Easter's 'state of the university' unlike predecessor's

Easter's 'state of the university' unlike predecessor's

URBANA — President Bob Easter's first "state of the university" report to campus senate leaders had a decidedly different tone from the last two by former University of Illinois President Michael Hogan.

There were no formal apologies, no arguments over chancellor's titles, no complaints about a "one university" model when Easter attended his annual meeting with the Senate Executive Committee on Monday. In fact, there were hardly any questions for the UI president, who succeeded Hogan last summer.

"We're enjoying the contrast from the past," Professor Harry Hilton said.

For his part, Easter said he is happy to have strong leadership on the three campuses and the UI Board of Trustees.

At a rancorous meeting in February 2012, Hogan argued with faculty senators about changes they perceived as threatening the autonomy of the Urbana campus. Hogan had pushed to change the chancellor's title to "vice president and chancellor," spoke of a "one university" model, and represented the campus at national meetings that senators believed Easter, then interim chancellor, should be attending.

Last year's tense meeting came just days after an ethics investigation concluded that Hogan's former chief of staff, Lisa Troyer, had posed as a senator and sent anonymous emails to faculty leaders about Hogan's controversial plans to consolidate enrollment management. Hogan read an apology at that meeting, but some faculty leaders said it fell short. Further disclosures about the Troyer saga and Hogan's treatment of the chancellors prompted faculty to call for his resignation, which he submitted in March.

A side note: Trustees last week approved switching the title of "vice president and chancellor" to "chancellor and vice president," a change requested by faculty and endorsed by Easter.

The news wasn't all positive Monday, as Easter updated senators on the possibility of cuts to the UI's state operating budget next year. Budget planners have asked the university to prepare for a 4.6 percent cut, or $30 million, and "it may be bigger than that," Easter said.

The state's pension crisis is unresolved, and the UI hospital faces a $15 million shortfall this year because of a change in the state's Medicaid reimbursement rate, he said.

Meanwhile, the campus faces a potential loss of $60 million in federal funding, mostly in research, if automatic federal spending cuts go into effect under budget sequestration.

Easter also expressed trepidation about how the rapid pace of change in technology and online education could affect traditional residential universities. He urged the senate to take up the issue of "where we're going to be in 10 years" and how the university can prepare for it.

Given ever-decreasing state funding, the university should be proactive rather than simply respond to cuts, added Professor Nicholas Burbules.

Easter said campus chancellors should examine how non-classroom experiences, such as clubs or sports, "add value to the on-campus experience."

The university also has to think about how it can leverage its multiple campuses, Easter said. He recently sat in on a pharmacy course at the Rockford medical school that was taught remotely from the Chicago campus.

"The last thing I want to do is come in and say we're one big university," he said, but the campuses can take advantage of each other's strengths.

Easter also said it's important for the UI to "be in on the conversations" about online education, citing its partnership with Coursera, a company that delivers free courses worldwide.

He can envision a day when his old department, animal sciences, could "be the locus for teaching half the world about animal management. That's what we should be aspiring to."