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 on Friday in Macomb. 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 roughly 200 gathered in a campus gymnasium. “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.
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.”
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.
Over the last several weeks, “Fire Jack” signs have popped up along roadways and sidewalks in Macomb.
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 rose 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 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 Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. “I think our leadership should get credit for keeping this institution open and thriving.”
On Friday morning, Aguilar addressed the tensions in the community.
“When we are divided, we bring unwanted national attention to this university,” Aguilar 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 the board stood to thank Thomas. Two-thirds of 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.”
This story will be updated.
Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas is resigning his post, effective June 30
BREAKING: Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas is resigning his post, effective June 30#WIU— Graham Ambrose (@Grahambrose) June 14, 2019
BREAKING: WIU President Jack Thomas is stepping down#WIU— Graham Ambrose (@Grahambrose) June 14, 2019