University News

State of the University Address - Founders' Day 2014
President Jack Thomas - September 23, 2014

Looking Back to Move Forward

We are assembled here today to pay homage to the founders of Western Illinois University and the city leaders of Macomb who had the vision to secure this location as the site of the institution. One hundred and twelve years ago, the impetus to establish a normal school in the western region of the state became a reality. Local leaders of Macomb along with Lawrence Y. Sherman, a politician and leader in the Illinois General Assembly, led the efforts to secure an institution of higher learning for this region. The enacting legislation to establish our forerunner, Western Illinois State Normal School was drafted by Attorney J.C. Thompson and was passed by the Illinois legislature on April 24, 1899. Though the legislation had been passed, the city of Macomb had to compete to be chosen as the location of the new school. Governor John Tanner chose the board of trustees and among their first duties was to move forward and choose the site for the new institution.

In determining the location of the institution, seventeen communities emerged as possible sites for the school. Aledo, La Harpe, Macomb, Monmouth, Oquawka, Quincy, and Rushville were in competition to become the possible location of the institution. Each of these towns offered financial packages and other incentives to entice the board of trustees to choose their site as the location of the school. The local citizens recognized the possible economic boom that a new institution would bring to their towns and region if they were granted this opportunity. It was not an easy decision to choose Macomb as the location for this institution. The city of Macomb faced some adversity before emerging as the prime location because the board of trustees was deadlocked in deciding a location.

After sixty-one sessions and 597 ballots, the board was dissolved and the governor appointed a new board to make the location selection. Local and regional politics were a major hindrance to the original board’s ability to reach a decision. Therefore, the governor convened a group of persons outside of the region to select the location. Prospective sites were allowed to persuade the board of trustees why their cities would be a prime location. Lawrence Sherman was chosen to make Macomb’s case to the board of trustees. After Sherman’s reasoned, eloquent, persuasive, and masterful argument, Macomb was chosen after only one round of voting. On August 14, 1900, Macomb was awarded with the honor of establishing this institution and the state legislature appropriated $75,000 to assist with constructing the institution’s first building, which was Sherman Hall. As news surfaced of the board’s selection, the citizens of Macomb celebrated and everybody for miles around knew that Macomb had been chosen.

When we look back and celebrate our founding, we must remember that there was a spirit of cooperation and collaboration with the Macomb townspeople and the founders. In October of 1900, the city of Macomb provided an abandoned brickyard to establish the campus. When Western Illinois State Normal school opened, we offered a two year program leading to a diploma. We opened with thirty-two juniors who had studied at other institutions. There were 229 students pursuing preparatory work and 103 students in grades one through eight of the training school. When our college opened, individuals were traveling to the school by horse and buggy or they walked. We opened with one building and there was no landscaping to beautify the campus, and most streets were unpaved.

In preparation for this speech, I looked back and thumbed through John Hallwas’ book, The First Century: A Pictorial History of Western Illinois University, which chronicles the history of our university. As I reflected upon the specific developments of our university, I pondered the possible rationale of the citizens who guided the efforts to secure Macomb as the location for this great institution. I thought about what they may have been thinking and why they diligently insisted that Macomb become the home of this institution. I believe they recognized what a privilege and honor it was to have a higher education institution in their community. I believe the citizens were excited about the possibilities associated with having a place of intellectual capital that would train teachers and expand educational opportunities for people in this region of Illinois. I believe they recognized how fortunate they were to have aspiring students to enrich the cultural and intellectual lives in their community. I believe they recognized and understood that having the school located in Macomb would bring prestige to this community and prosperity to local businesses. I believe that they appreciated the generated revenue that the school would bring to the region. They realized that a college would advance their towns and regions well into the 20th century. In essence, what these individuals recognized is what still holds true today, that a first-rate comprehensive university can be a significant source of economic development for a city and a region.

Today, we celebrate the founding and establishment of this university. We are celebrating by looking back at our history, so that we may move boldly toward the future. Noted philosopher, poet, and author, George Santayana once said, “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” We look back and we have learned from the lessons of the founders of this institution, and it has provided us with new and renewed inspiration and lessons for the future. I believe there are four lessons that can be gleaned from the narrative of the founding of this institution and its partnership with Macomb.

