The Western Illinois University Board of Trustees this week held the first of a series of special monthly meetings. The Board hopes to use the meetings to delve into issues in greater detail than is possible during its regular quarterly meetings, but the first portion of the first monthly meeting turned into forum for community members to speak out.
Nine people were able to address the Board during the 20 minutes the BoT allotted for public comments. Some were critical of the direction taken by the administration. This is a sampling of what they said:
Patrick McGinty, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, reading from a statement by Mark Bernards, Associate Professor in the School of Agriculture: When wagon trains in the great westward migration of the 1840s and 1850s encountered danger, they would circle to form a protective barrier against threats from wild animals or Native Americans perceived to be hostile. Circling the wagons in a time of crisis is a prudent response. However, if wagons remain circled, the wagon train does not move forward. It often seems like the wagons at WIU are still circled.
Laura Barden-Gabbei, Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences: There is a lot of turmoil. It’s impacting negatively all of us. We want to see growth. There are ideas out there in this institution to make significant changes in how we proceed. We have a wonderful strategic plan. We don’t see a good implementation of that plan. There are ideas out there that are not being heard from faculty (and) from deans.
Jim LaPrad, Professor of Educational Studies and a spokesperson for the University Professionals of Illinois Local 4100 (which represents faculty and staff at WIU and has been in contract negotiations with the administration for 18 months): Our students need us. West central Illinois needs us. And I hope you recognize that the University Professionals of Illinois stand united to build a better future for our students, for our university, and for our community.
Other speakers shared a different perspective:
John Biernbaum, Associate Vice President for Student Services: We can’t be everything that we’ve always been. We have to redefine ourselves before somebody defines us. And you would be surprised by the number of people that support this administration (and) this board that you never hear from because we’re not on the front page of the newspaper or we’re not at this mic. Stay strong.
Seth Miner, Director of Admissions: I’m the Director of Admissions. However, recently it feels more like the Director of Damage Control. It’s frustrating when the majority of our challenging times has been imposed on us by outside forces – legislation and so on putting out that negative press for the institution. What’s extremely frustrating is when we do it to ourselves. If you feel as though none of this has negatively impacted recruitment, I would gladly let any of you come down and answer the phones in our office. Two weeks ago** was one of the most stressful times in my experience in admissions. Dealing with concerned current students and family members on what’s going to happen; prospective students now questioning the same thing that they were questioning when we had the budget impasse, but it was something that we were doing to ourselves. This needs to stop because if you think it’s not going to impact our incoming classes or our retention rates, you are mistaken.
(**Editor’s note: Members of UPI approved a strike authorization vote two weeks ago)
Doug Menke, University Technology: For the last two years I have been asked – and I have accepted – furlough days, which we can call them furlough days but the net result is that my salary has gone down. I have heard in press and I’ve heard people talk about how the faculty and the administration and all these people have all made sacrifices and they feel that it’s enough. Well, the staff of this university, who also is here and helps and is part of the foundation of this institution, have also made sacrifices. And when I hear people talk about how we’ve made enough sacrifices (and) we’re not going to make any more, it feels like a slap in the face.
Jack Thomas, WIU President
After the public comment period, Dr. Thomas thanked faculty, students, and administrators for all they’ve done for Western in recent years, and he cautioned that Western must continue to operate within its means.
“We have to keep in mind where we are in our state. It is not anything that the leadership of this institution has done wrong. It’s just the hand that we’ve been dealt by our state.
“The Board charged us three years ago – this is the third year, we’re about to go into a fourth year – you know how challenging this is to be in a leadership role? And I don’t think people understand.”
Dr. Thomas said the administration is trying to do the best it can and make the best decisions it can with the resources available. Thomas said he understands why people are upset and frustrated. He said members of the administration feel the same way.