University News

State of the University Address - Founders' Day 2013
President Jack Thomas - September 23, 2013

Why Western Can't Wait to Be Great

Good afternoon and welcome to our Founders' Day celebration here at Western Illinois University. Today, I will reflect on the history of this University and our aim as to why we can't wait to become great.

In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. penned a book titled, Why We Can't Wait. The inspiration for the book began in 1963 while Dr. King was incarcerated and wrote a Letter from a Birmingham Jail to respond to fellow clergymen who questioned why civil rights leaders were pushing so hard to change the societal norms of the time. In Why We Can't Wait, Dr. King explained why he opposed the gradualist approach to civil rights, and he articulated his growing frustration with the slow implementation of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and other equality policy measures. In 2001, Jim Collins wrote a bestselling management book titled, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't. Collins' book provides a description of how companies transition from being average companies to great companies and how companies can fail to make the transition. This book was a widely acclaimed best seller, selling over 4 million copies. In this address, I want to apply Dr. King's and Mr. Collins' book titles and use them as guiding lights for astute advice, genuine encouragement, and a clarion call for our University. Why Western Can't Wait to Be Great!

Western Illinois University is a very good University. Even during these challenging times in the State of Illinois, we have some very good things happening within the hallowed halls of Western and beyond. But good is not good enough anymore. We want this University to be great!

Let me highlight some of the good that took place during the 2012-2013 academic year. Western Illinois University cultivated relationships with other countries and international institutions of higher education. Through International Studies and Outreach, Western sought collaborative opportunities while on an educational mission to Botswana, Africa, which consisted of two visits. In return, Her Excellency Ambassador of the Republic of Botswana and other dignitaries visited our campus. We also hosted a delegation from Thailand, and partners from Germany, Australia, Spain, and China. These visits resulted in 10 Royal Thai Scholars, who are sponsored by their King. These scholars are some of the top students in their country. We also welcomed 16 students from Brazil who are sponsored by their government. Thanks to these collaborative partnerships, we expect more students to be coming to Western from other countries in upcoming semesters.

Three professors were named Fulbright Scholars during 2013. History Professor Tim Roberts is serving as a Fulbright Scholar in ChinaManagement Professor Joe Dobson will be teaching in Romania, and WIU-Quad Cities English Associate Professor Daniel Malachuk will be teaching in Germany.

We are excited that we have met our Capital Campaign goal of 60 million dollars despite these very challenging budgetary times. We are pleased with the beautification of our University as we want to become the most beautiful institution in the State of Illinois, if not in the nation. We are also proud of the $20 million renovation and opening of Thompson Hall, the renovation of Phase I of the Student Union and the opening of the new food court, the Connexio electronic signage in five locations on campus for better communication, and we look forward to the new signage at the entrance which is under construction at the north end of campus. We are also proud of the construction of Phase II of the Riverfront Campus in the Quad Cities, and we are looking forward to the opening of the second phase in the Fall of 2014. We anxiously wait for the release of funds for the Center for the Performing Arts, which will be a state of the art facility not only for Western Illinois University, but for the entire region. We are thankful for our many legislators for their support and keeping the Center for the Performing Arts on the forefront as well as other intiatives. Our next priority will be to build a new science facility, which we are in dire need of here at the University.

We are pleased that Western Illinois University continues to be named a "Best Midwestern University" and that WIU is one of 39 public universities (included among the 110 Midwestern college and universities) recognized as top tier "Best Regional Universities" by U.S. News and World Report. Of the 39 public universities included, Western is ranked 13th among the 110 Midwestern universities. For the ninth consecutive year, The Princeton Review has named Western a "Best Midwestern College." For the fifth consecutive year, Western has been designated as a "Military Friendly School" by G.I. Jobs Magazine. In addition, for the third consecutive year, Western has been selected as a "Best for Vets College" by Military Times EDGE magazine and is the only Illinois four-year university in the top 25. So as you have observed, we have some very good things going on at Western, and we have always had good things going on at this University even from its meager beginnings.

