Inaugural Address - Founders’ Day 2011
President Jack Thomas - September 23, 2011
To the members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, the University community, and all who have come from far and near, to share in this day, here at Western Illinois University – I especially want to thank my wife, Linda, and our sons, Patrick and Darius (please stand to be recognized). I am very excited that my father is here today-Mr. Clinton Thomas, Sr., and my sister, The Honorable Mayor Helen Thomas Bell, and all of my other family members and friends who have traveled a great distance to be here today.
I want to dedicate this address in honor of my mother, who is the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and could not be with us today. I also want to acknowledge my dear brother, Mr. Marshall Clifford Thomas, who is not here because he had to stay home to be by my mother’s bedside. I want to dedicate this address in honor of my oldest living relative, Ms. Susie Jones, who was born in 1899, the same year as the founding of Western Illinois University. She is noted as the oldest woman living in the state of New York and has recently turned 112 years old.
This is a very humbling experience, and I am honored to have been chosen as the 11th president of Western Illinois University. I am reminded of an excerpt from “A Rock Cries Out to us Today,” by Maya Angelou, who wrote this poem for President Bill Clinton’s Inauguration, which says…
Lift up your Eyes Upon
This Day Breaking for You.
Give Birth Again
To the Dream.
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning...
horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country...
on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, and into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
With hope --
Today, we observe the inauguration and founding of Western Illinois University. It is a day of celebration, a day of hope, and a day where we observe the past, the present and the future.
We must look to the future with confidence while focusing on the dreams and vision that will set us apart, as Jim Collins would say, as a great University. Let us not forget that this institution was founded in 1899 and started with only 229 students and now today, we have over 13,000 students and two campuses.
We take pride in this great University. I came to Western Illinois University almost four years ago, and I have learned to appreciate its mission and vision. I have learned to appreciate the core values: Academic Excellence, Educational Opportunity, Personal Growth, and Social Responsibility. I am a cheerleader and champion for this great University.
As a product of public education, I understand the importance of public universities like Western Illinois University. If it had not been for public universities like Western, I would not be standing before you today. You see, I was a first-generation college student, like many of our current students. I grew up on a small farm in Calhoun, a small town in Lowndes County, Alabama, where my sister now serves as the first female African American mayor. My parents were not able to get a formal education because they had to work in the fields and lived through the tumultuous battles for civil rights. I can remember my mother saying “Son, I want you to finish high school and go to college. Someone has to do something a little different from what we have done.” Through my mother’s encouragement, I began to excel in my studies. It was also my father who taught me the importance of a strong work ethic. My mother is now in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. If she could be here today, to share in this moment in my life, I know that she would be extremely proud. So today, I salute my parents who raised me well, and instilled values, such as honesty and integrity, that have served me well throughout my life.
I want to personally thank President Emeritus Dr. Al Goldfarb for working with me on a smooth transition before he retired and left office. President Emeritus Goldfarb has had a stellar career here at Western and in the state of Illinois. He did an excellent job in making sure that Western is at the forefront of Illinois public higher education. (President Goldfarb, please stand and be recognized)
As president of this great institution, I will continue to work with all constituencies to continue to move this university forward, while maintaining quality during a time of diminishing resources. We must meet head on the challenges that we face. Our challenges include a decreased budget, enrollment, deferred maintenance, facilities, and others we cannot even predict.
We now have a new leadership team that is energetic and focused on moving Western Illinois University to the next level. In order to build upon this University’s historic and stellar reputation, we will continue to focus on those activities that will give this institution a competitive edge.
I will continue to be committed to shared governance and building consensus. We will continue to work closely with all of our governing bodies and union representatives as we have always done. With the help of all constituents, this institution will continue to progress.
We will build Western Illinois University’s reputation as a leading public institution of higher education in the state of Illinois. We will continue to be recognized for providing a quality and well-rounded education by focusing on strengthening our undergraduate and graduate programs, niche activities and maintaining the institution’s reputation for access and affordability, while maintaining admissions and educational standards.
