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WIU Board: Bold action is needed– and it’s needed now

Rich Egger

A billboard for Western Illinois University reads: “A Leatherneck is gritty, bold, and determined.”

Members of the state university’s Board of Trustees say it’s imperative for the administration to demonstrate those characteristics to tackle the institution’s budget and enrollment challenges.

“We are looking for action -- not proposals, not slow, not ‘We’re thinking about it,’” said Trustee Carin Stutz during the board’s meeting in June.

Later in the meeting, fellow trustees chose Stutz to be their chairperson for the next year.

Budget in the red

Western ended Fiscal Year 2023 on June 30 with a $12 million deficit in its appropriated funds budget. Those funds pay for salaries and other day-to-day expenses.

WIU ended the previous fiscal year with a $4.5 million deficit in that fund.

“I just want to point out – a few years ago we said $4 million was a five-alarm fire. This is completely unsustainable. We have got to trim that deficit,” said Trustee Polly Radosh.

The university’s preliminary spending plan for Fiscal Year 2024, which started on July 1, is $211.2 million. Board members told the administration to reduce that figure before they vote on the university’s budget in September.

“What we need here is a master class in making bold changes. And Dr. Huang, I know you’re going to be the president to do that. But it’s time,” Stutz said.

WIU President Guiyou Huang said the message has been received.

“Having grown up in an environment that says, ‘Hope is not a method’ – we have hope, but we are looking for methods to get us out of here. I’m not looking for any excuses. The leadership is here. We want to work hard on that plan we are developing right now,” Huang said.

“Trustee Stutz, I want you to know you message is being very well heard. I’m not taking anything for granted.”

Huang said Western needs to turn things around fiscally, and the administration will come up with an aggressive plan to do so.

Student Trustee Cody Cornell said students come to a university to learn about themselves and earn an education. He said they’re not in college to feel the burden of a school’s financial situation, but at WIU they’re slowly starting to feel the weight of those problems.

“And I don’t think that’s right,” he said.

Cornell said he will fully support any bold measures needed to turn things around.

“If that means that I have to have less scholarship money, that means I have to have less scholarship money. If that means some people are unhappy, (then) some people are unhappy,” Cornell said.

“But we have to make sure that the university is fiscally responsible and sustainable for the future, and take that burden off of what students feel is going on within the university.”

Amber Evans, Vice President for Enrollment Management, said her office has reduced projected financial aid spending for the coming school year from $24 million to $16.2 million.

But trustees said the university cannot afford the $16 million.

Stutz: We don’t have it.

Radosh: That number has to go way down.

Evans: I feel very strongly that we can continue to bring that number down in future years.

Stutz: No, no, no.

Radosh: I don’t know how to say this any more clearly, but we are pretty unified in that we will not approve a budget in the fall with a number like this.

The WIU Board of Trustees poses with University President Guiyou Huang after their June 8, 2023 meeting in Macomb. Seated from left to right: Carin Stutz, President Huang, and Greg Aguilar. Standing from left to right: Kisha Lang, Kirk Dillard, Doug Shaw, Cody Cornell, Derek Wise, and Polly Radosh.
Sarah Ritter
The WIU Board of Trustees poses with University President Guiyou Huang after their June 8, 2023 meeting in Macomb. Seated from left to right: Carin Stutz, President Huang, and Greg Aguilar. Standing from left to right: Kisha Lang, Kirk Dillard, Doug Shaw, Cody Cornell, Derek Wise, and Polly Radosh.

Enrollment headed the wrong direction

The new state budget boosts appropriated funding for WIU by 7%, bringing the total to around $55.7 million. But the administration said that’s about the same amount the university received in Fiscal Year 2012, and costs have only gone up since then.

That’s one reason why recruitment and retention are so important.

Evans told the board that as of early June, new first-year applications were down 7.1% compared to last year at this time, admissions were down 6.9%, projected continuing student enrollment was down 7.1%, and overall enrollment was down 6.7%.

“In admissions, we are struggling with demographic decline. But in addition, we have a growing population of non-consumers of college – students that are just simply opting out of college until they figure out what they want to do,” Evans said.

She said it’s a national problem that seems to be impacting historically underrepresented students and white males more than other populations. She said those are two populations that WIU has been dependent upon and for which WIU had a strong hold in the market.

Evans said the freshman retention rate this year was just 52%.

“This class did not perform well academically, and overall across campus, conduct issues increased this year,” Evans said.

Giving away scholarships to boost enrollment numbers

Trustees were flabbergasted to learn the institution lowered standards for the Western Commitment scholarship program.

Students were initially required to have a grade point average of at least 3.0 to receive the scholarship, but over time that was reduced to 2.0.

Trustees wanted to know why students couldn’t be held to the original standard.

Evans: We definitely discussed that at length in the financial aid optimization group, and we are exploring that idea.

Stutz: I kept circling the word ‘slow.’ ‘Slow.’ We don’t have time for slow.

Evans: I completely understand that. It’s very difficult to take aid away from students that it’s already been promised to.

Stutz: We’re not taking it away. Get your grades and go to class.

Evans: They earned that scholarship with the stipulation that it was only a 2.0 to renew at that time.

