Quad-Cities Chamber President Agrees Change Needed at WIU-QC Campus
Paul Rumler, president/CEO of the Quad Cities Chamber, is among concerned local leaders who want the state of Illinois to consider another public institution to replace Western Illinois University on the Moline riverfront.
“The best intentions started with great promise, and then in the last few years, it’s fizzled,” he said Friday, noting negatives in WIU enrollment, marketing and change in leadership.
There have been well-publicized discussions among Western’s Board of Trustees, dating back two years, and faculty senate, questioning the value of the Moline campus, he said.
“You’ve seen a stall of private investment around the Quad-Cities campus, and involvement in the community in terms of that longer-lasting economic impact — where you’re providing a workforce that’s meeting the growing needs,” Rumler said. “All of that hit a head and we began to say, is this what we want it to look like?”
The chamber and the city have been advocating for change. Rumler has talked to three WIU presidents (including interim Martin Abraham) over the past three years, raising these issues.
“It’s no secret that the financial status of the state of Illinois and Western Illinois University were challenged,” he said. “From our vantage
point, we’re wanting to maximize the investment that’s been made here in the Quad-Cities with this campus. It’s been a longstanding goal – we want to have a very robust effort here. So, we saw that happening and decided we needed to give voice to our concerns and actually take it forward.”
New WIU president Guiyou Huang wrote to Gov. JB Pritzker this past Tuesday, Feb. 16, about ongoing discussions regarding a potential transfer of the WIU Quad-Cities campus to another state institution.
To date, Western has not been included in the discussion, he noted, copying Rumler and Moline Mayor Stephanie Acri. She responded that she’s had concerns about the impact of WIU in Moline and she’s scheduled to meet again with Huang on March 2.
“In our conversation in my office this past January, I had a very candid conversation with you about our concerns with Western Illinois University’s decisions that have hurt Moline’s economy,” Acri wrote in response Feb. 16.
“In the subsequent follow-up meeting you had with business and community leaders, they expressed similar concerns to you,” she wrote. “I clearly expressed that Moline was looking for a true partner to help Moline grow and diversify. Our future success is dependent on the
children of today having the best options available for them to move into the jobs and opportunities of tomorrow.”
Acri noted Moline and the Q-C area have an excellent feeder school system and those students need a university that offers quality education and a high quality of life.
When the Q-C campus opened in 2012 at 3300 River Drive, leaders hoped WIU would grow to 3,000 Moline students. In 2018, there were 1,267 Q-C students, dropping to 1,192 in 2019, and most shifting this past fall to online instruction due to Covid-19.
WIU spokeswoman Darcie Shinberger said Friday that of concerns expressed at the Jan. 15 meeting of Huang and Acri, he “has indicated to the mayor and other community leaders that he wants to address the issues they have. He has shared his vision and plans with not only community leaders, but with Q-C area media – growing marketing and enrollment for WIU, including the QC campus; further strengthening town/gown relationships; growing partnerships that benefit the region, and more.”
“Dr. Huang anticipates the March meeting set with Mayor Acri will focus on strategic partnerships for the Quad-Cities campus and regional partners. He looks forward to meeting with the mayor and other community leaders to continue discussions,” Shinberger said.
Huang has noted “that what occurred, or didn’t occur, in the past, should remain in the past,” she said. “WIU has new leadership, and President Huang is emphasizing growth for WIU, including the Quad-Cities campus.”
Long advocating for four-year public college
Home to strong public community colleges and the growing private institutions Augustana College, Rock Island, and St. Ambrose University, Davenport, the Q-C has long advocated for creation and support of four-year public higher education.
In 1996, the Illinois Quad City chamber did a higher education needs assessment.
“That really set the path forward for the next 25 years,” Rumler said Friday, noting WIU has had a presence in the Q-C since 1912. “That report called out the lack of four-year higher education in the Quad-Cities and that’s when we started advocating for what is today’s Western Illinois University Quad Cities campus.”
In 2003, a donation from Deere & Company of 20 acres of land on the Moline riverfront provided momentum for an expanded WIU-QC campus. Planning began to build an additional campus on the riverfront to serve more students, and collaborative relationships were formed with the city of Moline, Renew Moline and the Illinois Quad City Chamber of Commerce, among many others, to develop the riverfront.
At first, the 40,000-square-foot former John Deere Tech Center on River Drive was renovated to the first phase of WIU’s QC campus, with the total cost at $18.4 million, opening in 2012. The campus later expanded substantially, but enrollment didn’t.
WIU in both its main Macomb campus and Moline saw total enrollment plunge from 13,602 in 2006 to 8,502 in 2018.
Former WIU president Jack Thomas resigned effective June 30, 2019, after weeks of pressure from alumni, Macomb residents and university affiliates, calling for him to resign or be fired.
That 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 2019.
