University News

2017 State of the University Address

Inaugural University Assembly

Dr. Jack Thomas, President - Thursday, August 17, 2017

Good morning and welcome to the University Assembly here at Western Illinois University. I would like to welcome all of our new and returning faculty and staff. It is exciting to be here at the beginning of a new academic year. Will all of our new employees please stand to be recognized? Let’s give them a round of applause.

On the stage with me today, are members of the Board of Trustees, my leadership team, representatives from governance groups across the University, and in the audience are business and government leaders from the communities we serve. I am grateful for them being here to represent the many constituency groups that make Western Illinois University great. I appreciate each of you taking the time to attend this University Assembly. Give yourselves a round of applause.

Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”

Today, we come together for this State of the University address to reflect on our past, describe where we are, and outline how we will move forward. In a 1988 letter to the University community, then WIU President Ralph Wagoner wrote, “At a time when WIU’s general revenue support from the state has declined 6.5 percent ...our students have faced three revenue tuition increases in two years, and we cannot continue this course without altering the accessibility of public higher education to many people.” Western’s state appropriation in 1988 was $50.9 million dollars, which is more than our current state appropriation. President Wagoner’s 1988 letter could have easily been written for today.

The challenges Western Illinois University has faced over the past two years are largely not of our own making. Even before the state budget impasse affected public higher education, state appropriations steadily declined overall since 2002. Fifteen years ago, Western’s state appropriation was $64.3 million dollars. In Fiscal Year 2015, we received just $14.9 million dollars from the state.

For more than 700 days, a budget impasse affected our state, which in turn affected Western and many other state-supported agencies. During the impasse, Western was funded through a series of stop-gap payments and a one-time allocation from the Illinois Board of Higher Education. In addition to the impasse, and the receipt of very limited state appropriations, universities did not receive Monetary Award Program or MAP grant funding for two years. Because MAP is designed to provide financial assistance to eligible students, we made the decision to cover the MAP funding for our students, because at Western, our students matter. We utilized University funds totaling approximately $11 million to provide MAP funding to approximately 2,700 students each semester during the past two academic years. We covered MAP funding for our students because it was the right thing to do!

To address the serious financial shortfall stemming from the state’s budget impasse and steadily decreasing appropriations, we were forced to implement substantial cost-saving measures, which include the following:

  • Our full-time employee headcount decreased by 14 percent over the last three years,
  • Our University police officers participated in a modified furlough program,
  • Select employee contracts were reduced from 12 to 11 months,
  • Faculty and other collective bargaining units agreed to forgo salary increases,
  • Offices and positions were eliminated or consolidated and additional duties were assigned to current employees,
  • Civil service employees experienced layoffs,
  • Support staff and facilities personnel took on more responsibilities,
  • Administrative employees have taken numerous furlough days since Spring 2016, and continue to participate in the furlough program this year.
  • We have reduced operating budgets,
  • We have combined administrative departments to achieve streamlined operations and efficiencies,
  • And we have limited some facilities and maintenance services.

The sacrifices you have all made have not gone unnoticed and while they have been difficult to bear, they have not been in vain. Just in the last two years, all of these measures have reduced overall expenses by over $11 million dollars, while protecting the academic core and mission of the University. We recognize the increased burden this has placed on those who have remained at the University, and I offer my sincere appreciation for your dedicated service, sacrifice, and loyalty to Western Illinois University.

The decisions that were made to address a substantial budgetary shortfall were agonizing. It was with deep regret that we were forced to lay off any employees, and we tried everything within our power to avoid that decision. However, since personnel costs represent 80 percent of the overall budget, we had to make difficult decisions. When layoffs were implemented, we did whatever we could to reposition affected employees to find employment elsewhere. We were relieved to be able to bring some individuals back to work at the University.

This has been an emotional roller coaster for all of us. In my 30 years in higher education, I have never experienced anything like this. Throughout these unprecedented budgetary times, we have tried to limit the hardships as much as possible. We have agonized over every decision. We truly care about everyone at this University, and we did what we thought was in the best interests of the entire University. However, no matter what decisions were made, criticism often followed.

However, now is the time to put the negativity and fault-finding behind us, and work together to position this great University for the future.

