University News

Western Illinois University Will Rise Up

State of the University Address - Founders' Day 2016

Dr. Jack Thomas, President - Friday, September 23, 2016

Good afternoon and welcome to the 2016 Founders’ Day Celebration. I extend my gratitude to our special guests, to our faculty, staff, students, alumni, and friends. I especially want to welcome Senator McGuire, Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee. I also have members of my President’s Student Roundtable here today. Please stand to be recognized.

On this day, we take time to commemorate and celebrate the founding of this great University. It is a time that we become nostalgic and reflect on how far our University has come from its humble beginnings. 1899 is significant because it is the year that our University (Western Illinois State Normal School) was founded.

Significant developments that occurred in 1899 include, Bayer Corporation’s trademarking “Aspirin,” noted scholar W.E.B. DuBois published his book, “The Philadelphia Negro,” and composer, Scott Joplin introduced ragtime music to the United States. The year that our University was founded, the battery-powered flash light was invented and a version of the paperclip was produced. That same year, John S. Thurman patented a version of the vacuum cleaner, which was a vacuum fueled by gasoline. It is hard to imagine that a house that potentially smelled like gasoline could be considered clean – even if the carpets were spotless. Well, just as the vacuum cleaner has advanced, our University has advanced. In 1899, at Sears and Roebuck, a twenty-pound box of crackers costed 97 cents, a twelve-pound box of premium chocolate costed 20 cents per pound, and laundry soap costed $2.95 for a box of one hundred bars or 6 cents per bar. Sears’ prices have changed (a lot) since 1899 and our University has evolved since our founding in 1899.

In 1899, a group of resilient individuals had a vision and intestinal fortitude, which proved sufficient to secure the support that was necessary to establish this University in Macomb. They knew that securing a university in this town would positively impact the economic success of the city of Macomb, and raise not only the economic profile, but the educational profile as well. They knew that a university located in this town would allow its citizens to rise economically, and that it would benefit those persons who lived in the neighboring communities within this region. Now, 117 years later, Western’s economic impact on the sixteen-county region is $436 million. The founders and the city’s citizens were relentless in their pursuit of this institution. They lobbied and labored for the right to call this institution their own. Western Illinois University and Macomb’s citizens remain resilient, relentless, and ready for the next chapter in our University’s history. I include the citizens of Macomb because the city’s destiny and the University’s destiny are tied together. The successes at the University and the city have been intertwined from the founding of this great institution, and both entities will continue to be connected well into the future.

We do not have to make Western great again. Despite reduced state funding and other impediments, we have remained great. I proclaim if we stay strong and together, we will rise up to higher heights. Western Illinois University is resilient. We are relentless in our pursuit of excellence and distinction of establishing ourselves as the preeminent force of higher education in the region and state, and also nationally and internationally.

We continue to rise up, despite inadequate state funding. At the University’s founding, we were state funded. Somehow things changed, and we became state supported. Now, the perception is that we are merely state affiliated. The stop-gap funding from the state of Illinois provided us with $31.4 million in state appropriations plus $5.1 million in Monetary Award Program (MAP) grant funding. Lawmakers approved the stop-gap measure at the end of June in the waning hours of the 2016 fiscal year. Some of these funds were used to pay off obligations from last fiscal year. As you are aware, we received little state financial support and to keep the University functioning, we were forced to spend our reserves. The remaining funds are being applied to this fiscal year’s expenses. We are also operating on the tuition and fees collected this academic year. Things are better, but as we say in Alabama, we are not out the woods yet. Without another state appropriation, we may face similar circumstances that we faced during the previous year. More than 3,000 students enrolled in summer classes. However, the summer school enrollment figures were down. August 22 marked the beginning of the 2016 fall semester, and our total tenth-day student enrollment is 10,373 students. We are pleased that our new freshman enrollment remained stable, and our retention rate has increased. Our graduation rate has also increased.

We have made some changes. We have had to make some difficult decisions to get to where this University should be based on our enrollment and other external factors. Many of the difficult decisions that were made involved the elimination of some degree programs, and placing an emphasis on minors while administratively shifting some academic units to strengthen their impact as collective units on campus, rather than as independent departments with lower enrollments.

