University News

Embracing the Echoes of Excellence

State of the University Address - Founders' Day 2015

Dr. Jack Thomas, President - Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Good afternoon, and happy birthday Western Illinois University! Each year, we gather to celebrate the birthday of Western Illinois University, known as Founders' Day. Today, we symbolically honor the freemasons of Illinois Lodge Number 17 who donated the land to establish Western Illinois State Normal School 116 years ago in 1899. Since that time, and our inaugural academic year opening 113 years ago on September 23, 1902, what has become Western Illinois University has flourished into a wonderful educational space full of academic learning and intellectual thought, with public service to the Macomb and West-Central Illinois communities and beyond.

Even though fiscal uncertainty in Springfield remains, I applaud this University community for remaining committed to providing an excellent education to our students who deserve our best. As I mentioned during my faculty assembly address, "at Western, we must keep one foot grounded in tradition with one foot pointed toward our future trajectory." 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 difficult times. In my 2015 spring commencement address, entitled " Now Is the Time ," I mentioned our University's history and how the faculty and students endured hardship by embracing the future.

In doing this, we continue to provide a comprehensive education as a regional public university that is focused on affordability and value. Approximately ninety three percent of our classes are taught by full-time faculty, and we offer a 15 to 1 student to faculty ratio. We continue to offer two doctoral programs, other graduate programs, and undergraduate programs. We continue to offer a four-year cost guarantee program that includes room, board, tuition, and fees, making us the only university in the state of Illinois and beyond to offer such program. Western has over 250 student organizations that students can join to enhance their leadership skills and provide service to others. Our overall student academic profile, for the incoming freshman class, has increased including grade point averages and ACT scores. Fifty-five percent of our student athletes have a 3.0 grade point average or higher, and we have increased our Western commitment scholarships.

Western Illinois University continues 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. We continue 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.

American author and feminist Zora Neale Hurston once said, "There are years that ask questions and years that answer." What questions will the echoes of 2015 ask us at Western Illinois University and the rest of the citizenry of Illinois? Will the state's budget crisis subside? Will there continue to be a political impasse between the state's political parties? What specific questions will the echoes ask? I do not know, but I know that the echoes of excellence are whispering move forward toward excellence. In my 2014 Founders' Day address entitled " Looking Back to Move Forward ," I urged the University to look back but keep moving forward toward our collective goals. One hundred years from now, what will the echoes ask and what will the echoes witness? Will they see the University achieving against the odds? Will the echoes see us rising and overcoming our challenges? What will the echoes of excellence see? While, our University has little to no control over many of the aforementioned developments, we must continue to move forward by focusing on our Higher Values in Higher Education, our core values: academic excellence, educational opportunity, personal growth, and social responsibility. We must also do some things differently than we have done before because if we continue do the same things, we will continue to get the same results. One of my mentors once told me that the most dangerous phrase in the language is "we've always done it this way." We must think big. We must continue to dream big. We cannot allow fear to decide our future, and therefore we must keep moving forward. Abraham Maslow once said, "You will either step forward into growth or you will step backward into safety." Great men and women have always listened to the echoes of excellence when facing new challenges.

In my 2013 Founders' Day address, entitled " Why Western Can't Wait to be Great ," I provided reasons why our University cannot wait to be great and how we could move toward greatness. In this moment, I am urging our University community to join me on this journey in pursuing excellence and greatness. I say to you today, that this is not going to be easy, but the difficult decisions must be made in order to chart a brighter future for Western Illinois University.

We have already begun to make difficult decisions. For FY ‘16, we eliminated operating funds across all areas, and we eliminated open positions. We reduced contracts for employees, and we also transferred employees to local fund budgets. We are making the necessary changes so that we may continue to provide students with a quality and well-rounded education.

Recently, I sent a letter to the University community where I established three task forces. Interim Provost Kathy Neumann is leading the Academic Enhancement Task Force to explore innovative approaches, strategies, and investments related to academic excellence. Vice President for Student Services Gary Biller is directing the Student Cost Task Force to uphold our commitment to educational opportunity and affordability. Vice President for the Quad Cities and Planning Joe Rives is leading the Planning Task Force for innovations to keep Western at the forefront of social responsibility and to serve as the economic and educational catalyst to our host communities, regions, and beyond.

In addition, we hope to continue partnering with the City of Macomb. As many of you may be aware, Realtor.com has listed Macomb as the third least expensive college town in which to live. The City of Macomb is making improvements. I commend the mayor and the city council for the capital improvements by widening the sidewalks along Adams Street, which will keep our students and other citizens safe. We hope to strengthen our continued partnerships. We commend the city for providing a landmark to denote the entryway on Adams Street to our University. Our University must continue to partner with the City of Macomb and engage in sustainable economic development for the region that offers jobs not only for the community and students. Economic development will provide the University and the city with an environment that is more conducive for recruiting and retaining students and employees in this region. As the mayor has publically stated, "As Western Illinois University goes, so goes the City of Macomb."

Pursuing excellence, especially while we are subject to financial constraints and difficulties may not be an easy task. I have discovered that the closer you get to excellence in your life, the more friends you will lose. People love you when you are average because it makes them comfortable, but when you pursue greatness, it can make some people uncomfortable. Unfortunately, we may have to prepare to lose some people on our journey to greatness and excellence. At Western, we do not want anyone to feel comfortable with mediocrity. When this era of the University's history is written, will the echoes see mediocrity? I certainly hope not.

This year, Insider Higher Education released a report that revealed that the nation's top universities with the largest endowments continue to neglect providing opportunities to low-income, first generation, but highly qualified and intelligent students, at their colleges and universities. According to a National Center for Education Statistics study, about 60 percent of low-income college students do not complete their degrees, and only 11 percent of first-generation college students complete their degrees. This University serves to provide educational opportunities for all people regardless of their race, religion, color, creed, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation and identity. Our doors are open for all who are willing to walk through them and take advantage of the many opportunities that we provide. One hundred years from now what will the echoes of excellence whisper?

The echoes of excellence will whisper the question, "What did Western do during its crisis?"

History will answer, "Western Illinois University continued to embrace cutting edge and innovative teaching, research, and service."

The echoes of excellence will whisper the question, "During the time of change did Western hold on to its core values?"

History will retort, "Western Illinois University remained committed to its core values."

The echoes of excellence will whisper the question, "How did they make it over?"

History will respond, "Western Illinois University focused on diversity and provided an outstanding learning environment."

The echoes of excellence will whisper the question, "How did they treat their undergraduate and graduate students?"

History will reply, "Western Illinois University treated everyone with dignity and mutual respect."

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. We must remain focused at Western, while remaining committed to excellence."

To all who are gathered here today, know that we will come out of this better and stronger, so be patient with us, stay focused, work together, and know that a brighter day is just ahead. Happy Birthday, Western Illinois University!