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WIU board to administration: ‘You’ve got some tough decisions in front of you’

Rich Egger

The Western Illinois University Board of Trustees on Thursday received an update on the administration’s efforts to move the institution forward as it struggles with financial and enrollment challenges.

“We want you to make the best decisions for the long-term sustainability for Western, that it is here to serve students like us who have loved this institution, for many generations to come,” said Carin Stutz, board chairperson and a WIU alumna.

She acknowledged the administration won’t be able to please everyone.

“You’ve got some tough decisions in front of you. You will have to make some decisions because time is running out,” Stutz said.

After the meeting, board member Doug Shaw also said there will be hard decisions. He said board is prepared to support the administration’s choices.

“I remain optimistic about Western. That’s why I’m here and I’m sure the other board members feel the same way. They wouldn’t be here if we didn’t feel optimistic,” Shaw said.

“It took us a while to get to the situation we’re in. It’s going to take a while to get back, but I’m confident we can do it.”

The board had hoped to receive a report from the consulting firm that administrators hired late last year, but none was available.

The consultants

The administration signed a contract with EAB Global, Inc. on Oct. 30. The firm will be paid $200,000 per year for three years to provide guidance on the current challenges.

EAB’s assignment is to help Western as the school tackles enrollment and financial challenges.

Paul Edwards, WIU’s Vice President of Finance and Administration, said EAB and the administration are trying to figure out how to save money while simultaneously growing programs and the institution.

“EAB is not coming in just to cut programs,” he said, adding that the university cannot cut its way to sustainability.

Edwards also emphasized that EAB won’t be making the decisions on how to proceed – the firm will offer suggestions, but the administration will make the decisions along with input from the campus community.

He said EAB will advise on enrollment, retention, and online programs, and that there is a constant re-evaluation of what is being done and what’s being provided.

“They are here to help figure out should something be reduced or cut. Yes, that is a part of the process. They are (also) going to tell us about what should grow, what should we invest in,” Edwards said.

Like others, he said decisions will need to come sooner rather than later.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We don’t have time to wait anymore. 18 months or two years from now we’re going to have a problem if we don’t do something,” Edwards said.

He said the institution will need to think differently, “Not only about who we are, but who we want to be and how we intend to get there.”

A shrinking workforce

Fewer hands are on-deck to help WIU right the ship.

John Smith, Interim Vice President for Student Success, said that as a result of cuts since 2012, “(There’s been) a 38% overall reduction in actual bodies working here and providing services that students need, whether it’s in the classroom or the services that follow up and wrap around to help those students be successful outside of the classroom.”

He also said Western needs to do a better job of reaching out to students who are struggling or have dropped out suddenly. He said better outreach will allow the institution to help such students succeed in finishing their degree.

“How long does it take for us to reach out and say, ‘Why did you leave? How can we help you? You’re important to us.’ In some cases, it may take a week. In other cases, we do it in a day. In other cases, we don’t know until the end of the semester,” Smith said.

“We don’t have those guardrails in place in all areas to help catch those students.”

Smith said when the registrar sees that someone has withdrawn, an advisor should receive an alert and then have 24 hours to contact the student to find out what’s going on.

“If we don’t do that, our retention is going to continue to do what it’s doing,” he said.

Smith also said the university needs to market stories of what students love about WIU, and it needs to upgrade amenities that current students want.

He also disputed complaints that WIU doesn’t recruit locally.

“I have data that says over the past five years we’ve increase our local recruitment by 33% -- 33% more local and regional students are coming to WIU,” he said.

The next Board of Trustees meeting will be held March 21-22 in Macomb.

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.