Increasing enrollment and retaining students are critical to the success of the City of Macomb and Western Illinois University; but now turmoil in the governance of Western Illinois University is rampant and the blame game persists without solutions.
Signs seeking the removal of WIU’s president are popping up at local businesses.
Dr. Jack Thomas was named the 11th President of Western Illinois University (WIU) in 2011.
Photos of signs outside area businesses began appearing on social media on the last two weeks. Perhaps the most visible was the sign on the marquee of The Forum, which reads, “Fire Jack” on the first line and “Support WIU” just below.
However, other signs have been appearing as well. One wooden sign at an unknown location reading, “Fire Jack Thomas Support WIU” in purple, spray painted stencil lettering was posted on Facebook by The Forum co-owner Roger Ward. Another, yellow sign outside of the old Farm King building on E. Jackson Street reads simply, “Fire Jack.”
Former Western Illinois University Trustee Lyneir Cole is accusing several of the newly-appointed board members of a “plot to fire” WIU President Jack Thomas.
Cole’s accusation is based on a series of email exchanges among trustees, retired faculty and others sent between April 25 and May 10, 2019.
The main series of emails took place primarily between Larry Balsamo and Jackie Thompson. Balsamo is a retired history professor and former department chair who is also listed as a member of the WIU Foundation Board on the WIU website, although his current status was not confirmed as of this writing. Thompson is one of the newly-appointed trustees and the former president of the WIU Foundation Board. She resigned from the foundation board when she became a trustee.
The content of the emails between Balsamo and Thompson revolves around discussions with other trustees and unnamed parties.
“Jackie, it was good to meet with you again, seemed like old times,” Balsamo wrote in an April 27 email. “I know that you are facing some really demanding challenges in your new position, but if things are going to get better here that will likely have to be instigated by you and your board colleagues. Two things, I will write to Eric this weekend to open a dialogue, and Jack just has to go.“
While not explicitly stated, “Eric” may refer to Erik Dolieslager, a trustee who was appointed to the WIU board in March this year. A later email by Balsamo to Thompson refers to a phone conversation Balsamo had with Trustee Nick Padgett in which Padgett told Balsamo that “Jack was really (dug) in as president…and some board members wanted to move on Jack, some did not really have a position and were on the fence, and some we need some work. He liked the idea of us approaching Aguilar.“
Also in the email between Balsamo and Thompson are comments referencing concerns about perceived racism. Balsamo wrote on May 7, “I am picking up some disturbing () about the Jack situation and so is at least one other member of the group. My fear is that the Jack predicament cannot easily be separated from race. (My) guess is that right three members of the board, the two African Americans and Aguilar will be at least skeptical about any immediate move on Jack and they may be supported by some in the governor’s office and certainly some in the legislature…. I know certainly that some of the opposition to Jack is racist, but even if he were purple he has been a near total failure here.“
He later wrote on May 9, “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.“
Cole made the accusation in a May 23, 2019 email which he sent to members of the current board of trustees and Thomas with the subject heading, “The plot of WIU board members.” Attached was a document with images of the emailed conversations and commentary by Cole. He forwarded the email later that day to Jesse Ruiz, Deputy Governor, and then again to media outlets shortly before 1 p.m. on May 26.
Cole shared this commentary in the body of the original and forwarded emails:
“This stream of Emails are conversations had between several board members prior to being appointed and after appointment,” he wrote. “I have forwarded the emails to the governors office and will be releasing to the press prior to your board meeting. The President has only followed the direction of the previous board which includes myself. The plot to fire Dr. Thomas by Jackie Thompson, Nick Padgett and (Polly Radosh) through these emails are inappropriate. This is blatant disregard to the university and unethical as a Board Member. The Black Alumni will not stand by and allow you all to railroad President Thomas without knowing why things were done and at the Board request. Please trust and believe that your actions to fire Dr. Thomas at the (May) Board meeting will be fought and again these emails have been released to the Governors office and I will be sending to the press today.”
The university administration provided the following statement: “As a result of the state budget impasse and its aftermath, the University has been forced to make difficult decisions, and no matter what decision is made, there will be some individuals with difference of opinions. This is the reality. We ask that everyone join together to focus on the future of our University and our communities.“
The governor’s office provided the following statement: “The governor appointed board members focused on rebuilding Western Illinois University after the devastating cuts to higher education during the previous administration. The governor encourages all university boards to work with the administration, faculty and students to ensure our public colleges and universities can thrive.”