Western Illinois University announces 132 faculty layoffs “Today is a catastrophe.”

Devon Greene and Steven Barnum

Western announced 132 faculty and staff layoffs on Friday, the largest amount of layoffs in it’s 119 year history.

“Today is a catastrophe. It’s a catastrophe for all these people who lost their jobs,” Union leader Bill Thompson said. “That’s about one-ninth or one-tenth of the amount of people who work at the university. That’s a self-caused catastrophe, it’s a decision.”

Thompson stressed that the layoffs do not signal the end of the troubles for Western.

“Layoffs do not make us a better or stronger institution,” Thompson said. “It’s a survival technique.”

Of the 132 layoffs, 89 were in civil service positions, 12 were academic support professionals, 29 were faculty and two were administrative positions. The Macomb campus was hit the hardest by the layoffs but the Quad Cities campus was also affected with 12 layoffs. Two academic support professions, two faculty and eight civil service positions were laid off on Friday. In addition to the dismissals, nine additional employees had their contract term length reduced.

Thompson revealed that he and his colleagues had been preparing with administration in the upcoming days before the layoffs took place.

“We’ve worked with the administration to prepare for these layoffs and we did have several conversations with them that were useful conversations to have.” Thompson said.

Thompson noted the small number of administrators that were affected on Friday.

“I’m sure this was a terrible day for them as well but in the end, they made the decisions they felt they had to make to keep the institution open but they have their jobs,” Thompson said. “Looking at this, only two administrators have lost their jobs. Or, their positions were ‘eliminated’ which doesn’t say anything about whether people lost their jobs. You can eliminate a position where nobody is in. It’s a different thing to eliminate a position.”

Specifically, at least three employees from UTech were let go, in addition to three people from the Department of Foreign Languages, which includes a Spanish instructor with 19 years of experience in Bilingual education.

“These aren’t just employees, these are friends. This is a disastrous moment in our university.” A current employee within the English department said.

The physics department had three faculty members dismissed and one had their contract term reduced.

“We’ve been dealt a huge blow to this department.” A source within the physics department said Friday afternoon.

The geography department lost four to five faculty members. The department of educational studies was affected but declined to comment. In the economics and D\decision sciences department, three faculty members were dismissed along with an office manager position.

“This was pretty devastating to us,” a source in the department said. “There isn’t a whole lot of accurate information coming out and very little of it is cohesive.”

University President Jack Thomas released a statement on Friday morning regarding the layoffs.

“As a result of the current budget situation, including decreased enrollment, it is necessary to reduce our expenditures, including position reductions across the University. We have pledged to work with employees to provide career counseling and assistance with employment searches.” Thomas’ statement read.

Thomas said during a recent Student Government Association meeting that despite Governor J.B. Pritzker’s plan to increase the funding for Western, the administration still has to make cuts to the University. They are preparing to slash $21 million from the budget by the 2020 fiscal year.

Although layoff notices have already been sent out, jobs are still at risk on campus due to the bumping system. In the bumping system, everyone is ranked by seniority within a job classification. When an employee is hired, they are hired into certain classifications and subclassifications. If an employee is in the highest position, has the most seniority and was laid off, they have the opportunity to bump down to a lower position where you have already held a job position. The person that was bumped can keep on bumping down if they have more seniority than the person below. If an employee has the least seniority and is outside of their classification, their termination is final. Western has given employees who receive layoff notices 30 days to decide if they want to bump or not.

All of the layoffs from June 2018 will become official as of June 1, 2019 since many of the tenured faculty received an additional year of employment. For the same reason, Friday’s layoffs will not reach their full impact until June 1, 2020. In the course of the last nine months, the University is expected to save almost $3 million from the eliminations.

Thompson believes that the latest round of layoffs was another challenging moment in the University’s history.

“We’ve had three terrible days. Terrible day 2015, terrible day June 28, 2018, and now terrible day, March 1, 2019,” Thompson said. “I believe the administration hopes this is the last terrible day. Hopefully, this is the low point before we head up.”

Thompson references the ongoing decline in student enrollment, an inability to meet payroll, and Gov. Bruce Rauner’s hesitancy to provide funding for higher education in his term as governor as the primary reasons for why the University took such drastic measures. He said that the University has plenty of strengths, but they have to be more effective at luring potential students.

“The school needs to go in a new direction. We know we have a strong faculty,” Thompson said, “and I think the students who go here know we have a strong faculty, for the most part. So we have the personnel and people but we need to refocus the institution and sell the institution so people can see how great an institution we have.”

When exploring ways to correct the declining enrollment trend, Thompson said that the university should focus more on enticing students to attend Western for the first two years. Many students choose to go to a community college before transferring to Macomb, which saves them money but also costs Western potential tuition dollars.

“Enrollment is something we absolutely have some type of control of and we have seemed to have lost control of enrollment,” Thompson said.

As the troubles of the university have become more public, talk about closing the Quad Cities campus has picked up steam throughout the Western Illinois community. Thompson has expressed serious doubt about the possibility of the campus being closed.

“First of all, it’s politically impossible. They’ve got maybe five or six legislators up there and we only have two,” Thompson said.

Jil Tracy and Norine Hammond are the only two representatives for McDonough County and Macomb area. The Quad Cities has six legislators who are unlikely to allow the Quad Cities campus to be closed anytime in the near future.

“People that talk about closing the Quad Cities campus don’t know what they’re talking about. Just sit there and think about it.” Thompson said. “Politically, WIU Macomb is in much more danger because we only have two.”

The Quad Cities is the largest region in Illinois without a public four-year university before Western opened their campus. With the lack of a four-year university, college students in the Quad Cities have found alternatives in their area which has lead to low enrollment on that campus.

“When we entered the market, we’ve had to fight against tradition. It takes time,” Thompson said.

However, the low enrollment continues to baffle those within Western.

“There are conversations all the time about how to get more students to go there,” Thompson said. “It is a constant mystery of why that campus is not thriving the way we would like it to. I don’t understand why.”

With the financial struggles, departments around campus have been forced to change the way they recruit students. Incoming students have been encouraged to minor in the same program that they major in. When students do this, it brings in more tuition dollars for each program. Departments are measured by the amount of student credit hours are produced and that’s how they are determined whether or not they are healthy. Closing programs has been floated around as another way to cut costs at Western. Thompson warns against this practice because it restricts the opportunities for incoming students.

“When you close programs down, you also decrease the diversity of curriculum on campus. Students have fewer choices,” Thompson said.

Thompson doesn’t think the University is in danger of completely closing any time soon, but he also insists that the administration needs to solve the enrollment issue before legislators take notice. Leaders in Springfield have suggested the idea of combining struggling institutions in the future in order to prevent the loss that Western has sustained.

After one of the darkest days in Western Illinois history, Thompson reinforced his belief in the institution.

“I have a lot of faith in this institution because I know who we are and what we can do. We have great faculty and great staff,” Thompson said. “What we need is a hell of a lot more money to modernize campus and more money to hire more people. Also, to hire and and pay faculty now. Again, we need students for all that to happen.”