WIU President Jack Thomas took the time to meet with me earlier this semester. I had never met the president before so I was very excited to get to know him and to learn about his plans and goals for Western Illinois University.
Shani Belshaw: The school year has started, how has the beginning of the school year gone?
President Jack Thomas: We have had a great beginning. We have some exciting students and we are just pleased with the kinds of students that we have brought in. Our grade point average is up slightly so we are very pleased with the caliber of students that we bring into the University. We have gotten off to a great start. The students in the residence halls and dining facilities seem to be moving along quite well and we have had a lot of great things happen in the institution and I am sure you are going to talk about the rankings later, but we are very pleased with the direction that we are taking with this University.
Belshaw: Can you talk about the initiatives that you have for the academic year?
President Jack Thomas: Well we have a lot of initiatives going on. As you know the Governor came during the spring semester and released the $71.8 million for the Center for the Performing Arts. We look forward to actually starting the construction for the Center for the Performing Arts. We have been waiting for this for about 50 years and we finally got it! It is finally coming to fruition, and we look forward to that. The actual construction will be during the spring semester of 2015. We are pursuing a new science building, which will be right next to Currens Hall, joining to Currens Hall with the renovations of Currens Hall as well. That is number five on the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s capital list and we are excited about that. We want to continue to look at our academic programs. As you know we have a Ph.D. that started this fall in environmental studies and the next Ph.D. we will be pursuing is a Ph.D. in law enforcement and justice administration and then one in instructional design and technology, which will be online as well as some other cutting edge kinds of academic programs. These are some of the programs that are really going to help this institution. In terms of the facilities, we did the ribbon cutting of phase two of the Quad Cities campus, which is a state-of-the-art facility. We have phase three (WIU-QC) on our list to look at later. We want to make sure that we continue to grow the enrollment. We have about 1,500 students there (WIU-QC) and we want to grow that enrollment to at least 3,000, some even say larger than that. We have revamped the Western Commitment Scholarship and we hope to bring in more students by way of that Western Commitment Scholarship…high achieving students as well as those mid-range students and those that may be borderline. We are looking at enhancing our overall academic profile, which is what we have been doing. We are very pleased with some of those things that we are doing. We want to look at providing travel funds for faculty and staff to make sure that they continue to do their research and go to professional meetings so that they can hone their skills; we put funding into that. We want to continue to beautify our campus and there are a number of things on my list. For the entryway coming in off of Route 67 (from the north) we want to demolish what we call the former cinema building and create a beautiful landscape there…just a number of things that we have in place. I am starting a presidential blog this year and the Board of Trustees members know I am now on Twitter. I have a PR advisory board that advised me to be on Twitter. My name there is “@StudentPres.” Then I have a presidential Facebook page, where individuals can follow me there as well. We want to continue to seek donors and cultivate relationships in the future and we want to continue to attend the Alumni Events as I do, not just here in the states, but around the country. And I have even done one in South Korea, where we have about 300 alums in that area. So we have Alumni all over the world. These are people that are very enthused about this institution and its progression. We want to continue to have town hall meetings. I have what we call the President’s Roundtable where I meet with faculty and then I am creating a President’s Roundtable that meets with staff. I meet with the SGA (Student Government Association), I have already met with them, talking to them whenever need be. A number of things are happening here. I want to continue to meet with the legislators and we are hosting a legislator reception in Springfield. This will be the third time that we will be doing this since I have been president. We have a vision for this institution and lots of goals for the institution. We are reaching those goals. We are achieving those goals. So we are excited; I am, very excited.
Belshaw: I recently read that for the 10th consecutive year, WIU has been named “Best Midwestern College” by the Princeton review and that we moved up nine spots in the U.S. News rankings, to 39th of 109 public and private schools on the top tier list of “Best Regional Universities.” What does that mean for the University?
