A large crowd gathered late Wednesday afternoon in front of Western Illinois University's main administrative building on the Macomb campus.
Faculty, students, staff, and community members huddled on the steps of Sherman Hall in the cold, chanting, and waving signs with messages such as "Faculty is committed to WIU," "Teaching makes admin jobs possible," and "Fight for our families." The group was there for a rally in support of the 132 employees who received layoff notices on March 1.
Several people stepped up to the megaphone to address the crowd including Elizabeth Swan, a senior history education major.
“I’m a Western student and I’m mad! (crowd cheers) We do not deserve to not see the transparency of our administration. We are a public university, our tax dollars support this university, and as a student I could not be more upset as to what’s going on,” Swan said.
She said other students are unhappy too although they might not be as vocal about it.
Several of the people who received layoff notices participated in the rally including Eric Gurzell, an assistant professor in Western’s Dietetics program. He told Tri States Public Radio that his students were upset to hear of layoffs in his department. “Unfortunately, myself and the only two other professors in the program have a layoff date effective May of 2020, which effectively is a program elimination,” Gruzell said.
The university has not formally announced that the Dietetic program will be eliminated, though it is on the list of academic programs being considered for elimination. Still, Gurzell said he was surprised. “When I got my email, I got a text immediately from my colleagues that they got their notice and then we immediately went into a bit of crisis management mode trying to identify and resolve these issues that our students are going to have to deal with ultimately.”
Western’s administration compiled the list of programs being considered for elimination in accordance with state metrics classifying what qualifies as low student enrollment. "We produce an immense amount of credit that the students take here per faculty member. For only three of us, we [each] reach 200 to 300 students a year. I think just looking at [the number of] majors alone is a little short sighted.”
Gurzell said it’s a quality program, “At the end of the day, it’s always weird to think about education as a product, but as something we provide to students and they spend money to receive, we produce a really excellent product.”
Kelley Quinn, a Spanish instructor in the Department of Foreign Languages, said it was “deeply painful” to receive a layoff notice. Quinn is a Unit B faculty member, which means her layoff will take effect at the end of this year's spring semester.
“I am trying to come up with some good plan B’s, C’s, and D’s, and we are still going to fight for [plan] A. This is our community, our university, our students are so important to us whether we have our jobs or not we believe in WIU and how important it is for our region,” Quinn told TSPR.
Quinn said the cuts at Western have reduced the Foreign Language offerings from five languages to three, and cut the number of faculty in the department in half. “They’re just trying to cut languages, cut study abroad, cut anything that would help our students become good global citizens,” Quinn said.
As TSPR previously reported, the university emailed layoff notices on March 1 to 29 faculty members, 89 civil service employees, 12 academic support professionals, and two people in administrative positions.
In all, 132 layoff notices were sent out, which equals about 8% of the university’s workforce. Only 12 of those layoffs are on the Quad Cities campus. The university’s leadership did not provide information about how positions were chosen for elimination or estimates for how much money will be saved from the layoffs.
It was the third round of layoffs at Western in recent years, and it’s unclear if more are expected as the administration looks to cut millions of dollars of spending out of the overall budget.
The WIU chapter of the University Professionals of Illinois organized the rally. Bill Thompson, president of the local chapter, said it was an effort to show support and stand in solidarity for those who have received layoff notices and provide a community forum for everyone to be able express their thoughts and feelings about the layoffs.
Gayle Carper, a retired Western professor and member of the Macomb City Council, told the crowd the city is doing everything is can to help. “We wish we had a magic wand, but we don’t. The mayor has already met with the deputy governor who is in charge of education. He is talking to the governor himself. We’re doing some local efforts to provide job fairs,” Carper said. “We really feel for these people who have been laid off. Macomb has its future at stake too.”
Carper said she is hoping for a miracle from Springfield. Others are also hoping for the best.
John Miller, statewide president of the University Professionals of Illinois, started the Buy into Western Illinois University petition. It asks the governor to provide emergency funding in order to rescind any pending or future layoffs and to stop academic program eliminations. It also asks the governor to quickly appoint a new Board of Trustees. Currently, six of the eight board seats are open.
Miller told the crowd those actions would help the university develop a new vision and direction. “Does anybody think that the direction we are going in right now is the right direction?”
The crowd yelled, “No!”
Miller said, “We need a new vision, direction that invests in our classroom, that invests in our students, and invests in our communities to show our students that this is an amazing institution!" to cheers from the crowd.
Miller told TSPR he will be back in Springfield on Friday, “...talking about the importance of Western Illinois University and the fact that this is a regional comprehensive institution that we really need to be growing this institution, not eliminating programs. When we eliminate programs, we’re actually decreasing the opportunities for the students and that’s a mistake. We need to be strategically investing in programs.”
Miller said he has invited Western’s leadership to lobby with him in Springfield, but they have chosen to advocate for WIU separately. TSPR asked if anyone from Western’s top administrative leadership had signed the petition. “Not that I’m aware of, but I haven’t checked that carefully,” Miller said.
He said they plan to hand deliver the Buy into Western Illinois University petition to Springfield next Thursday. So far, more than 5,200 people have signed the petition which appears to be creating some political momentum.
Shortly before the rally, Representative Norine Hammond (R-Macomb) issued a news release calling on the governor to provide emergency funding and fill vacancies on the Board of Trustees, although she did not author any related legislation.
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