They Realized the Opportunities for Service

The first lesson that can be learned from our founders and the city of Macomb is that they “Realized” that securing the school would make this place a hub of opportunities for service to the community and the region. The townspeople realized that this institution could serve Macomb and beyond for the greater good of society. In their quest to improve the quality of life and the standard for living in the region, they knew that the normal school would improve their chances of doing so. They realized that this place could be a refuge for those seeking educational opportunities.

They realized that the purpose of any institution of higher learning goes beyond educating students in classrooms, but also to serve the larger communities in which they are located. The mission of this institution is rooted in our responsibility to educate and to serve. At our founding, there was a need for more teachers to educate students in rural areas of Illinois, specifically West Central Illinois. Our founders realized that this need was also an opportunity that could only be answered by embracing the call to prepare teachers to go forth and teach the region’s children. Today, teacher education is one of our signature programs. After all, our first mascot was the Fighting Teachers! Teachers are essential to the advancement of our society and serving our communities. We must recognize the opportunities we have to serve, if we do not, we risk becoming irrelevant. There remains an opportunity for us to serve this region and the needs of our community and the cities near our institution. We have a responsibility to reaffirm our commitment to service, and while we reaffirm this commitment, we must heed our lessons from the past while looking to the future moving forward in a positive and meaningful direction.

They Were Ready for Change

The second lesson that can be learned from the actions of our founders and the city of Macomb is that they were “Ready.” They were ready to move from their old comfort zones and were ready to take a bold new step toward a prosperous future. They were ready for change and advancement. They were ready to move forward and do whatever it took to secure Macomb as the location for the new school. They were ready to meet the challenges that were before them. Just as our founders, we must be ready to meet the challenges that we face. We must prepare ourselves for all of the challenges of operating a first-rate 21st century university. At a time when there are so many universities in which students can choose to attend, we must appreciate those who have chosen us, and we must be ready to show this appreciation in all of the services that we provide. We must be willing and ready to provide all of the amenities and state of the art facilities in a time of diminishing resources. We must resist becoming paralyzed with complacency. If complacency is left unchecked, it becomes mediocrity. If mediocrity is left unchecked, then it becomes endemic and negatively affects the entire university. As leader of this institution, I refuse to allow this university to be viewed as anything less than a first-rate institution of the highest-quality. As Jim Collins says in his book, From Good to Great, we are moving from a good university to a great university. However, we still have great tasks to complete. I truly understand and appreciate how hard faculty and staff work at this university. We must identify ways to be more, to do more, and to gain a competitive edge. We simply cannot do things as we have always done. We must be innovative and be willing to think beyond generally accepted concepts and perspectives. We must broaden our minds and our thinking to develop and accept new methods for completing tasks. We can gain a competitive edge by celebrating our storied past and accomplishments, but also be ready to move forward to compete with our peer aspirant institutions.

They Rose to Meet their Challenges and Competitors

The third lesson that can be learned from our founders is that they “Rose” above their competitors to meet the challenges of securing Macomb as the location for the new school. They did not give up after they failed to emerge as the clear-cut choice after 61 times of voting. In my 2014 spring commencement address, entitled Graduates of Purple and Gold: Great Thinkers, Game Changers, and Generous People, I used our university’s colors, Purple and Gold as a metaphor and a description of how I wanted our graduates and all those associated with our institution to be known. I stated that I wanted our university’s color “purple” to represent “passion” and “gold” to represent “grit.” Our founders had both passion and grit. They showed grit and rose above the multiple balloting, gridlock of the voting process, and the politics of the time. They rose above the adversity to ensure that this city and region and their new normal school would have a reasonable opportunity to survive. As a university, I am calling on all of us to harness our passion and grit. We must be able to rise to the challenges and adapt and remain a nimble organization to educate a new era of students while embracing the emerging trends in higher education. Albert Einstein once said that, “The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.” Western Illinois University will continue to utilize best-practices in higher education, but we will rise and create some of our own best-practices which other universities will follow in the future. The phrase, “This is how we do it at Western,” should only be used if it is referring to best-practices or innovations. This will be accomplished by having individuals at Western who are not afraid of being innovative and doing things differently than we have in the past. In the spirit of the founders of this institution and the leaders of the city at the time it was founded, I want to encourage the city leaders. For our university and the city to flourish and meet the challenges that we face, we need one another and we must work together. We need economic development and other amenities and businesses to remain competitive with other universities located in larger cities or metropolitan areas. Additional restaurants that provide variety and various options will assist Western Illinois University’s efforts to recruit and retain faculty, staff, and students. During this academic year, I plan to host town hall meetings and compile a list of desired amenities that students, faculty, and staff would like. The university will continue to partner with the City of Macomb to secure reasonable amenities on this list. Our university and the City of Macomb must remain innovative to remain relevant.

