University News

Fiscally Challenging Times

2015 Faculty Assembly Address

Dr. Jack Thomas, President - Thursday, August 20, 2015

Good morning, and welcome to the 2015 Faculty Assembly here at Western Illinois University. I hope that everyone has had an enjoyable and productive summer, and that you have returned refreshed for this academic year. To the returning faculty and staff, I want to be among the first to welcome you back as you continue your excellent service to this University. To the new faculty, I would like to add my welcome to that of the deans. Let me assure you that you have selected an excellent institution, and we were wise in choosing you. Although the budget crisis in the State of Illinois has created significant fiscal challenges for our University, it is important, now more than ever, for us to come together as a university community to discuss what we must do to prepare for the future. As we work to equip our students with a quality and well-rounded education, we must be intentional about our goals while we remain focused on the challenges we face in this state as a higher education entity.

Each year, we convene this assembly, which symbolizes the commencement of a new academic year. Although we begin this academic year under a cloud of financial uncertainty, as usual, I am looking forward to a creative and productive academic year. However, I understand that this uncertainty can cause much concern. We cannot allow this to become fear and make us become stagnant and therefore prevent us from pursuing excellence. The State Legislature and the Governor continue to deliberate on the Fiscal Year 2016 budget.

These negotiations include business reforms, increased taxes, and further reductions to state appropriations. As many of you are aware, Western Illinois University's state appropriation has declined from $64.3 million in Fiscal Year 2002 to $51.4 in Fiscal Year 2015. This 20.9 percent ($12.9 million) reduction continues to have a dramatic impact on our university. This Fiscal Year 2016, the proposed budget reduces our appropriation by 8.6 percent ($4.5 million) over the original Fiscal Year 2015 appropriation. We understand the anxiety that individuals are feeling because of the budget impasse. We all share some of those same anxieties. We continue to be engaged daily with our legislators, and we are strongly advocating for adequate funding for Western Illinois University. Our university was one of two public universities asked to provide testimony to the Illinois State Senate on college affordability. When asked what percentage of a reduction Western Illinois University could endure, my response was simply 0%. Truthfully, we cannot stand for anymore reductions to our state appropriation. Recently, I represented the presidents and chancellors of public universities in the State of Illinois at the Illinois Board of Higher Education meeting. I spoke about the pressures and challenges we are facing due to the budget impasse. Secretary of Education Beth Purvis also visited our campus while on a tour in our region. I have been meeting with members of our Board of Trustees, discussing our needs, our plans, and how they may assist us in our efforts. Our government liaison, Jeanette Malafa, has been working tirelessly in Springfield to make sure that Western is at the forefront in various meetings and hearings. We are doing all that we can do to advocate for Western Illinois University and higher education in our state. But we must wait with other state entities to learn the final outcome for this fiscal year. While we wait, we must continue to embrace excellence and to be at the forefront of the discussions in Springfield.

During this time, we have been forced to reduce expenses, reallocate funds, and increase tuition in order to protect the quality education that we provide to the citizens of Illinois and others, all while still balancing the budget. This has taken a toll on our faculty and staff, facilities, and most certainly, on our students, yet we are forced to make strategic choices about where our funds are allocated. Our employees continue to provide quality work despite dwindling resources. We continue to face many challenges. Difficult decisions must be made, but we must continue to embrace excellence.

Though uncertainty remains in Springfield, we must begin to take action now on our Fiscal Year 2016 plans. The vice presidents and I have prepared a preliminary budget, as well as a list of possible reductions that may be made for the upcoming year. We have cut nearly $4 million in appropriated expenditures for Fiscal Year 2016. Given the preliminary budget that has been proposed in Springfield and these reductions, we still anticipate a $6 million budget shortfall for Fiscal year 2016. We will use University reserves to cover this shortfall for one year. Great care and thought have gone into these decisions in order to do what is best for the University. The vice presidents have been meeting with members of their respective divisions to provide context and information regarding any further reductions that will affect their areas.

Any proposed reduction in positions will be in line with student enrollment and credit hour production, and market needs. We will continue to review class sizes, and teaching loads, and we may consider centralizing some college services.