Trustee Kisha Lang said she understands it could be difficult for a student to bring their cumulative GPA up to 3.0, but she said it’s fair to ask them to achieve at least a 3.0 each remaining semester at Western.

“So you have an opportunity -- moving forward. Take yourself to class – moving forward. Go get help from your teacher – moving forward. I keep hearing the theme: bold decisions. It’s time for them. We have to. We don’t have any money,” Lang said.

Radosh said WIU should aspire to attract students with higher GPAs, not lower ones -- otherwise the institution is just shooting itself in the foot.

“We’re bringing them in and they’re going to flounder. It is unethical to do that. It is unethical for them. It is unethical for us to do that,” Radosh said.

She said even a 2.75 is too low – she wants Western to aspire for something more.

“And it’s got to happen now. It’s not enrollment at any cost. The cost of the 52% retention is higher – that cost is higher to us than the loss of enrollment now,” Radosh said.

Evans told trustees that at the beginning of the fall 2023 admissions cycle, 2.0 was the bottom GPA that Western would accept. Now it’s 2.25, and the plan is to move it up to 2.75.

“A lot of campuses are having the very same challenges around academic engagement. They didn’t go to class. We need to provide stronger advising support. It wasn’t just the 2.25 and below students who we struggled to retain,” Evans said.

She also said they’re in the process of implementing a policy that forbids a student with a 0.00 GPA from continuing after the first term.

Evans: A zero-point-zero historically has been allowed to continue because we haven’t done GPA review until the end of first year.

Stutz: Shameful. Shameful.

Evans: I completely agree. We are moving forward with zero-point-zero at the end of first term, they will no longer be welcome back for second term.

Western’s reputation

Stutz said she doesn’t want WIU to have the reputation of admitting students who are not prepared for college. She said they will drop out and be saddled with debt.

Stutz said WIU should be known for its fabulous faculty and programs. She said the college experience should be about learning, growing, and gaining life skills.

“Let’s help all the students who are coming here earnestly to learn, and let’s help the others find a more creative way to advance their futures,” Stutz said.

Radosh said WIU has developed the reputation of accepting anybody.

“Show up and we’ll take you for a year, and then we’ll get somebody else in here. And that is the wrong reputation for us,” Radosh said.

Evans said that for a long time, the university marketed itself as being affordable and offering a fun college experience. She said that under President Huang, they’re now emphasizing the high-quality academic experience.

Evans said they will continue to overhaul the institutional aid strategy in the next few years to achieve a discount rate and a net tuition revenue that’s competitive with Western’s peers and that works for the university.

Evans: I know we don’t have time. But it’s a slow turn, right?

Stutz: You’re making it a slow turn. It doesn’t have to be a slow turn.

Evans told the board that approximately 300 incoming freshmen for this fall had high school GPAs between 2.25 and 2.75 – students who generally need additional services to succeed in college.

Stutz and Radosh were stunned that those students were admitted.

Stutz: Did we not learn from this year? How in good conscience could you have set a goal of 2.25? It’s just mind-boggling.

Radosh: It’s time to pivot. From this point, we’re turning around because we’re going the wrong way.

Radosh said by admitting students with low GPAs, WIU will end up with another 52% retention rate.

Evans said various proposals are being discussed, but Stutz was not satisfied.

“When are you guys going to get together and make real decisions?” asked Stutz.

Shape up or ship out

Trustee Kirk Dillard sat quiet for much of the discussion. The former state senator is the newest member of the board – in fact, this was his first meeting since being appointed by Governor JB Pritzker.

Dillard listened for nearly an hour, and then weighed in.

“I will tell you, I was put here with conversations with the governor’s office, and we’re going to make changes and we’re going to make them yesterday. We’re not talking about them anymore. We’re going to actually do them or there will be massive changes here that I don’t think people have ever seen at this institution,” Dillard said.

At the conclusion of the lengthy enrollment discussion, Evans said, “Thank you for your time. And thank you, yes, we will make change.”

However, Evans will not be part of that process.

Change is underway

Less than three weeks after the meeting, President Huang announced a reorganization of the Division of Enrollment Management. He said it will be strategically realigned within several University divisions and then dissolved, effective immediately.

In response to an inquiry from Tri States Public Radio, a university spokesperson would only confirm that Evans no longer works for the university.

The changes did not end there.

Huang said that beginning this fall, new students who receive a scholarship funded by WIU will have to:

  • Complete an application for admission by May 1, 2023 for freshmen and Aug. 1, 2023 for transfers.
  • Be registered for classes by Aug. 1, 2023 for freshmen and Aug. 25, 2023 for transfers.

He also said all students will be required to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form or Alternative Application for State Aid form.
In the same missive to the university community, Huang said that at the beginning of Fiscal Year 2023, the university loaded the operating budget at 75% for each department. He said this will remain in effect for FY24.

In addition, all staff and faculty positions, including ongoing searches, must be reviewed and approved by the Cabinet. Positions that have not been filled for two years will be removed.

And in a July 18 campus email, Paul Edwards, WIU’s new Vice President for Finance and Administration, said “We must continue to hold the line on spending and look at further opportunities for savings and efficiency to ensure financial sustainability.”

Edwards said that purchases, as well as continuing and new contracts, should only be made for essential items.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  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.