Several weeks ago, many of us listened proudly as Macomb Junior High student Evan Stegall read his prize-winning essay "What I Like About My Hometown." In it, Evan highlighted the partnership between the community and the university that makes Macomb what he called an "oasis," a place where a strong education is available and valued, a wide variety of cultural experiences are plentiful, and individual potential is nurtured.
Unlike Evan, I didn’t grow up in Macomb. Like most faculty members, I came to Macomb to work at Western Illinois University. But I was charmed by Macomb from the start.
On the day of my interview, held in early March, I was surprised to see a long line of people snaking around Dairy Queen waiting to order ice cream in the freezing rain. My hosts explained that Dairy Queen’s spring reopening was a Macomb tradition. I marveled at the courthouse square, so much grander than the main streets I was used to. I watched with delight as, everywhere we went, we ran into people my hosts knew and they all stopped to say hello.
In the end, I had a second job offer from another university. I could have gone somewhere else. I chose Western, in part for my collegial department full of committed teachers and scholars. But I also chose the town of Macomb, for the wonderful lives my new colleagues had all seemed to build here.
My decision has not been a mistake. And even though I’m a transplant, I’ve done some growing up of my own here in Macomb. This is where my husband and I bought our first house and where we learned that painting isn’t as easy as they make it look on HGTV. It’s where I found out that two nights of trick-or-treating are better than one and that shoveling snow with the neighbors makes a hard, cold job a little bit warmer. My daughter, only four months old when we moved here, is as close to a Macomb native as she can get. I am the child of a career railroader, and my family moved towns several times when I was growing up. It was always my dream to raise my child in one place, where she can graduate from high school with friends she’s known since kindergarten.
But my dream, like the dreams of so many others, is in grave danger. The state budget impasse is starving Western Illinois University, which has already suffered layoffs, furloughs, and contract and salary reductions.
On our current course, it seems that more layoffs are inevitable. It’s easy to close our eyes and to hope that disaster isn’t looming, but make no mistake: if Western Illinois University does not receive state appropriations very soon, the university will have to close. I feel certain that most of you would agree with me when I say that I can’t imagine any Macomb, much less a thriving, vibrant Macomb, without Western.
What’s harder to agree about is whose fault this crisis is or the measures we should take to try to weather the storm as long as we possibly can. There are so many categories that divide us: administration, faculty, staff, student, Unit A, Unit B, union, non-union, employer, employee, town and gown. We have different ideologies and political points of view that lead to deep disagreements. Our panic and fear make it frighteningly easy to turn on each other, to place the blame amongst ourselves, and to assume malice in the intent of those with whom we disagree. It is so easy to forget that, in the end, most of us want the same thing: a strong university for our students, for ourselves, and for the future of our community.
As a political theorist, I teach my students that it is difficult for a group of people to build political communities and make political decisions without first identifying what it is that they value. We can come together to show our government representatives and leaders that we value Western Illinois University for a variety of reasons: for the education it provides, the cultural richness it brings to our region, and for being the economic base upon which so much of our community is built.
All of us—students, administrators, university faculty and staff, members of the Macomb community from all walks of life—can transcend our differences to send a clear message that there is at least one thing about which we agree: our university, our town, have value.
On this coming Thursday, March 31, a march will begin at Sherman Hall at 4:45 pm. It will proceed from Sherman Hall to Chandler Park, in a path meant to symbolize the strong link between WIU and Macomb. At 5:30 pm, a rally will be held at Chandler Park.
The march and rally, while initially spearheaded by the University Professionals of Illinois, are intentionally non-partisan, and are meant to bring together all members of the university and Macomb communities, regardless of university connection, union membership, or political affiliation.
If you or someone you care about has received an education from Western, join us. If you rely on WIU or its students and employees for your livelihood, join us. If you look forward to tailgating in Q-lot before Leatherneck football games every fall, enjoying the Holiday Festival of Choirs each winter, or feasting on the cuisine at the International Bazaar each spring, join us. If you appreciate the college students who teach your children or grandchildren to swim at the YMCA, to play an instrument at the Community Music School, or to dance at one of the studios in town, join us.
Whoever you are and whatever your reason is for valuing Western, please, join us. Bring your family, your friends, and your children to Sherman Hall at 4:45 pm this Thursday or, if you aren’t able to march, meet us for the rally at 5:30 pm in Chandler Park to stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with your neighbors as we tell anyone who will listen that we value Western Illinois University, we value Macomb, and we need a state budget that will save both.
Erin Taylor is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.