Some city and business leaders are looking into the possibility of bringing a different public university to the Quad-Cities because they are disappointed by the performance of Western Illinois University on the Moline riverfront.
Moline Mayor Stephanie Acri and Quad Cities Chamber CEO Paul Rumler confirmed Thursday they have been in talks with other state schools to bring their four-year programs to Moline to combat languishing enrollment numbers and other concerns with WIU.
In a recent letter to Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, new WIU President Guiyou Huang and Board of Trustees Chairwoman Polly Radosh said they have become aware of discussions surrounding a possible transfer of the college to another state institution and said they want an opportunity "to hear and understand the concerns of community leaders."
However, Acri and Rumler said they have made their concerns known directly to WIU leadership, and they are prepared to move on in order to arrive at a partnership that will produce better community results.
"From our perspective, what we've been looking for in the university is strong direction, leadership and funding," Rumler said. "We want this university to be a full four-year university that attracts students from all over the world.
"We want to see a university here that matches our vision."
But the ability to attract students has been one of WIU's most frustrating failures, Rumler and Acri said.
Since partners, such as John Deere, the city, the Moline Foundation and others began investing in the Quad-City campus in 2012, the mission for WIU was to build an enrollment between 3,000 and 5,000 students. Last year, Rumler said, just 800 students were enrolled.
"Outside the community, you'd never know WIU had a campus in the Quad-Cities," Rumler said, adding he has "tremendous concerns" over the absence of marketing for the campus and a perceived favoritism toward WIU's campus in Macomb.
Acri responded to Huang's letter to the governor in her own letter to the WIU president, which has been posted to the city's Facebook account.
She wrote, "I clearly expressed that Moline was looking for a true partner to help Moline grow and diversify." She also referred to university decisions "that have hurt Moline's economy," writing that others have shared similar concerns.
On Thursday, Acri elaborated, saying community investments in the campus were made with the expectation that thousands of students would enroll. Taxpayers' investment in WIU has not paid off, she said.
"We had a vision," the mayor said. "I don't think we achieved that vision."
One specific investment that fell flat, she said, was Moline's $3.3 million TIF-based investment in student housing on the riverfront.
"It wasn't a good investment, because it didn't increase enrollment," she said. "It didn't have the outcome we expected."
In fact, the student housing was sold and the new owner had to "redesign" the units to make them attractive to non-students. The development now is full, so it is generating new property-tax revenue for the city, Acri said, but it has not impacted the highly sought-after enrollment increase.
"There are other examples," she said. "There are other partnerships and opportunities that were not executed to a level of outcome we hoped for. There have been some interesting opportunities, and I feel they've been left on the table."
Huang, who has been president of WIU for just seven weeks, has Quad-Cities campus growth at the top of his to-do list, a university spokeswoman wrote in an email Thursday.
"Dr. Huang is making recruitment and retention a priority, which includes our WIU-QC campus," Darcie Shinberger wrote. "As indicated in the letter to the governor, a strategic planning committee has been established for the QC campus to further refine initiatives for the QC campus (programs, recruitment, retention, etc).
"One of the top priorities the Board of Trustees set in their search criteria for a new president was to employ a president who would be able to plan and negotiate a new vision for our Quad-Cities campus. It is critical that we are given the opportunity to build on the achievements of our WIU-Quad Cities campus and develop new strategies for growth and community partnerships."
Rumler said he had been telling Western's leadership about his concerns for more than three years. As the economy stands to rebound from the pandemic, he said, all leaders should be ready to respond.
"We need to be in growth mode," he said. "Right now, our university is flat-footed."
Specific state universities were not named, but Rumler said several options exist. Talks with state leaders, the governor and lawmakers have rendered him "optimistic," he said, that another university's flag could fly on the Moline riverfront.