of Trustees Chairperson Greg Aguilar about the deal.

Aguilar said Thomas will be on administrative leave for one year and on sabbatical for a second, receiving his full salary of $270,528 each of those years. 

The agreement then gives Thomas the option to be reassigned to the tenured position of Distinguished Service Professor effective July 1, 2021 at a salary of 75% of the Fiscal Year 2021 salary paid to the university president but not less than $300,000. In that position, he would teach one class per semester and perform other mutually agreed upon duties.

You can read the full agreement here.

Aguilar said Thomas presented the proposal to the board Thursday evening (June 13). He said the BoT discussed it and reviewed it before approving it unanimously the following morning.

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with Aguilar:

TSPR: Why do you think this was the best route to go?

Aguilar: It was a challenging time to be a president at Western Illinois University with the budget cuts, the declining enrollment, and then the challenges that we experienced with the community. And I feel that President Thomas thought it would be best to start a clean slate to drive Western Illinois University into the next 100 years.

President Thomas is just one of those leaders who is incredible at navigating challenging times, and he went through a lot of challenging times.  And with that often comes a lot of, I guess we’ll say, damage to a person when it comes to making tough decisions. With so many tough decisions having been made and people expressing how they felt about those decisions, President Thomas thought it was best for the university and himself to step down.

TSPR: Why was the board agreeable to that much of a payout? That’s more half-a-million dollars?

Aguilar: It’s what the president was making. And my thought is after the conversation yesterday with the board and President Thomas, because of the hard work that he has put in and what he has done for the university, we thought it was fair. And that way we could accept his resignation and then we could move on from there.

TSPR: There are many Western employees who have lost their jobs in the past year or so who have not gotten any type of severance package. What would you tell them?

Aguilar: I would tell them that the decisions that we had to make were difficult. It wasn’t anything that we wanted to do. And if we can start seeing an increase in enrollment and if we had that enrollment we wouldn’t have had to make those decisions. It is our hope that we can increase that enrollment and see what the future brings, especially those who unfortunately had to be laid off.

TSPR: You mentioned enrollment. Do you anticipate the board holding special meetings to focus on single issues such as marketing and enrollment?

Aguilar: Some of the trustees certainly would like to do that. There’s a lot that has to be discussed so I can see that being a possibility. One of the challenges is that it is a volunteer board and it’s tough to get all of the schedules to align and with the Open Meetings Act it can be very challenging. There’s certainly interest in doing that. How often we’ll be able to do that we just don’t know because it is challenging.

TSPR: What will you personally be looking for in the next president of Western Illinois University?

Aguilar: Someone who can bring people together. Someone who can create a strong vision of where we are going to be a year from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now. I’m looking for someone who can really help advance our enrollment and our marketing and communications so that we can better share our story with not only the United States, not only the state of Illinois, but the entire world. We are living in a diverse and changing world and I would love to see that our next president helps guide that so we can win and attract the next generation of students.

TSPR: Does the board have any thoughts on how long the presidential search might take, and will that be a national search?

Aguilar: It will be a national search. The timeline, I don’t know yet.

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.