They Understood Relevancy

The fourth lesson learned from our founders is that they understood remaining “Relevant” required them to look inward and constantly evaluate their successes and failures. We must be certain that our institution has the ability to remain relevant in this ever-changing world. This is pivotal in our contemporary and global society. We must look at ourselves and champion our successes and build on them and learn from our failures. In last year’s Founders’ Day address entitled, “Why Western Can’t Wait to Be Great,” I laid out an argument why we must be innovative to remain relevant. If we continue to wait to be great, our institution and the city in which we live may become irrelevant. Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks once said, “A business (university) today that embraces the status quo as an operating principle is going to be on a death march.” We cannot settle for the status quo. We cannot embrace mediocrity. In the contemporary world, things are constantly changing. From shifting economic forecasts to the ever changing knowledge, skills, and abilities needed by our graduates, our university remaining relevant is a high priority for me and my leadership team. Relevancy is essential to both our credibility and viability as an institution of higher learning. To remain relevant requires us to have vision and forethought. In 1935 in an address to the House of Commons discussing the relevancy of maintaining Austria’s independence, Winston Churchill stated:

"When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand, we apply too late the remedies which then might have affected a cure...There is nothing new in the story. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong. These are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history."

We must evaluate our policies and procedures and then we must abandon those policies and procedures which are outdated. Like Churchill noted, we must remain effective by applying solutions to minor problems before they become systemic problems. To remain relevant, we must do a better job of telling the Western Illinois University story. We must do a better job of telling everybody about all of the good things that we have going on at our university. By telling our story, we will continue to gain recognition from our accomplishments and remain relevant. In telling the Western Illinois University story, we should trumpet that Western has moved from 53rd to 39th place out of 109 public and private schools on the top tier list of "Best Regional Universities” in the U.S.News and World Report. Yes, of the 39 Midwestern public universities, WIU has moved up from number 14 when I took office as president to number 10 in the U.S.News’ Best Midwestern University rankings. Also, Western is one of 159 regional universities, and one of three Illinois public institutions, named to the "Best in the Midwest" list by The Princeton Review . Currently, there are 511 international students from 59 countries studying on our campus. Our retention rate continues to rise. At tenth day, our freshmen to sophomore (fall to fall) retention rate had gone from 63.3% to 72.2%, which is a 9% increase from last year, and we continue to be recognized by G.I. Jobs Magazine as a military friendly institution. These and many of our other accomplishments continue to raise the profile of Western Illinois University.

Today, as we pause for a moment to look back reflecting upon our founders and their contributions to what is now Western Illinois University, we must be encouraged as we move forward to continue accomplishing our goals. While we are grateful for the events of 1899 through 1902, in 2014 we are looking ahead into the future.

We are looking back to our first building Sherman Hall, but we are moving forward with the Center for the Performing Arts.

We are looking back to the 229 students who were from this region, and represented our institution’s first class, but we are moving forward with the 11,458 students who are currently enrolled.

We are looking back to our initial students, but we are moving forward with students from 59 countries and 38 states.

We are looking back to our initial curriculum in our beginnings, but we are moving forward with 104 outstanding degree offerings and 21 superb certificates that are available at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

We are looking back to the first group of faculty members who consisted of 9 normal school teachers, 3 training school teachers, and 1 librarian, but we are moving forward with highly-talented and productive 658 faculty members on both campuses.

We are looking back to our first mascot, when we were called the “Fighting Teachers,” but we are moving forward with the “Fighting Leathernecks.”

We are looking back to our initial athletic programs and Rock Hanson, but we are moving forward restoring the glory with an energized Tommy Bell.

We are looking back to Mayors Theodore B. Switzer and Washington J. Pech who were the mayors when our institution was charted and founded, but we are moving forward with Mayor Michael Inman.

We are looking back to Henninger, Bayliss, and Morgan but we are moving forward with a dynamic leadership team: Thomas, Hawkinson, Bainter, Biller, DeWees, Rives and most importantly – You.

We are looking back to Western Illinois State Normal School, but we are moving forward with the mighty Western Illinois University.

We are looking back but we are moving forward. Thank you.