Even in these difficult economic times, we have much to be proud of at Western. Recently, we received the Carnegie Classification for community engagement and outreach. U.S. News and World Report ranked Western 14th as a public school among Midwestern Regional Universities. Western is one of 37 public universities included among the 110 Midwestern college and universities recognized as top tier "Best Regional Universities" by U.S. News and World Report. We have been chosen for the 7th year as a Best Midwestern University by The Princeton Review. We were the only regional public university in Illinois on Forbes’ list of Best Universities. We were the only university in Illinois on the Education Trust’s list of universities that has the smallest gap between the graduation rates of Latino and Caucasian students, and the Southern Regional Education Board chose Western as one of 15 universities to be highlighted for successful retention and graduation rates. Western is the only Illinois institution, and one of three in the Midwest, among 32 higher education institutions in the nation, being recognized for helping students stay on track and graduate in a new national report published by HCM Strategists, a Washington, D.C. public policy advocacy firm. We are very proud of our national recognitions in various areas of service, but we intend to continue to build on our successes.
Now we must become more proactive in improving our retention and graduation rates. I have asked the Vice President for Student Services and the Interim Provost to convene a committee to create a retention plan that will help our students succeed.
For this academic year and years to come, we will focus more on targeted enrollment. We have begun to set aside more funding for scholarships to enhance our retention and graduation rates and to recruit even more high-achieving students. We will enhance our Honors Program to better serve students and to ensure that our Honors Program is on forefront of this institution.
We will continue to recruitmore mid-range students, while remembering our mission to provide access to a wide range of students and to remain as an institution that is affordable, one that will not put the increasing economic burden on our students. We will continue to assess the needs of the campus and make the best decisions with our students in mind. As a public institution, we must support all of our students and to make sure that they have every opportunity to succeed. We will enhance our First Year Experience Program. We will continue to benchmark our peer institutions in an effort to identify best-practices and enhance services where necessary. We want to be sure that we are meeting the needs of all undergraduate students as well as our graduate students.
By strengthening external funding and private fundraising, and building and cultivating financial and political support for WIU, and its programs, we will be able to provide additional financial support for students with economic need. If we are supporting our students, we are supporting our future. We are supporting Western Illinois University.
This fall we brought in the largest freshman class that we have had in the past four years. Therefore, we have created the Right Size Committee, which has been charged with developing a Strategic Enrollment Plan that will consider what we want to become in the future. We want to work on quality and to consider the appropriate growth of this University. That also includes the growth of the School of Graduate Studies and the improvement of its reputation.
We recognize that the quality of this institution is rooted in the faculty and staff who serve this institution and its students. We will continue to support the faculty travel awards that I started in 2008 so that faculty will continue their professional development as they engage in teaching and research and to keep up with the latest trends in their disciplines. We will continue to support the staff in their professional development. We will also enhance technology for our faculty and staff to make sure that they have the necessary tools needed to help our students.
We have put more funding into marketing and have enhanced our marketing plan to better tell the Western Illinois University story.
We will also continue to focus on our capital projects: the construction and completion of the Performing Arts Center in Macomb, and the completion of Phases I, II, and III of the Riverfront campus in the Quad Cities. We are in dire need of a new science complex that we will soon pursue. We are working to beautify the entrance to campus by creating a Welcome Center which will serve as a one-stop-shop, with satellite offices of Admissions, Financial Aid, and other student services. In order to do so, we will demolish the old Godfather’s Pizza building and renovate the old Cinemas I & II building and create a grand entrance to our campus that will say “Welcome to Western Illinois University.” We are hard at work finding a way to relocate the Heating Plant, and to update the facilities to better serve the University.
I am especially committed to strengthening and supporting a climate of community, understanding, mutual respect, and appreciation for multicultural issues for all people. We will not settle on being the 14th top public university in the Midwest. Our strategic plan calls for us to be the leader , and that is what we will become. That is the reason I have charged the Strategic Plan Committee to review and update the existing plan. If we are going to move forward as a University, we must be proactive. We must think big. We must dream big, and we must achieve our goals.
Finally, I want to leave you with the words of George Bernard Shaw, which reflects my leadership style and my commitment to Western Illinois University and the community:
My life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have...for [only] a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
Western Illinois University – the future of this great institution is in our hands. We must work while we still have breath in our bodies, hope and determination in our hearts, energy and fire in our bellies, lessons and experiences to teach our students and the courage to stand even if we have to stand alone. Let Western ring from the bell tower of Sherman Hall, let it ring from the banks of the riverfront in the Quad Cities, let it ring from the University Center of Lake County in Chicago, let it ring from every Western classroom and learning space! Let it ring, let it ring...let it ring, let it ring! Let Western ring!