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Optimism Mixed with Caution at WIU

Rich Egger
WIU Interim President Martin Abraham during Thursday's speech. "We have some wonderful news to share from an enrollment and retention standpoint."

Western Illinois University's interim president said he is optimistic about the year ahead. But he added there are plenty of challenges to tackle.

Dr. Martin Abraham delivered the annual University Assembly speech on Thursday. He reminded the campus about a pledge he made a year ago to focus on three things.

“Enrollment, enrollment, and enrollment,” he said, adding he believes that focus has paid off.

“I’ll tell you what folks, we did great on enrollment.”

The number of students attending Western has declined for more than a decade, a problem exacerbated by the two-year state budget impasse that began in 2015.         

But now, Abraham said, new student enrollment is on the rise. In addition, more of the previous year’s freshmen and transfer students are returning than in years past. He also said overall enrollment right now is 7,267 compared to 6,994 in the spring – an increase of 273 students.  

But the apples-to-apples comparison is between last fall’s numbers and this fall’s numbers. The enrollment last fall was 7,624, which means enrollment is down by 357 students from this time last year. 

However, the official head count is taken on the tenth day of the fall semester, which is still a couple weeks off.  Abraham is confident the numbers will rise between now and then.

“We are essentially running with an overall enrollment pretty darn close to what we did last year.”

Abraham said another goal is to diversify the campus.  He believes strides are being made. He said the current figures show increases in Black and LatinX student enrollment.

The interim president said Western has a renewed commitment to recruit from urban areas, is providing location-based scholarships, and has re-engaged with its Black, Chicago-based alumni.

He said he’s looking to diversify Western in other ways too.

“We’ve determined that we’re going to work to bring back our African-American Studies major and our Women’s Studies program, as well as looking at developing Queer Studies and bringing out all of these diverse populations in our academic programs and our diverse studies programs.”

African-American Studies and Women’s Studies were eliminated as majors in 2016 during the administration of Dr. Jack Thomas. Western still offers the programs as minors.

During the speech Abraham said Western finished last fiscal year with a balanced budget, despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The public health crisis forced Western -- like other institutions -- to switch entirely to online instruction for the second half of the spring semester.

Abraham believes Western can maintain a balanced budget for this fiscal year. But his optimism is mixed with caution.

“For starters, I don’t think we’re out of the wood yet on any of the goals that I actually laid out a year ago,” he said. “We’ve made great progress, but we need to continue to emphasize and focus on enrollment.”

WIU, like other schools, is still contending with the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic.  And concerns over the impact of the coronavirus were evident throughout Abraham’s speech.

The annual event usually takes place in front of a large, in-person audience. But this year just a handful of people were invited into the auditorium. Everyone else had to view it online.

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 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.