URBANA — Within days of arriving at the University of Illinois, Chancellor Phyllis Wise embarked on a "listening and learning tour" to get a full grasp of her new campus, its people and its strengths.
It was the first part of an effort to map out how the UI, as a top public research institution, could position itself to address society's biggest challenges 20 to 50 years down the road.
The process was quickly overshadowed by a very public fight over a controversial enrollment plan that eventually cost her boss, UI President Michael Hogan, his job. Wise found herself the subject of faculty letters and controversial emails from the president, who announced his resignation March 22.
Since then, the campus has settled back into a more routine rhythm, and the "visioning" process, the second stage of her planning effort, forges on.
"It was very easy to just get captured by all that stuff for a while, but it was extremely important that we kept thinking as a campus about what our responsibilities to ourselves and to the world are," interim Provost Richard Wheeler said.
Hogan, in fact, was "very supportive" of the effort, Wise said.
The chancellor said the listening and learning tour gave her a chance to meet as many people as possible on campus, something she believes every new leader should do. Though she's spent her academic career at public universities, each is a little bit different, Wise said.
In her visits with students, faculty and staff last fall, the chancellor asked two general questions:
— What brought you here, what makes this place unique, and why did you stay? (Collegiality, interdisciplinary research opportunities and a friendly campus were big factors.)
— Looking 20 to 50 years ahead, what are society's major challenges, and what role can a premier public research university play in solving them?
"People didn't answer the second question as much as they answered the first," Wise said, "so we're concentrating on that second one this semester."
The campus is gathering input in two ways. The first is a series of 20 events — most of which Wise attends — in which 60 people, broken into six small groups, identify the issues they see as most pressing and how the UI's strengths apply to them. The sessions will continue through the spring for faculty, staff, deans, administrators and students, and an alumni event is scheduled in Chicago this summer, officials said.
The campus also launched an online survey earlier this month that was getting hundreds of responses.
"(That) says to me that they're hungry to be listened to and to be heard, to be engaged, to be part of the decision-making," Wise said.
Wise said she conducted a similar exercise at the University of Washington, where she was provost and interim president, and didn't get nearly as much response.
"Maybe it's because since 2009, this campus has gone through a period of churning," Wise said, referring to the recent turmoil and turnover resulting from the 2009 Category I admissions scandal. "And I think maybe people are really looking forward to the future now with optimism."
One participant, geology Professor Stephen Marshak, said the controversy involving Hogan and his former chief of staff, Lisa Troyer, overshadowed "everything else" on campus over the past few months.
"The faculty, at least, were really waiting to figure out how the higher-level administrative issues were going to be sorted out," Marshak said. "But this was in the background, and it was sending a good signal of how our chancellor perceives the faculty. The main message she's conveying by doing this is that she's listening to the people, the faculty and others on campus."
Professor Mike Biehl took part in one of the first "visioning" sessions at the Illini Union and felt it was productive. He was impressed that Wise reached out to the faculty, who had complained that the consultative process wasn't as strong as it should have been under Hogan.
"That's all we as faculty can ask for — an active, participative voice that is strongly considered and valued by the appropriate and designated 'decision-makers,' whether they are university administration or a combined administration/faculty panel," Biehl said.
Other UI employees, from building service workers to UI police officers, have expressed gratitude at being asked for their opinions, said Jason Kosovski, communication and evaluation coordinator for the chancellor's office, who is supervising the process. He's heard more than one person say, "'I've been here x number of years, and no one's ever asked me.' They're just really excited that they're being asked, and that someone is listening," Kosovski said.
In the sessions, each group is asked to use Post-it notes to predict society's major problems in 20 to 50 years. A facilitator helps the group organize those ideas into six (in some cases more) general categories on a large poster board.
At a recent session, one table settled on environmental sustainability, health and aging, global relations and education, among other categories. Clustered under "global relations" were nuclear weapons, border crossings and unrest in the Middle East. "Socioeconomic inequality" included economy, economic failures, increasing divergence between haves and have-nots, the value of labor and working conditions, increased socioeconomic stratification, growth in China and plutocracy.
In the second part of the exercise, groups are asked to choose three top categories and list how the UI's expertise could be applied to them. The group above settled on environmental sustainability, poverty and hunger, and global relations, then underneath added green Post-its with "NCSA," "engineering programs," "biofuels" and other UI strengths.
The campus is developing a "word cloud" for each session, to see which topics rise to the top. Wise said it's too early to disclose any results, but some key topics have already emerged, including "health" and "environment."
In fact, every response, whether from the group sessions or the online survey, will be recorded in some way, Kosovski said.
Kosovski hopes to summarize the information for Wise by the end of the summer, and the chancellor plans to hold another town hall meeting next fall to discuss the findings publicly.
The campus will then look at where it needs to invest over the next few years to better position itself in those areas — such as recruiting faculty, developing new programs or courses, or building new facilities that allow better collaboration, Wise said.
Will the campus — most important, the faculty — buy into the results, especially when funding is at stake?
"It's hard to say with faculty," said Professor Lizanne DeStefano, a facilitator at several visioning sessions.
Every new leader wants to go through a strategic planning exercise, she said, and the campus just completed a five-year plan developed under former Provost Linda Katehi.
"I have to say, when I started hearing sounds of another one of those activities, I kind of rolled my eyes," she said.
But the current process is different, she said, because it involves such broad consultation across campus. Rather than starting from scratch, it's also building on work already done through Stewarding Excellence and other planning efforts, she said. And it's well-defined process, not "just a bunch of faculty committees who are off doing their own things and writing reports."
"It's transparent, and it's also efficient, and it is a way to really move ahead in a thoughtful but quick way," she added.
Marshak said the process he took part in yielded no huge surprises. But he felt it was valuable, especially since each group represented a mix of disciplines.
"You got a sense of what your colleagues across campus were thinking about," he said.
The sessions produced remarkable consensus among various groups, DeStefano said, focusing on energy, poverty and world health.
DeStefano is most excited about the health front, because health care isn't typically associated with the Urbana campus. While the UI's main College of Medicine and teaching hospital are in Chicago, the Urbana campus has a medical school as well as a College of Veterinary Medicine, School of Applied Health Sciences and other highly rated health sciences programs, such as nutrition, chemistry, neuroscience, and molecular and cellular biology, Wise noted. The two campuses are already exploring partnerships in research and education, DeStefano said.
Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said "broad comprehensive excellence" will continue to be essential to addressing any societal challenges, so "whatever you're doing on campus can be part of this."
"In the next 20 to 50 years, discoveries will be done by teams of people, whether you're talking about scholarship in the humanities and arts or whether you're talking about it in sciences and engineering and math and technology," Wise added.
That will include teams of people working together on the Urbana campus or with other UI campuses, other universities around the world and public-private partnerships, she said.
Whatever emerges, no one expects it to be the final word, Marshak said.
"It will guide our decision-making," Wise said. "Obviously things will change. This is not a plan that's in concrete, but it is sort of a framework."
This story appeared in print on April 22.