University News

2018 State of the University Address

University Assembly

Dr. Jack Thomas, President - Thursday, August 16, 2018

Good morning and welcome to the 2018 Western Illinois University Assembly. We are excited as we gather here at the beginning of a new academic year. To our new and returning faculty, staff, and administrators I welcome you to Western Illinois University. Will all of the new faculty, staff and administrators please stand to be recognized? Let’s give these individuals a round of applause.

On stage with me today, are members of the Board of Trustees, the vice presidents, student leaders and representatives from governance groups across the University. I appreciate all that you do to support this University. Also, in the audience are business and government leaders from the communities we serve. I am grateful you are here to represent the many constituencies who make Western Illinois University great. I appreciate each of you for taking the time to attend this University Assembly.

As I reflected on today’s remarks, I am reminded of the words of Spencer Johnson, in his best seller entitled, “Who Moved my Cheese.” He uses cheese as the central metaphor for change. As he says, “Change happens. Anticipate change. Monitor change, and adapt to change quickly.”

This will be a year of change. We know that our students want what Western Illinois University provides: academic excellence, educational opportunity, personal growth and social responsibility. And we know that we can do even more to attract and retain an increasing number of high-achieving, diverse students in pursuit of a world class educational experience. We are a national leader in quality, opportunity, and affordability. Just last week, the Princeton Review named Western Illinois University a Best Midwestern institution for the 15th consecutive year.

Being a national leader, we will not rest upon past accomplishments. On July 16, we held press conferences on the Macomb and Quad Cities campuses to announce the beginning of that change. As you are aware, the last few years have been some of the most challenging times in the history of the state of Illinois and in higher education. A great deal of what we have dealt with stems from variables beyond our control. Describing these variables is not an exercise in excuse-making. It is simply a reminder of the realities we face.

The April 2018 House Budget Testimony from the Illinois Board of Higher Education indicated that Illinois public higher education is the only major sector in the appropriated budget that received less funding in Fiscal Year 2018 than it did in Fiscal Year 2002. In fact, since 2002, Illinois Public Higher education funding has declined by 27% which does not account for inflation. As you can see on the slide, Western Illinois University and the other Illinois public universities have experienced a significant decline in state funding. In an era of change, we have become a tuition-dependent University.

In fiscal year 2016, Western received only $14.9 million from the State. We used our reserves during this time and in subsequent years to continue operating.  Now, in the aftermath of the historic and unprecedented statewide budget impasse, the Illinois public universities are still recovering from the effects of this major reduction and the subsequent decreases in state appropriations.

We are grateful for a second year of predictable state funding. However, last year’s state appropriation was 10% less than the amount received in FY15. Additionally, this year’s appropriated funding is 8% less than what we received in FY15, and let me say that this does not account for inflation. In brief, we have experienced almost two decades of decreased state funding. We are changing to adapt to this new reality as fast as contracts and the laws allow.

We are appreciative that we all have made sacrifices to keep Western Illinois University strong and viable during these past few years. It is our people who make this University great. It pains me that we continue to have to make difficult, but yet necessary and sometimes unpopular decisions. 

Now is the time for change. We must put these trends behind us and control our own destiny. To do so, we are investing in our programs and services that will further place WIU on the leading edge and position our university for growth.

With our new Strategic Plan that was approved in June, the President’s Executive Institute, and our plans for investment and growth, we are continuing to contribute to the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century. We provide a world-class, high-quality, and well-rounded educational experience. Whether a student enters the University for personal enrichment, career development, or graduate and professional school preparation, we answer the call. 

We take pride in the academic excellence, value and affordability that we provide. One of my first actions, as then Provost and Academic Vice President, was to work with our faculty, department chairs, school directors, and deans to identify our signature academic programs that exemplify the quality of a Western Illinois University educational experience. These programs were selected due to their unique contributions and outstanding student achievements that define our mission and unique place in Illinois public higher education.

Today, we take the next steps in academic excellence as a leading institution. The Interim Provost will oversee academic realignment that positions Western Illinois University for the future. This begins with streamlining our General Education program. It continues with engaging in academic restructuring. Grounded in our traditions of excellence, we will base the University’s new academic structure and portfolio on our institutional areas of strength, or what Interim Provost Neuman has termed our centers of excellence: Business, Education and Community Services, Regional, and Science and Technology.

Moreover, I have charged the Director of Business Outreach and Community Engagement and the Vice President for Quad Cities and Planning to benchmark and learn about cooperative education programs, share the information with the academic community, and work together to implement experiential education programs that are proven correlates of student achievement, persistence, and completion. We also will be working to understand all of the various internship placements, so that we may build even closer relationships with business, industry, education, and the non-profit, public and private sectors.

We will continue to grow the Centennial Honors College. When I came to Western Illinois University, I stated that we would place the Honors College at the forefront of the University. That is what we have done. The college has grown from 540 students in the Fall of 2011 to 1,000 high-achieving, diverse students in Fall of 2017. The aggressive approach to recruitment and retention followed by the Honors College sets precedence for the enhanced recruiting strategies across the University.