A year ago, the University employed approximately 1,900 personnel. During the course of the school year, as the University struggled with the lack of a state appropriation, 59 employees took advantage of an early retirement incentive program that was offered. Approximately 110 employees were laid off. Most recently, 87 positions have been called back. Some of our former employees have, understandably, taken professional opportunities elsewhere. Therefore, we are still in the process of hiring for some of those positions. Even with these changes, I can say unequivocally, “Western Illinois University has a bright future.”

We continue to show our resilience by being the only institution (in Illinois) that has a cost guarantee program that includes more than tuition, but also room, board, and fees as well. I believe this makes Western a very appealing institution. We have increased the number of high school visits and decreased tuition by three percent for new students. We all are responsible for student recruitment. It is not just the responsibility of our admissions personnel. It is everyone’s responsibility.

We continue to be resilient by remaining to be recognized as a Best Midwestern College by the Princeton Review for thirteen consecutive years and also recognized as a top tier Best Regional University by U.S. News and World Report for twelve consecutive years. Our resilience has allowed our University to continue to be ranked as a Military Friendly School by G.I. Jobs Magazine for seven consecutive years, and a Best for Vets College by Military Times EDGE Magazine for six consecutive years, and we were recently named a Best Bang for the Buck institution by the Washington Monthly. The U.S. Department of Education recognized Western for serving Pell grant recipients and in-need students. OnlineColleges.com recently ranked Western a Most Affordable Four-Year Online College and as a Top Online College in Illinois. We continue to have our students and faculty compete for prestigious awards and recognition, such as the Rhodes, Truman, and Goldwater Awards. Now give your University a round of applause.

In 1978, noted poet and author Maya Angelou, published a poem entitled, “Still I Rise.” The poem captures the resilience and the spirit of our University better than I could ever have done, so I reference it as I challenge all of us to remember our University’s golden and glorious past but also forecast our fruitful future. Angelou writes,

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

With last year behind us, I challenge all of us to write our victory down in history. Though we have been down, when we recall this present era, we will see that those who predicted the demise of our great University were incorrect and historians will recall our victorious history and say like the dust Western Illinois University rose up. And this great University will continue to rise. Angelou writes,

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

When instructing her daughters how to respond to negativity and negative energy, a wise woman once said, “When they go low. We go high.” This academic year, we will invest in positivity and divest from negativity. At Western, we will continue to go high even, when they go low. We take the high road because the high road leads to success and is paved with class and dignity.

One of the lessons that my mother often taught me was, “If you do not have anything positive to say, then do not say anything at all.” Healthy criticism is okay, but constant negativity without acknowledging at least some of the good that is happening at this University can be damaging to the morale. There are many who wish to remain positive and continue protecting this University as the precious treasure that it is, a treasure which belongs to all of us. We are stronger together. With your help, and your positive voice and actions, I am confident that we can move forward and advance this University for the future. The athletic department’s theme this year is “Tradition of Tough.” This is an accurate description of our entire University. We have and always have had tough people affiliated with this University. We have pride in the “tradition of tough” and we know that tough times never last but tough people do. I ask these questions, “Does our Western Illinois University confidence upset you? Does my Leatherneck pride strike fear into your heart?” Angelou again writes,

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

In last year’s Founders’ Day address, Echoes of Excellence , I reminded the audience of Western Illinois University’s collective resolve to overcome. So, this academic year, we will focus on unity. We will not be broken or have bowed heads or lowered eyes. We will tap into our Leatherneck pride and just like the sun and the moon and the certainty of the tide, we will greet each other with smiles because we are tough and we are winners. We have hope within us and pouring out of us, and springing high, our University will continue to rise up.

We have a tradition of tough and victory is in our veins!

Western Illinois University Will Rise Up!

We have turned the page, and we will write a new chapter in our history.

Western Illinois University Will Rise Up!

Dark nights are over and it is a bright new day.

Western Illinois University Will Rise Up!

Make no mistake and it will not be by accident. We will transform this University.

Western Illinois University Will Rise Up!

I am ever so confident that Western Illinois University Will Rise Up!

Our best days are ahead and Western Illinois University Will Rise Up!

So, as we reflect on the history of our University, let’s soar high and rise up!

Western Illinois University Will Rise Up!