In 1899, Western Illinois University received its charter because of progressive thinking in action. From the beginning of the University's founding, Western Illinois University has always been a community of learners, a community of leaders, and a community of loyalists. The need for our University grew out of the need for innovation and education in the west-central region of Illinois. Before our charter, there was a need for teachers and a void of higher education opportunities in this region. Local statesman Lawrence Y. Sherman took the lead in gaining legislative approval to set up the school, and a group of citizens joined the efforts to locate it in Macomb. We have moved far past our good and humble beginnings, but it is time for us to move from being a good University to a great University. Why Western Can't Wait to Be Great!

I believe that there are a few fundamental reasons why Western can't wait to be great. Now, let me take a few moments to explain why. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the United States ranks 17th in global education rankings in the world, and we are trailing several Scandinavian and Asian nations. The United States is by far the most expensive place in the world to get a college education. Students in countries like Korea and Russia, where higher education was once rare, are going to college at a higher rate. If we are going to prepare the next generation for greatness, we must began by providing a superior education. We must assist students with acquiring the necessary knowledge to become successful and productive global citizens. The world is becoming increasingly smaller and more competitive in global markets. We must turn to innovation and seek new methodologies and new ways of thinking to rise to the challenges that we face as a 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. Many of our students are first-generation college students. I was also the first in my family to attend college. I grew up on a small farm in Calhoun, a small town in Lowndes County, Alabama, similar to some of the small towns here in the state of Illinois. 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 while enduring racism, hatred and discrimination. 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 experiences are not that much different from many of our students. Therefore, we must understand and work with them to help them make their transition from high school to college and to make sure that they are successful here at Western Illinois University. We are pleased that our Building Connections program is making a difference, where faculty, staff and administrators volunteer to mentor our students. We are also pleased with the new First Year Experience (FYE) program, where students are required to take two FYE courses in their first semester, one of which is University 100, a course that assists first-year students in transitioning to a successful college experience. The second course is a general education class. These courses are intended to help students develop their academic and personal skills to be successful at Western.

This year's freshmen survey indicated that 80% of our students stated that they needed employment to help them meet their financial obligations at Western. Therefore, the Vice President for Student Services and the Provost and Academic Vice President have been charged with seeking ways for more students to find jobs on and off campus to help them meet their financial obligations.

This year's entering freshmen class at Western Illinois University is more credentialed and talented than recent entering classes. Their ACT scores have increased from 20.7 last year to 21.1 this year. The overall grade point average has increased from 3.04 last year to 3.11 this year. There is a 16 percent increase in the number of new freshmen who meet all four of the ACT benchmark scores for college readiness. The number of WIU students scoring in the top 2 percent in the nation on the ACT has increased to 50 new students. Yes, we have enhanced our overall academic profile.

We are pleased with the increases in the number of students in the Centennial Honors College. Within the past two academic years, 10 honors students have been nominated for national awards, including Elizabeth Etta, WIU's first Truman Scholar Finalist. The previous year, Jenna Verity was WIU's first Rhodes Scholar Finalist. The Centennial Honors College has set a goal to nominate 20 honors students for national awards during the 2013-2014 school year.

We continue to encourage our students to seek international visits and also use our study abroad programs to encourage our students to study at foreign universities to enhance their global educational experiences. Josh Wood, a Western Illinois University graduate student studying Economics used his undergraduate study abroad experiences at Western to obtain a Fulbright Scholarship through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. Josh is teaching English in South Korea this academic school year.

We also have to move our students from matriculation to graduation without sacrificing the academic integrity of our University. Complete College America is a national initiative to increase the number of Americans with degrees and other credentials. We should examine our operations and processes to make sure that the entire University is utilizing best practices and operations. Using our collective creativity, we must search for audacious solutions to address our downward trends in funding and enrollment. Quite simply, if we do what we have always done, we will continue to get the same results. I will not bore you with the use of cliches such as "think outside the box" and "going to the next level," I will simply say that we want this University to be great, and we can no longer wait to become great.

