URBANA – On his first day as University of Illinois president, B. Joseph White strolled through the Illini Union, introducing himself to students and asking for their ideas.
"I'm all ears," he told them.
A year later, White is still listening.
On a jog from the President's House to his office in Henry Administration Building on the Quad one morning last week, White stopped to talk with two journalism students interviewing passers-by. He chatted for several minutes, then offered advice about speaking their minds in the classroom.
"That is what is so fun about being president," he said later. "I always get charged up by talking to (students), always."
His open, affable demeanor and enthusiasm have served White well in dealing with UI administrators, state legislators and potential donors. But he is also driven to reach his goal of making the UI the best public research university in the country.
"When you're president, there are a million issues buzzing around you, but what really matters is academic quality," White said. "I'm probably obsessed with maintaining, building and rebuilding the academic quality of the University of Illinois. That's the real ballgame."
In his first days and weeks as UI president, White talked about setting high aspirations for the university and forming a "new compact" with those who provide money to the UI and those who decide how to spend it.
Much of his focus this year has been on developing a strategic plan. Two months after taking office, White met with university leaders to begin work on the plan.
White's new compact stresses the need for the UI to have a balanced portfolio of funding sources, including state appropriations, tuition, research grants and private donations.
He said the UI needs to be self-reliant "so we're not waiting on anybody to create a brilliant future," but the state needs to play its part in supporting what White calls its "most valuable asset."
"We're building our plans not assuming any largesse from the state this year, but I take a long view of these things," he said, noting that he's developed good working relationships with top leaders in state government.
He can relate
"He has a very compelling way of laying out the university's agenda and its needs," said Rick Schoell, executive director of the University Office of Governmental Relations. "His audience – the state legislature or the governor or members of Congress – ... sees the enthusiasm, and they walk away wanting to help."
White has spent a great amount of time meeting and talking with people – state lawmakers, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, local government officials and alumni.
"There's just no substitute to building personal relationships with people, so when the situation requires it, you can pick up the phone," he said.
Building relationships with donors has been a priority for him, in advance of a major university fundraising campaign.
His most important contribution has been to lay out the need for a greater diversity of funding and to stress the importance private fundraising will play, said Craig Bazzani, vice president for advancement of the UI Foundation and interim vice chancellor for development and advancement for the Urbana campus.
"In the past, private funds have been the icing on the cake. Today, they need to be a layer of the cake," Bazzani said. "In the past, they were important. Tomorrow, they're going to be critical."
The attention to fundraising extends to all the academic units on campus.
"He's been very clear about the message that units not placing emphasis on this need to change that, that it's a very important thing we do," said Avijit Ghosh, dean of the UI's business school.
"I think I make it clear we're all part of one team," White said.
He also knows that development includes telling the story of the UI's contributions to students and parents, state legislators, the city of Chicago and international partners.
"He's going to be somebody who will carry the flag pretty high for us," Bazzani said.
White said the compact will help the UI find new sources of money and make cuts in order to put $100 million a year for five years into academic programs and facilities maintenance.
"The deferred maintenance backlog is worse than I expected," White said. "I really, really, really dislike it. The symbol of the whole thing is Lincoln Hall. It's just unacceptable to me.
"I think our students are directly affected by deteriorating infrastructure like Lincoln Hall. I'm not proud of it, and we need to be proud of everything we have."
White spent 10 years as dean of the University of Michigan's business school. He worked in the private sector as a vice president of a Fortune 500 company and helping to rebuild a Wall Street firm.
Those experiences give him a disciplined, analytical approach to setting goals, analyzing strengths and weaknesses and charting a course of action, said Doug Vinzant, associate vice president for planning and budgeting, who has been working closely with White on the strategic plan.
"He knows the difference between the cart and the horse," Vinzant said. "We don't start on something until we've figured out what the problem is."
He's also willing to listen to others and alter course if necessary.
"He has a confidence about himself that enables him to sort out whether to change course or hold firm," Vinzant said. "He trusts himself, trusts his instincts."
"He's genuinely interested in people, genuinely interested in the intellectual motivations that drive faculty, staff and the others that work in this institution," Ghosh added.
"He meets people in equal terms, takes their input, respects their input and makes decisions."
Not everyone approached the strategic planning with enthusiasm, Vinzant said, but White focused on the positives.
"He talked about the value of doing this well. He emphasized the benefits of devoting their best energies to this," Vinzant said. "He's not a heavy-handed, punitive leader. He's much more positive, and he emphasizes benefits and rewards. He focuses on what is possible, what are the opportunities.
"That and his interpersonal skills are pretty compelling. People usually don't get the full dose of that and still say, 'I don't want to do it.' "
White said he strives to be inclusive, supportive and open to new ideas, rather than dictate.
"My goal is to create partnerships, strong, effective partnerships with people with whom I work," White said. "My partnership with (Chancellor) Richard Herman is a perfect example of that. I'm really proud of that appointment. He has the highest aspirations for the campus. He and his wife Susan are committed to this place. He has a stewardship attitude to his job."
He also tries to be accessible to those in the community.
Before the UI's Homecoming parade last fall, White met a family with a son at the UI. On the spur of the moment, White asked the student's mother to ride in his car during the parade.
"I just love that kind of thing," he said. "That's part of being inclusive: taking advantage of spending time with members of the community and enjoying it."
White says he and his wife Mary love the community. He enjoys going to UI basketball games and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, and he praises the quality of life here.
His parents have moved here from California, and his entire family spent Christmas at the President's House, where he has installed a wireless sound system (at his own expense) to play classical music and "really loud" rock music.
"The only place we really want to be is here. I think this is the most beautiful house in the world. I think this is a wonderful community," White said. "In just a year, this place has become home."
White's first year has been one of setting the stage for the future, from developing the strategic plan to building relationships. The coming year will focus on working toward the goals he has set.
"With high aspirations, good leadership at every level, hard work, courage and a little bit of luck, I think the prospects (for the university's future) are excellent," White said.
Vernon Burton, a history and sociology professor who is chairman of the Urbana Senate, said faculty will be watching to see how the ideas in the strategic plan are put into practice.
"In some ways, it's a more crucial stage than the stages of planning," Burton said. "This is what people are waiting to see – what does the strategic plan mean in relationship with an individual faculty member? I don't think any strategic plan will work unless you have faculty buy-in.
"My view of Joe White so far is he is a terrific salesperson."