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WIU Finances Stable -- For Now

WIU President Jack Thomas in his office during the first week of the 2016-17 school year.
WIU President Jack Thomas in his office during the first week of the 2016-17 school year.

Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas said the state's stop-gap spending measure helped the university for the fall semester, but he cautioned it's not designed to get any of the state's public universities through the entire fiscal year. 

He said universities would benefit if the governor and lawmakers agreed to a full year spending plan -- and did that sooner rather than later.

"When they approved the bridge (stop-gap plan), a lot of the legislators were very adamant about it that this is just what it is -- a bridge to get us into this semester and into this academic school year. Hopefully it (a full year budget) is going to happen very, very soon," Thomas said during an interview with Tri States Public Radio.

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Thomas said the stop-gap measure provided WIU with $36.5 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 Fiscal Year '16. Thomas said some of that money was used to pay off bills from last fiscal year -- when the university received little state financial support and was forced to spend down its reserves -- and the rest is being applied to this year's expenses.

WIU's finances are also benefiting now from the tuition and fees collected at the start of a semester. The Fall 2016 semester began August 22.  It's still not known how many students are attending classes. The university's official enrollment will be released after the tenth day of the semester (which is Friday, September 2).  Thomas said it appears freshman enrollment will be "pretty good." But he said overall enrollment will probably be down.  

"It's not as bad as we may think it would have been, but we feel that we've done some wonderful things in recruiting students here," said Thomas.

He said everybody at the university is responsible for helping with recruitment and thanked those who pitched in.  He said Western has increased its number of high school visits, decreased tuition by 3% for incoming students, and continued its cost guarantee program.

"We're the only institution (in Illinois) that does (a cost guarantee program) not just tuition but room and board and fees as well. That makes Western a very appealing institution," Thomas said. 

"And we're not just bringing in students but bringing in students of quality. We continue to enhance our overall ACT as well as our overall grade point average."

He also said WIU is placing a renewed emphasis on recruiting in its own backyard by focusing on a 16 county region in west central Illinois.

The university said more than 3,000 students enrolled in summer classes, but summer school enrollment was down by 249 students.  Those figures include classes taken in-person and on-line.

The university believes its staffing levels are down this school year as well, though the figures for this year are not yet ready. The school employed around 1,900 people a year ago.  During the course of the school year, as the university struggled with the lack of a state appropriation, 59 workers took advantage of an early retirement program offered by the school and Western laid off 110 employees.  Western said 87 positions have been recalled, though some of those workers have moved on so WIU is still in the process of filling some of those jobs.

Thomas said it's his goal to keep staffing levels stable but that depends upon the state providing more funding.

"In my testimonies before the House and Senate, and in our discussions with the governor and the legislators, these are things that we will be talking about," Thomas said.

"We have reduced. And we've cut back in various areas.  We have reduced staff. We have reduced some in faculty and administrators. So we've done the major things that we needed to do to move forward and hopefully we will not have to do any more reductions."

Thomas cautioned he cannot make any promises because of the uncertainty of state funding.  But he said Western will find a way to carry on.

"Western is not closing. That's not an option," he said. "We've gone through changes. We will continue to make the very tough decisions to get to where this university should be and where we want it to be."

Copyright 2016 Tri States Public Radio