MACOMB — A new budget. Reports on enrollment and retention. Confidential audio tapes slated for release, and many more still secret.
Those were focal points for the Western Illinois University Board of Trustees, which met on Thursday and Friday for the first time since June.
The newly approved 2020 fiscal year budget includes an overall decrease in spending of about 9%. But Martin Abraham, whom the board named interim university president on Thursday, said he wanted “to be absolutely clear: we are not laying anyone off.”
Though student enrollment at WIU has fallen precipitously over the last decade, university leaders were upbeat about the university’s future. Retention inched up over the last year, and the university has launched initiatives to boost the size of the student body.
“The enrollment challenge will not be solved overnight,” Doug Freed, director of undergraduate admissions, told the trustees. “We want to talk about moving forward here, not continually reliving the past.”
The unanimously-approved fiscal year 2020 budget totals $210.6 million. That’s a decrease of about 9% since the $231.3 million budget of fiscal year 2019. The decrease is consistent with the overall enrollment loss of 10% over the last year.
Most of the budget cuts come from “personal services,” which includes university salaries, and will be slashed by $17.8 million.
Abraham said the personal services cuts will come from vacant positions that the university will decline to fill.
The new budget includes $49.6 million in state-appropriated funds, an increase of 5% from the year before but still below the fiscal year 2015 level.
The largest dropoff in revenues come from “university income funds,” which includes tuition. In fiscal year 2018, university income funds had $81.2 million. In the 2020 budget, those funds have been reduced to $58.9 million.
REPORTS ON ENROLLMENT, RETENTION
The board also received new reports on enrollment and retention, which summarize university efforts to attract more students and keep them through graduation.
Despite the dour news about enrollment — including a 12% drop in undergrads between 2018 and 2019 — retention showed positive results over the last year.
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The freshmen-to-sophomore retention rate increased from 65.3% to 67.5%. The 6-year graduation rate increased from 46.2% to 50.5%, according to university figures.
Still, to the frustration of university leaders and students, racial gaps persist on campus. The reports show that one in seven black freshmen who entered Western Illinois University in 2015 graduated in four years. That’s one-third the rate of white students.
In June, the university’s first black president, Jack Thomas, resigned amid a heated public campaign for his removal. Some Macomb residents, WIU faculty and alumni called the anti-Thomas campaign racist.
On Friday, Abraham emphasized that the retention numbers by race don’t tell the full story. “It’s not exclusively a race-based issue,” he said about retention, emphasizing how other aspects of student identity — including first-generation status, socioeconomics or class, age and other factors — also influence success on campus in ways that are often not quantified.
According to the reports, the most common reasons students don’t return to campus are transferring to another college or university, financial constraints and military obligations.
To improve retention, Abraham convened a “tiger team” that developed 15 action items. One is the newly developed Leatherneck Care Referral program, in which families, students, faculty, and staff can submit concerns on behalf of WIU students. In the first five weeks of the semester, the program identified 85 students for follow-up or intervention by Student Services staff.
The university is also tracking down students with an above-average number of class absences and redesigning a voluntary mentorship program for students who may need additional support.
One new proposal involves admissions. The Faculty Senate is poised to vote on a plan that includes automatically admitting applicants with a grade-point average of 3.30 or higher, according to Christopher Pynes, chair of the WIU Faculty Senate. The plan aims to admit more high schoolers with high GPAs and low test scores.
After a determination by the Illinois Attorney General found that the old board repeatedly violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act, the WIU board voted Friday to release four hours of illegal tapes and to keep secret four years worth of other closed sessions.
The trustees have not released closed session minutes since late 2015.
The board’s agenda had included a proposal to destroy verbatim records from four meetings in 2017. But that proposal was struck down in a unanimous vote, sparing the recordings.
“We are keeping everything,” said board chair Polly Radosh. “At some later date, we may review it again. We may make another decision. We may archive it. We don’t know what we’re going to do. We’ll kick the can down the road on this one and decide later.”