The leadership team and I have evaluated the salary increases that are scheduled for Fiscal Year 2016. We have several collective bargaining agreements that are in place to provide a 2 percent increase. Given the uncertainty of the Fiscal Year 2016 State appropriation, we are postponing the decision regarding salary increases for non-negotiated personnel until the General Assembly and Governor approve a budget. Given the financial situation of the state, postponing this decision is prudent. We appreciate the understanding of our employees during this time. We have already begun to discuss the Fiscal Year 2017 budget. Knowing the realities of our own challenges and what we face in Springfield, we will come to the University community during the fall 2015 semester to discuss the financial situation and provide the necessary information about how Western will move forward. By announcing the initial Fiscal Year 2017 plans early, we hope to provide the University a predictable strategy and set the expectations of what will be necessary to balance a difficult budget. We will be faced with even more challenges in the coming years, but we must continue to embrace excellence.

These challenges must lead to discussions about how we deliver education to our students, and the types of programs we offer. They must drive us to consider change. It will take strong leadership and courage from the entire University, so Western Illinois University emerges stronger and with more resolve for our mission than ever before. I am asking the University community for understanding regarding the upcoming reductions and to embrace the changes that will be necessary for Western Illinois University to remain a leading university in public higher education regionally and nationally and to continue to embrace excellence.

Though we have been under a cloud of financial uncertainty because of the State of Illinois, our university has remained focused and accomplished many of our holistic goals and benchmarks.

We continue to embrace excellence. We continue to rank as a Best Midwestern College by the Princeton Review and we are also recognized as a top tier Best Regional University by U.S. News and World Report. Operating in the now with an eye on the future allows our university to be ranked as a Military Friendly School by G.I. Jobs Magazine, and a Best for Vets College by Military Times EDGE Magazine, and to the U.S. President's Honor Roll for Service. We continue to have our students and faculty compete for prestigious awards and recognition, such as the Fulbright, Rhodes, Truman, Goldwater and many others. While we have made some strides, we continue to await $6.6 million owed to us from the previous fiscal year. Fiscal conservatism and accountability have been hallmarks of Western's business operations. We have worked to keep the University on safe financial footing by conservatively managing our budgets, and we will continue to do so. I urge other fiscal agents at this University to be conservative in their spending. As we move boldly into the future, we will have to examine our policies, procedures, and processes. In reviewing the procedures, we may have to create, combine, and in some cases, make the necessary cuts.

Any cuts and changes must be strategic. We must consider reducing programs and services that are not essential to student learning. We are reviewing academic offerings and student services. We are also considering student enrollment, credit hour production, class sizes and teaching loads. We are reviewing academic departments and service areas. Some areas need reinvestment, but this may come at the expense of other areas. We must define ourselves before someone else does. We have to ensure that we are operationally and financially efficient in all areas. We must enhance our WIU story and recruitment efforts, and further strengthen those programs that set us apart from others.

At Western, we must keep one foot grounded in tradition with one foot pointed toward our future. This university has faced difficult times in its history, and we have always risen to meet those challenges. The echoes of past excellence tell me that our university will endure these difficulties. In my 2015 spring commencement address, entitled "Now Is the Time," I mentioned our university's history and how the faculty and students endured hardships by embracing the future. In that commencement address, I stated that during World War II, our enrollments were small and the "now" forced the school to become innovative and change curriculum to reflect the changing society and future societal needs. The "current–now," which is the uncertainty of these times may force us to streamline our operations at the University, just as it did in the mid–1940s.

We are motivated by the echoes of excellence of our university's past. My leadership team and I are thankful for the support that we have received from the University community thus far. My leadership team as well as all of those who hold supervisory roles will continue to treat all employees with dignity and respect. But let me say that we should all treat one another with civility and mutual respect. My team and I truly believe in shared governance, and we have kept faculty, staff, and students informed of the budgetary and other developments in regards to the University. We will continue to deliver factual information. We will continue to keep you informed about developments regarding our beloved University. I understand that the uncertainty we are facing today sometimes breeds rumors but my leadership team and I will continue to deal with the facts.

The echoes of excellence will whisper the question, "How did they make it through those difficult days?" History will say, "Western Illinois University remained committed to excellence."

Western Illinois University Family, we must remain focused on Western, while remaining committed to excellence and providing students with the best educational experience. Thank you.