We are grateful that we now have a state appropriated budget and that the funding is beginning to come in sporadically. We have received approximately $21.5 million dollars from the state since July 6, which includes $3.6 million dollars for FY18, $6.8 million dollars for FY17 and an $11 million dollar reimbursement for MAP funding for our students.

While we are happy to receive appropriations from the state, we accept delivery of these funds with guarded optimism. The University is slated to receive a total of $46.3 million dollars in Fiscal Year 2018, which is a 10 percent decrease from FY15 state appropriations. It bears repeating: this is a 10 percent reduction from FY15 and is $18 million dollars less than what we received in 2002. It will take a concerted effort and considerable time to overcome the negative effects of the budget impasse and establish a new equilibrium. As Illinois school districts can attest, the budget problems in Illinois are by no means over. Due to future uncertainties, increased cost-shifting from the state to universities and the far-reaching impact of the seven hundred plus day impasse, it is vital that we maintain Western's ongoing fiscally conservative practices and explore alternate opportunities for growth.

When facing these financial challenges, the Board of Trustees charged me with keeping our University viable and continuing to provide access to a quality, affordable, and well-rounded education. Because of our employees’ sacrifices, we have been able to not only survive, but thrive in the face of many obstacles.

The fabric of our University is ultimately our people. Beyond the numbers, figures and statistics, are the partnerships, stories and faces behind this great University. When looking at dollars and cents, Western's economic impact within a 16-county region in West Central Illinois equates to nearly half a billion dollars, but our people provide so much more than that.
Because of you, Western Illinois University continues to achieve excellence while being recognized for its noteworthy programs, resources, and faculty, staff, and student accomplishments.

  • For 14 consecutive years we have been recognized as a "Best Midwestern College" by The Princeton Review
  • For 12 consecutive years we have been recognized as a "Best Midwestern University" by U.S. News & World Report
  • For 8 consecutive years we have been recognized as a "Military Friendly School" by G.I. Jobs Magazine
  • For 7 consecutive years, we have been recognized as a “Best for Vets College" by Military Times EDGE magazine
  • For 4 consecutive years, we have been recognized as a "Top School" by Military Advanced Education
  • For 4 consecutive years, we have been recognized as a "Best Bang for the Buck" by the Washington Monthly College Guide
  • We have been recognized as a "Top Illinois Public University" & "Best Value College in Illinois" by Niche.com
  • Our RN to BSN Degree Program was recognized as a "Best Midwestern Regional University" & "Best Online RN to BSN Degree Program" by College Choice
  • For the second consecutive year, our physics graduate program ranked second in the nation by the American Institute of Physics
  • We were one of 11 universities from across the United States selected to appear in the U.S. Department of Education's College Completion Toolkit, which features schools that are increasing college completion rates for students through promising practices
  • WIU was recognized in Washington DC last semester as the recipient of the Commitment to Diversity award from Minority Access, Incorporated

These are just a few of the accomplishments bestowed upon this fine University in the past year.

From the front lines of the classrooms, residence halls and service units, to the behind-the-scenes work of staff and countless others, the employees at Western are here for the students. We are pleased that the Board of Trustees approved keeping tuition level this year. Our students should not have to carry the burden of decreased state funding. To meet the needs of our students and demands of the region, new academic programs are beginning this fall.

Looking toward the future, we have plans in place to invest in high demand programs. Representatives from the Provost’s Office and other departments are considering moving specific degree programs with a high demand of interest among veterans and military service members to be offered fully online.

We are pleased that the percent of online and hybrid course offerings increased from 8.5 percent last year, to 10 percent of total course offerings this year. Our University will remain a fixture in west-central Illinois. We do not have plans to become a largely online University, but we are investigating ways to offer distance learning courses to a larger population of students throughout the world.

We must develop more online, hybrid and non-traditional courses, which will assist with growing our enrollment. Our enrollment has been affected by the crisis of confidence, the lack of state funding, the decline in the number of high school graduates, and increased out-of-state competition for students.

Because of these challenges, our enrollment management team meets often to address the situation, and we have developed new and enhanced strategies for increasing enrollment and retention. These strategies include enhanced marketing and communication efforts for prospective and admitted students. Moving forward, we are expanding our recruitment efforts to target more high school freshmen and sophomores, and high-quality community college transfers. We are strengthening our recruiting efforts in Illinois and bordering states. We are working to increase the number of international students, and we are expanding recruitment efforts in other regions of the country.