President Jack Thomas: It means that we are moving in the right direction. When I became president in 2011, we were ranked number 53. We moved to 49th and now we are 39th that means that we are moving up in the ranking of U.S. News and World Report as well as the Princeton Review and other rankings. We were ranked number 14 as a Midwestern Institution when I became president; we moved from 14th to 13th, and now we are number 10. That means a lot; it says that we are doing the right things here at the institution. It says we continue to educate students and they are going out into their careers and to professional schools. We continue to be ranked in G.I. Jobs Magazine as a military friendly institution. We are very pleased with the rankings. We have been ranked by many as an institution that graduates more students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds than many of our peer institutions. We were noted for the number of physics graduate students we graduated, so it says we are doing some great things at this institution. It says we are having some success stories, but we are not going to just stop there. We have got a lot more things that we want to do for this University, to make it the best that it can be.
Belshaw: Why do you think the University has been improving in rankings?
President Jack Thomas: I think because of the things we are putting in place. We have the Western Commitment Scholarship. We have the Building Connections Mentoring Program. We have the First Year Experience, a 100 level course that students are taking to help them make the transition from high school to college. We can tell by looking at the fall-to-fall retention rate, we moved from 63.3% to 72.2%, and all in one year. Western is becoming more recognized for the quality of the teaching, the research and service, the partnerships that we have. Western is known all over the world, in state, out of state, and other countries. So I think the word is getting out and it is because of the vision that we have, the goals that we set, and the goals that we are achieving here at the institution and we are what we are because of the people that are here and who serve the students here.
Belshaw: I also read the international student enrollment at WIU increased by over 100 and this fall, new international student enrollment is at 511.What has the university been doing specifically to raise international student enrollment?
President Jack Thomas: When I first became president, I looked at other institutions our size and others that are a little bigger and determined an institution our size should have at least a thousand international students. I know that some people would have thought that was a little far-fetched at first, but this is what other institutions are doing. I did it at the previous institution where I worked. We brought in more international students. Dr. Richard Carter and I along with his staff and others have traveled to various foreign countries creating linkages, memorandums of understanding. We have visited various embassies in Washington D.C. and we have had lots of international visitors come to our campus. They want to partner with us and in turn they are sending their students here to be educated and their government is funding them. In turn, we are also sending students abroad. This is a diverse place. A university should reflect the world. The world is diverse and the University should be diverse. We embrace diversity. We learn from differences, so we are very pleased with what is happening in terms of the growth of the international students and how far we have come in just those two to three years in our international enrollment. We have much more to do, so we are just right at halfway now (of) that 1000 we are looking to get. Through the leadership of Dr. Carter and others we will reach our goal.
Belshaw: I read that WIU is increasing the funding of the automatic scholarship program for the incoming class of 2015, why did WIU decide to do this?
President Jack Thomas: Well, we decided to do that because in order to be competitive with other institutions. As you know in terms of the (high school) enrollment here in the state of Illinois, the number of high school graduates, that has dwindled. We are all scrambling for the same students, those in-state as well of those that are out-of-state. We know that a lot of students leave the state of Illinois; only 60 percent of those that graduate stay in state, so we are all grasping for those students. We want to make sure that we get our share. And then we know about the decrease in terms of financial aid, work-study, and those kinds of things, that in order for students to have access, it has to be affordable and we have to make sure we provide funding as much as possible to help offset the cost for our students to get a quality and well-rounded education. We provide access at our institution. We want to make sure we are affordable and provide access, so that is one way to help us be affordable and offset the dwindling financial aid as well as the dwindling number of high school graduates.
Belshaw: Is there anything you would like to share with the WIU alumni and friends, who might be reading this blog?
President Jack Thomas: I want the alumni and friends to know that we are moving in the right direction. We are excited about what we are doing. We have a vision. We have goals in place and we are going to do all that we can to achieve those goals. We want our alumni to continue to support us financially and with other resources. Send students to your alma mater. Know that we are alive and well. We continue to provide a quality and well-rounded education and the sky’s the limit to what we can do as an institution and also what our students can do in terms of achieving their goals as well. We embrace the support that we get from our alums.
I thoroughly enjoyed meeting President Jack Thomas; he was very down to earth and genuinely interested in chatting with me. While speaking to him about the goals and accomplishments for the University, I quickly saw his enthusiasm for what lies ahead for WIU. As soon as our interview was over, I liked his presidential Facebook page and followed him on Twitter. You can like his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/WIUPresident and follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StudentPres.