New UI President Easter says his first priority is budget issues
URBANA — His colors have been orange and blue for almost four decades, but Bob Easter is adding several other color schemes to his wardrobe: red and blue for the University of Illinois at Chicago and blue and white for the UI at Springfield.
"I truly do look forward to the time before us," he said on Monday, his first official day as president of the University of Illinois.
The soft-spoken Easter, a native Texan who has spent nearly 40 years on the Urbana campus, will lead the UI and its three campuses for the next two years. He takes over presidential duties for Michael Hogan, whose nearly two-year, often rocky tenure culminated with his resignation at the end of March.
Easter, who joined the faculty as an animal sciences professor in Urbana after earning his doctorate here and was most recently the UI's interim chancellor, said one of his goals was to create a sense of stability.
Since UI trustees gave him the title of president designate more than three months ago, he's visited the three campuses, met with administrators, faculty, staff and state legislators. He'll continue to attend campus events to get a sense of what's going on, but the chancellors, he said, "have the primary responsibility of managing their campuses." When it comes to campus events, he prefers to be in the "back of the room" where he can listen to get a sense of what is going on, he said.
Hogan's time at the UI was often marked by clashes with faculty, particularly those in Urbana, who criticized his decision to restructure administration and make the campus chancellors vice presidents, a move some felt was an effort to assert his authority over the campuses. Some faculty also bristled when Hogan hired Lisa Troyer, a colleague from the University of Connecticut, as his chief of staff at a salary of about $200,000.
On Monday, Easter said his office staffing will be small.
"The vice presidents and the chancellors are where the action takes place," he said.
His predecessor's relationship with faculty was further strained after Hogan proposed changes to the way the university managed its recruitment and admission of students.
As for those enrollment management proposals developed under Hogan, Easter said he has asked Vice President for Academic Affairs Christophe Pierre to review them and offer recommendations on how to proceed. Easter also said he expects additional discussion on the topic with faculty leaders.
"It's an incredibly complex issue," he said.
Also on Easter's to-do list: addressing budget challenges and college affordability.
His recent trip to Washington to attend ceremonies commemorating the 150th anniversary of the signing of Morrill Act has further reminded him of the need to keep education affordable and available to ordinary people, he said. The act, signed by President Lincoln, established land-grant colleges like the UI with missions of teaching, research and public service.
Easter's first official day also included meetings with his policy council and president's cabinet, advisory groups comprised of administrators like the vice presidents. One of the topics on hand was the budget bill Gov. Pat Quinn signed over the weekend. That legislation included a more than 6 percent reduction in the state's appropriation for the UI. Over the coming week, Easter will likely work on financial issues with Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Walter Knorr in preparation for the start of the coming academic year in mid-August.
At this point no decision has been made yet on whether the university will provide merit-based raises for faculty and staff, said UI spokesman Tom Hardy. Last year, merit raises averaged 2.5 to 3 percent.
Another decision yet to be made has to do with Lisa Troyer, who accepted a faculty position on the Urbana campus earlier this spring. Troyer, who resigned as Hogan's chief of staff in January amid an investigation into anonymous emails reportedly tracked to her computer, declined to comment to The News-Gazette. The anonymous emails sent to faculty leaders were about the enrollment management recommendations being debated at the time. Troyer has denied sending the emails. The report did not come to any conclusions about whether Troyer violated any university policies or rules.
The campus senate has not been asked to take up the Troyer case, according to Matt Wheeler, an animal sciences professor and Senate Executive Committee chairman. The decision to move forward rests with the provost's office, Wheeler said.
"Our legal representatives are talking to her legal representatives in an effort to work things out," Hardy said.
On Monday, Easter attended the Senate Executive Committee meeting, which included a closed session for the panel's annual review of UI Vice President and Urbana Chancellor Phyllis Wise.
"We look forward to having you back frequently. Every time you sit in that chair, it's in a different role," Wheeler told Easter, who regularly attended the meetings as interim provost and chancellor.
Afterward, senators declined to discuss the review of Wise in detail, but Professor Roy Campbell said, "It was very positive."
News-Gazette reporter Julie Wurth contributed to this report.