We can no longer wait to become great because the state budget crisis necessitates a demand that Western Illinois University move from good and press towards greatness. We have been granted a level budget for the next academic year. While we are pleased that higher education did not see further reductions in its funding this year, our State appropriation is still far less than it was a few years ago. Based on our contractual obligation, individuals received a 3.5 percent salary increase for FY14, and are scheduled to receive a 4 percent salary increase for FY15. Everyone, including the economic experts, thought that the economy would be thriving again by now. All decisions are made with the best interest of the University and its people in mind. We must begin to think about the University in holistic terms and do what is in the best interest of Western Illinois University. We must move towards growth. We must seek funding for faculty endowments and secure new donors to contribute to the University. We must begin to seek external funding to offset the budget reductions and the rising cost of operating this University.

We should continue to partner with other institutions and become not just "a place," but "the place" where their undergraduate degree holders will seek graduate education. Currently, we have 37 graduate programs at Western. I would like to see all of these graduate programs increase student enrollments over the next several academic years. With some ingenuity and innovation, this will be realized. To move from good to great, we must become a viable option for graduate education.

As I look around today, I believe that there are individuals who believe as I do, that we can and must move from "a good University" to "a great University." You believe as I believe that there is a deep human yearning in all people to be better. There are many methodologies and formulas which can be utilized in moving us to greatness. One formula can be as simple as striving for greatness in all that we do. We didn't create the budget challenges and other downward trends in the State of Illinois, but we do have to be at the table to help solve them. If we are not at the table, that means that we are not on the menu. If we are not on the menu, then we cannot be at the table. We are all in this together. We all need each other in order for this to become a great University. Let me provide you with this illustration to emphasize and underscore my previous statements. Great individuals make great staffs. Great staffs make great units. Great faculty members make great departments and schools. Great departments and schools make great colleges. Great colleges make great universities. And great universities make great students and great alumni!

Why we can't wait to be great! It starts with each of us looking within ourselves and asking the question, "What can I contribute to move this University from good to great." Well, we all can do the five following things to move this university from good to great:

  1. Reflect on our mission and pursue greatness. Since 1902, our institution has provided services to this region and beyond.
  2. Release your own greatness. Do not strive to be good, strive to be great. Let us not just talk about greatness, let us be about greatness. Dr. King once said, "Lightning makes no sound until it strikes."
  3. Remain committed to our core values and standards; academic excellence, educational opportunity, personal growth and social responsibility. The core values infer that all of us will strive for greatness.
  4. Recognize the potential greatness of students and colleagues. All of us have a worth and dignity and deserves to be treated as such.
  5. Respond boldly to the challenges that we face. James Baldwin once said, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

We must put aside our differences for the common good of this University. As Dr. King once said, "Unity has never meant uniformity." We may disagree on what methodology to use in solving our problems, but we must agree to do the right thing for the sake of this University.

In attempting to explain to his daughter why she could not go to Fun Town, which was a local amusement park in Georgia, Dr. King also reflected on why America could not wait to fulfill its promise of liberty, justice, and equal treatment under the law.

As the eleventh president of Western Illinois University, I am no longer willing to accept the classification of this institution as a "good University." To paraphrase the language from Dr. King's book, Why We Can't Wait, I will not let the clouds of doubt form in the minds of our graduates and those who are employed and study at Western Illinois University. The overall educational experiences, instructional experiences, and extracurricular experiences that all individuals will have at this institution will be comparable to other prestigious universities. We will continue to put up a courageous fight to rise above other national and regional universities and move towards greatness. I want this to be a great University, and I will summon all of my resolve, my courage, and my fortitude to ensure the greatness of this institution. So join with me, as we approach this new academic year which is filled with the hope and promise of new opportunities to be great. At the end of our stride and pursuit of greatness, glory awaits this University, so Western Illinois University can no longer wait to become great.

We can't wait because higher education has made a dynamic change over the years.
We can't wait because State funding is no longer readily available anymore.
We can't wait because time waits on no one to change. We have to be risk takers and boldly make the change.
We can't wait because we must engage all members of the University community to achieve our goals and beyond.
Western Illinois University, we are a good University, but we will become a great University.