Thursday, April 4, was my lucky day. I had the opportunity to walk across the clean white carpet of the President’s office in Sherman Hall and sit down with WIU President Jack Thomas. After our introductions, I asked him some questions about WIU, and what the future looks like for the university.
Kolette Herndon: What has the spring 2013 semester been like at WIU?
President Jack Thomas: It has been a very busy spring semester. We have had a lot of challenges in terms of the budget. We have also been busy meeting with legislators, and going to various alumni events. Those are things that I really enjoy doing, especially the alumni events. But it has been a very busy semester, especially with the budget situation. We have a vision. We have a lot of goals in place; some of those we have to hold off on because we are not getting our funding from the state. We seem to be only getting funding sporadically.
Herndon: What are some of your favorite aspects of Western Illinois University?
President Thomas: Well, most of all, I enjoy the students here at the institution and also, when we are able to accomplish our goals. For example, last semester we had the (re)opening of Corbin and Olson and the renovation of the new dining facility that connects the two. We also had the opening of the three-dimensional art facility. We are now working on the $20-million renovation of Thompson Hall. When we see progress—that is what I think is most exciting for Western. And of course, we are able to give our students a quality, well-rounded education. The beautification of our campus is also a huge aspect. Recently, we were recognized by the National Arbor Day Foundation as having very beautiful trees. When we get that kind of recognition, it makes us want to be the most beautiful campus in the nation to continue to attract more people to our campus. And of course, when students walk across the stage at graduation, it is the most exciting event because we have helped educate another group of men and women.
Herndon: What different events do you enjoy attending on campus?
President Thomas: Actually, two nights ago we had the Service Recognition Reception where we recognized employees that have been here from 10 to 45 years. That is exciting when we see that kind of thing happening. Whenever we have something going on in our Honors College, I always enjoy attending those events. Also, students have been receiving scholarships that have never been received here at Western and that means we are bringing in more high achieving students now and I enjoy attending those recognition events—knowing that we are able to make education affordable to well-deserving students. One major thing that I am excited about is the success of our men’s basketball team. We were co-champions with South Dakota State and Coach (Jim) Molinari has really turned the Men’s basketball program around. We also have a new football coach, so I always enjoy going to athletic events as well as the cultural events.
Herndon: I just wrote a blog about the advances of technology in education. How do you see technology advancing at WIU and how is it beneficial to students?
President Thomas: As you know, we just moved the heart of technology to the Provost office and we are now putting as much funding into technology as possible. That is the way of the future here. We have to have the latest technology. Particularly for our students, we want to make sure that they have the best experience by using the best equipment and technology in the world. When they finish (at) Western, they have to go out and compete with other students that have had access to better technology so if they do not have that experience, they are not going to be able to compete as well as those other students. We want to give them the opportunities to be top-notch and be able to compete with anyone in the world. It is important to have access to technology, not only in the classroom, but also in the residence halls. So we are going to do all that we can do to make sure that they have that access.
Herndon: What new programs, services, or organizations do you see developing in the future for WIU?
President Thomas: In terms of academic affairs, we are looking at new programs. As you probably know, the Ph.D. in Environmental Science was approved by the Board of Trustees, and right now it is at the Board of Higher Ed, so we are looking into that. There are a few other things on the horizon in terms of programming across the campus. I am not ready to bring those to the forefront right now, but behind the scenes, we are making progress.
Herndon: One of the most recent things added to WIU was the Fire Services major under the direction of LEJA. How do you feel about the new major?
President Thomas: We feel that this is a cutting-edge program. We feel that it is needed in this region so it is definitely a program that is very beneficial for us. We are excited about that program, as well as others.
Herndon: What do you personally hope the university gains in the next few years?
President Thomas: For one thing, I hope we get better funding. As I said before, we have set goals for the institution of Western and we hope to get funding so that we can move forward with those goals. We are looking into getting funds for the Performing Arts Center. After that, we plan to pursue a new science building. We are putting more money into our science labs to make sure that students are getting the latest equipment for their use. Soon after, we are going to work on a grand entrance to the campus. The construction of the new entryway will begin this summer. We also want to eventually have a Welcome Center next to the new entryway, but we are still holding off (on that) because of funding issues. There will also be an arch over the new entryway as well, but that has to wait because of the lack of funding as well. And finally, we want to finish the improvements to Hanson Field. We want to make sure that the stadium is completed on the “home” side. The idea is to beautify the campus. As you have probably noticed, the old smoke stack is finally, finally, finally gone. We want to do some other things with the Heating Plant there. Way down the road, we want to eventually move the plant to the outskirts of campus so that it is not an “eyesore” on campus like it is now. Students, parents, faculty, and legislators want to see a wonderful and beautiful campus; a campus that is thriving. So, we want to make sure we make it that way.
Herndon: Your second year as president of WIU is coming to a close. What have the last two years as president been like for you?
President Thomas: It has been a challenge. I am glad that I had been here before as Provost and Academic Vice President and am now moved up to the Presidency position. I already know the University and the challenges that we face, especially with the budget challenges. We are still able to reach payroll for our employees, which is about $10-million a month, while we are still getting our funding sporadically from the state. We are still able to make sure that individuals are employed here. We haven’t had any layoffs and we want to hold to that. So individuals that work here should applaud themselves and the University for what we are doing and what we have been able to do for the past 10 years at this institution. It takes all of us to make sure that we are doing the right thing and moving forward.
Herndon: Is there anything you wish to share with the WIU alumni population?
President Thomas: To the WIU alumni, I look forward to getting around and meeting you. You have had some of the best stories and experiences to help others and myself really appreciate the history and tradition of this university. We want you to know that Western Illinois University is alive and well and even during these difficult budgeting times, we are still moving forward. We cannot afford to stand still. We want to continue to be that institution that is a shining star that sits high up on the hill and we are that kind of institution that is competitive. We have to remain competitive and we certainly do thank you for the support you give to this university. We cannot continue to do the things that we do without the support that you give, so I say thank you today.
As our interview came to a close, I felt satisfied with how confident and proud President Thomas is of Western Illinois University. It is an honor and a privilege to have such a motivated and driven individual as our leader. Good things are in store for WIU. Think Purple….Think Success…Think Western!