WIU’s Alumni Council overwhelmingly passed a resolution asking the university board to terminate Thomas’ contract by the end of June 2019 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.”
After Huang became WIU’s 12th president Jan. 1, 2021, Rumler met with him last month and asked for change, as well as meeting with Q-C state legislators and other prospective universities to see if another institution would be able to locate here.
Of Huang, the chamber chief said: “I think he is eager to serve as president for both Macomb and the Quad-Cities campus. He’s eager to do good. He understands the value of the Quad-Cities, wanting to do better. This predates President Huang. It’s been a longstanding issue. Looking at their track record of investment, it’s concerning to me that the board and others have not prioritized the Quad-Cities campus as much as we think they should have.”
Exploring all options
The city, chamber and other leaders have been exploring options, well before Huang was named new president.
“Western does good things. Nobody’s trying to say that Western hasn’t been a partner in meeting needs of the Quad-Cities,” Rumler said. “It hasn’t met the ultimate vision of what was established and what they signed on to. There’s good; nobody should be accused of not doing good work.
“We have active partnerships with Western Illinois today,” he said, noting the chamber just announced a partnership with their Small Business Development Center where the chamber is providing resources to expand their services.
“We want to make sure we have a vibrant, active, robust Quad-Cities campus, serving a full four-year university, that’s driving private investment and economic impact,” Rumler said. Emerging from the pandemic, “we need to be in growth mode, and it’s concerning when enrollment is under 1,000 at a campus that’s supposed to be 3,000 to 5,000 students by now.”
“That’s what I mean when the best intentions seem to have fizzled, because they’re not anywhere near where expectations were supposed to be,” he said.
Rumler wouldn’t name a specific different public institution to replace Western.
“I think Western has had a chance the last nine years, and the last three or four have not gone in the direction it should be going,” he said. “We are determined to find a new direction and that’s what we’re asking the state of Illinois to help that and support that.”
“We have very good private schools; we have great community colleges,” Rumler said. “what we’ve always lacked is that four-year public university. This means it needs to be accessible to everyone.”
“We also think we need a full portfolio – not just a commuter style campus that’s just satellite,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re growing as a region. As I talk to prospective employers or investors, what they look for is, where’s the workforce?”
“Today, people choose the place where they want to locate and companies are following,” Rumler said. “That means employers are looking where the workforce base is. What’s the growing enrollment of colleges and universities. That is why this is an important conversation.
“Those universities need to be training and educating those students for those expanding and evolving needs,” he said. “We have some really large corporations in the Quad-Cities area we feel need to be better supported, if we’re going to continue to be a successful region.”
There is funding to operate the WIU campus today, so there doesn’t need to be a large boost in state funding, Rumler noted. “This is about better deploying the resources that are directed toward the university that’s here. There’s been significant state dollars invested in capital projects over the last nine years, as well as local philanthropic dollars.
“It’s really about the best of our ability to leverage the state resources,” he said. “It will take continued support from the state operate, but they’re supporting it right now.”
Working to build private sector growth
The private sector likes predictability and stability, which they haven’t seen with WIU-QC, Rumler said.
“There has been the kind of rotation of leaders in the last three years and the programs have not been reliably expanding,” he said. “It’s really tough to invest a future into a program that may or may not still be there. There are some signs of concern when it comes to programs.”
The engineering program is small and not expanding, Rumler said. “We’d like to see a university that’s investing in their program that’s a
relevancy for this area, a strong match for the growth potential here in the Quad-Cities.”
In October 2019, IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union opened its brand new four-story headquarters nearby at 2500 River Drive, wanting to locate on a strong, growing corridor, to attract workforce, he said. The 92,000-square-foot building is home to over 250 employees.
“Private investment will follow public investment, specifically colleges and universities,” Rumler said. “It becomes an epicenter of activity, of knowledge, of thought, and new life. And it blossoms around it. That’s something that’s not happened and again, it’s because we’ve seen a backwards slide of enrollment. There’s not been continued investment in those programs in the Quad-Cities.
“It feels like it’s been relegated to an afterthought within the WIU system,” he said of the Moline campus. “The majority of their efforts have been to work on Macomb and the Quad-Cities is left fending for itself.”
From the chamber viewpoint, uncertainty and volatility hurt their effort to bring in new business and residents to the area.
“A strong four-year public university will attract workforce,” Rumler said. “It will retain people, because they are growing in enrollment or growing in faculty, stimulating innovation and entrepreneurship, and we continued to see from an economic development perspective, gaps in our community around research and development.
“Universities that are able to pull federal research dollars and work with the private sector on problems, and we’re looking for that university to be involved in that,” he said, to spur more economic activity. The WIU-QC campus “has not been able to quite pull that off,” Rumler said.
Mayor Acri and Rumler will continue to meet with WIU and state officials in the next few months, to conclude the issue, he said.