The role of recruitment and retention is not confined to any given entity. We are all ambassadors for this University. From the members of the communities we serve, to all of us at the University, we need everyone to participate in recruiting and retaining students. We all have a role in welcoming students, caring for them, meeting their needs and helping them to become productive and socially responsible citizens. With that being said, I know that there had been talk about reducing library hours. I have asked the Provost to find a way to keep the library open during its regular hours. Let us do all that is within our power to uphold Western Illinois University’s reputation as a world-class Institution.

It is time to put apprehension behind us and move forward with enthusiasm and optimism. We will advance by implementing the goals and priorities in the 2017-18 Strategic Plan Supplement and the President’s Executive Institute. We need your help in pursuing the goals of the Strategic Plan and the Supplement.

First, during these challenging times, we will work together as a University community to stabilize total enrollment around 10,000 students, while remaining dedicated to academic excellence and educational opportunity. We must continue to work together to ensure that all students earn degrees in a timely manner.

Second, we will provide enhanced educational opportunities. We are supportive of new and expanded academic programs and varied course delivery methods that are mission-driven, demonstrate high levels of quality, and meet marketplace and student demands. For example, I would like to congratulate the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, which will begin offering an online major in anthropology this semester. As stated in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, this is the first online anthropology program in the state, and one of only a few in the nation. We applaud this type of forward thinking.

Third, we will expand our community engagement, which is one of the major components of the President’s Executive Institute, co-chaired by Vice President Joe Rives and Development Officer Becky Paulsen. I started a similar program at a previous institution at which I served. The President’s Executive Institute is designed to serve as a resource for, and stimulus to, educational, cultural, environmental, community and economic development in our region and beyond for the public good. One function of the President’s Executive Institute is to host summits to bring individuals from a variety of organizations together. In the past year, Western has held regional summits with mayors and civic leaders, business leaders, superintendents and principals of schools, high school counselors, and alumni.

The summits have yielded tremendous results as we learned about the needs of the citizens in the regions we serve, heard about how WIU can be a better partner and meet the needs of employers and service providers in the region, extended our outreach, and raised funds for the University. These summits have also yielded tuition assistance programs and increased internship opportunities for our students.

In conjunction with the President’s Executive Institute is our fourth goal, which is to increase external funding. We learned from the budget impasse that we must function more independently, so as not to be at the mercy of state appropriated funding. However, we must continue to increase external funding, through seeking revenue from external grants, contracts, business and industry, and the next comprehensive fundraising campaign. We are engaged in corporate fundraising, which is already bringing revenue to the University.
Our fifth goal is to continue to support conservative fiscal management and mission-driven planning. It is this history, tradition, and practice that allows us to weather this storm caused by the state’s budget impasse. We will continue to operate as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Now is the time to move WIU forward. We are positioning our University for a strong, sustainable and viable future.

As I meet with alumni from around the world, it energizes me to hear the stories of those who attended this great University. They tell of how they met their spouses and partners at WIU, and how they built lifelong friendships here. They speak of the lasting memories gained, how they discovered skills, talents and abilities here, and how WIU helped launch them into successful careers. They reminisce fondly of mentors who believed in them.

Each of us plays a part in these stories. We do what we do because we can affect lives in dramatic and impactful ways.

I look forward to continue meeting with representatives from across the University to maintain positive communication. I will continue to hold the President’s Round Tables with faculty, staff and students, and this year I will begin holding brown bag lunches for any individual who wants to participate in a dialogue and ask questions. This will provide us with informal opportunities to communicate. Together we will move this University forward.

Over the past two years, we have endured uncertainty, but we will now move forward with assurance and optimism. As you can see from the signs throughout the arena, Western Illinois University is the right choice. As you leave Western Hall today, take strength from the words of Benjamin Franklin, who said, “But now at length I have the happiness to know it is a rising and not a setting sun.” The sun is rising on Western Illinois University. We have weathered some difficult days, but through the midst of it all, we have created a solid foundation for future success. Our future is very bright. I wish you the best for a successful academic year. Thank you and go forth and do great things.