MACOMB — Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas has resigned his post effective June 30.
Thomas announced he would step down from university leadership at the WIU Board of Trustees meeting Friday. His request for a two-year administrative leave was accepted by the board.
“At this pivotal time in our history, I believe the university would best be served by new leadership,” Thomas said before an audience of more than 200 people, who packed into a campus gymnasium for the meeting. “It has been an honor advocating tirelessly for Western Illinois University.”
Greg Aguilar, chairman of the board of trustees, thanked Thomas for his service. “He and his leadership team have admirably navigated the historic budgetary problems stemming from decreasing funding and the (state) budget impasse,” Aguilar said. “He met the board’s charge to keep the university’s doors open.”
Thomas’ resignation comes after weeks of pressure from alumni, Macomb residents and university affiliates, calling for him to resign or be fired.
Over the last several weeks, “Fire Jack” signs have popped up along roadways and sidewalks in Macomb.
Earlier this month, the executive committee of the Western Illinois University Foundation, an independent organization that manages university gifts, released a unanimous letter urging the board to remove Thomas and reinstate Brad Bainter, the university’s former vice president for advancement and public services who was fired at the end of May.
Last week, the WIU Alumni Council overwhelmingly passed a resolution asking the university board to terminate Thomas’ contract by the end of the month if he did not resign.
The council suggested the university suffers from a “lack of direction and floundering leadership” as well as other problems, including “declining enrollment, funding shortfalls, arduous negotiations with collective bargaining units, and the departure of several senior leaders from the university.”
“Only through these actions,” the resolution concluded, “will we re-establish the footing necessary to ensure the success and future of the university for generations to come.”
In an interview, Thomas said he decided to step down a few weeks ago. When asked what his next steps will be, he declined to comment.
Charges of racism
The chorus of calls for Thomas’ removal came with controversy. Many students, alumni and faculty of WIU have accused the anti-Thomas movement of racism.
Thomas is the university’s first black president. About 87% of Macomb identifies as “white alone,” according to U.S. Census estimates, with around 8% identifying as “African-American alone.”
Tensions arose after emails between Larry Balsamo, an emeritus professor of history, and Trustee Jackie Thompson, both of whom are white, were leaked.
“Race hangs over this whole situation, but I have the feeling that if Jack were white or even Asian, he would have been gone some time ago,” Balsamo wrote in an email, as reported by The McDonough County Voice. “I know certainly that some of the opposition to Jack is racist,” Balsamo wrote, “but even if he were purple he has been a near total failure here.”
Enrollment at WIU has fallen by about 35% over the last decade. University officials have attributed that in part to a declining rural population in the area, an outflux of college students from Illinois, and dwindling state support.
Over that time, the enrollment of black and Hispanic undergrads at WIU has increased by more than 60%.
“It’s not any one person’s fault, but the leader gets blamed,” Rick Hardy, a political science professor and dean of WIU’s Centennial Honors College, told the publication Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. “I think our leadership should get credit for keeping this institution open and thriving.”
At the board meeting Friday morning, comments from local residents, alumni, faculty and board members addressed the accusations of racism head-on.
Betty Zane Taylor, a WIU grad who grew up in Macomb, traveled from her home in North Carolina to attend Friday’s board meeting.
“When you go behind closed doors and scheme against a man of honor like (Thomas), I guarantee that as time goes on, you’ll continue to see more downfall,” said Taylor. “Enrollment will continue to decrease unless we come together as a body.”
Taylor said she encountered racism while growing up in the area, and she views the anti-Thomas movement as racially motivated.
Ronald Williams, a WIU administrator who is leaving the university this month for a job at Columbus State University in Georgia, said he “cannot in good conscience remain silent any longer” about the racism he has endured in Macomb.
In particular, Williams denounced a “Fire Jack” sign that was posted on a prominent marquee in downtown Macomb. Williams called the posting of the sign a “symbolic public lynching.”
“While individuals can certainly disagree with President Thomas and other people on various topics, that sign was mean-spirited and has racist connotations, whether intended or not,” Williams said. “Our work to recruit the next class of Leathernecks would be much more productive if we did not have ugly displays of hatred throughout this community.”
Other speakers focused on what one of them described as “valid, legitimate criticisms” of Thomas’ tenure. One woman submitted a petition for the removal of Thomas, which she said was signed by 500 area residents.
All of the commenters spoke with a sense of urgency about the issues confronting the university.
Over the last several years, said Tere North, a Macomb resident, “we lost more of the student population than all but four of the state’s universities.”
Calling on the board to stabilize the dwindling enrollment, North said, “Ultimately the captain is responsible for the ship. ... We need leadership, not excuses."
Not much focus on Q-C
Few at the meeting hailed from the Quad-Cities, and throughout the morning, the WIU campus in the Quad-Cities received less attention than the Macomb campus did.
“President Thomas has been a great ally and supporter of the Quad-Cities campus,” said Joseph Rives, the WIU senior vice president who oversees the Moline riverfront campus. “We’re saddened by his loss at the university. We look forward to new leadership that will continue to propel us forward.”
In a private interview, Aguilar, the chairman of the board of trustees, who lives in East Moline, said he was “surprised” to have learned of Thomas’ resignation, which he praised as courageous.
In public comments, Aguilar addressed the tensions in the community.
“When we are divided, we bring unwanted national attention to this university,” he said. “We appreciate that people are passionate enough to share their thoughts and opinions with us. However, it’s vital that final decisions about this university fall on the board of trustees — and no one else.”
When Aguilar finished speaking, he and members of the board stood to thank Thomas. Only two-thirds of the other people in the room joined in the ovation.
In his remarks, Thomas thanked the board, faculty, students and his family.
“It is our people who make this university great,” Thomas said. “It has been a privilege serving you as president of Western Illinois University.”