In order to recruit even more high achieving, diverse students, we are moving to the model of an Honors College with a Dean, program faculty, and locations in Simpkins Hall and the Quad Cities library.

All Western Illinois University students, faculty, and staff must have optimal learning environments. I am pleased that we recently received donor funding for building a high-tech crime laboratory for Law Enforcement and Justice Administration in Tillman Hall. Likewise, we recently received a significant donation to upgrade laboratories, technologies, and equipment in the School of Engineering. These projects illustrate the kind of innovative thinking that will move this University forward.

And we are starting to witness the success of our forward thinking. As Dr. Woods stated, enrollment trends for fiscal year 2019 are outperforming the expectations from this past March, which is good news.

While we expect to have more new students than originally predicted, we are still projected to deficit spend this year, assuming we receive no additional state funding.  Last year, the University’s appropriated expenditures exceeded revenues by approximately $4 million. This is not sustainable. As a result, we will be engaging in the following actions:

  • We will work with the deans, chairs and faculty as the Interim Provost invokes the Academic Program Elimination Review Committee for low enrolled programs, as defined by the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
  • We will work with the faculty and academic leaders to streamline general education.
  • In consultation with the Vice Presidents, we have begun the implementation of reducing budgets across all Vice Presidential areas.
  • We will continue working with all areas to decrease operating costs.
  • As we begin to make changes across the University this year, the Interim Provost and I will be hosting town hall meetings with all colleges, the Quad Cities, and the library. I will also hold additional brown bag lunches.
  • The Vice President for Quad Cities and Planning and I will be visiting with governance groups on both campuses as well.
  • We will work together to increase efficiencies across the University.

To remain sustainable and viable, with high standards of excellence, decreasing expenditures must be accompanied by increasing revenue. We must grow enrollment, increase retention and graduation rates, and continue the mission of the President’s Executive Institute to raise additional funding. In addition, I have charged the Vice President of Advancement and Public Services with preparing the University for the next successful comprehensive fundraising campaign. As I stated earlier, we are tuition dependent, so we must enhance and diversify our revenue streams. We will also continue to advocate in Springfield for increased funding, including appropriated funds, deferred maintenance and capital projects.

 Since funding is limited, we must only spend our resources for essential operating needs. Further, regarding personnel, any position that becomes vacant during the year must be evaluated before being filled, and only essential positions will be authorized, regardless of funding source. I will be sending a letter to the University community outlining procedures regarding spending, personnel, and other cost-saving measures.

In addition to limited state resources, we have experienced enrollment decline. This is not unique to just our University, but it has affected colleges and universities across the state and the nation. The factors contributing to enrollment decline include increased competition from out of state institutions, outmigration of students, and the budget impasse. Therefore, we must have premier, unique and high demand programs to draw high-quality, diverse students, faculty, and staff to Western Illinois University.

Student recruitment and retention must be our top priorities. All of us have the responsibility of recruiting and retaining students. Last year, we created the Academic Success Coach position in Macomb. Based on the success of the Academic Success Coach on the Macomb Campus, the Quad Cities director of Student Services is now the academic success coach in the Quad Cities, and has been charged with further improving student persistence and completion rates.

In Macomb, we are establishing a new Academic Retention Office to centralize retention efforts and further enhance student persistence and success. We are grateful for the Stean Foundation’s gift, which will support this new office and its initiatives.

 When speaking of enrollment, which includes recruitment and retention, each of us plays a vital role. Students are more than a number. In every interaction with parents, faculty, staff, students and others, we must be united in bringing forth a positive message while being student-centered. Everyone deserves to be treated with civility and mutual respect and our messages must be positive.

When parents hear us assuring them that their sons and daughters are not just numbers and that they will receive appropriate attention, they remember what we promise. We want to make sure that we uphold our commitments and maintain their trust.

As a leading University and a community of scholars, professionals and practitioners, service is at the core of all that we do. Here at Western Illinois University we pride ourselves on providing excellent service. We should highlight and share the positive aspects of our University and the accomplishments of our outstanding people. The Office of University Relations continually promotes the numerous achievements of our faculty, students, staff, and alumni. We should all be proud of these accomplishments and share them widely.

Let us make the most of each day in the upcoming academic year and support the learning and growth of outstanding and creative students.  Let us support one another and talk about the positive things this University represents. Let us focus on the great things that we do and offer.  Plato once said, “Good actions give strength to ourselves and inspire good actions in others.” 

As we conclude the 2018 University Assembly, I would like to show you a video that reminds all of us about the importance of our work. We impact lives and generations for the good. The video highlights an example of the positive impact Western Illinois University has had on one individual, which has in turn impacted others in profound ways. Thank you for your hard work and dedication. Please take great pride in our University, and the students whom we serve. Enjoy the video and have a great year.