URBANA — Faced with declining faculty ranks in recent years, the University of Illinois plans to hire 500 new professors over the next five to seven years.
The news came Monday during a campus town hall meeting where Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Provost Ilesanmi Adesida reviewed a strategic planning process being developed and announced several initiatives already under way or soon to be launched.
"All I can say is: Be ready to move," Wise said to an overflow crowd of faculty, staff and students assembled at the Beckman Institute.
The two leaders said the UI will be the pre-eminent public research university with a land-grant mission and global impact. In order to hold such a title, Adesida outlined three goals for the campus: improve scholarship, discovery and innovation; provide students with a transformative learning experience; and have an impact on society.
Rebuilding the faculty in several strategic areas is a key component of the vision unveiled on Monday. In recent years the number of tenured-system faculty has decreased from about 2,100 in the 2007-2008 school year to a current tally of around 1,856.
Faculty ranks have eroded due to several factors, including a spike in retirements, hiring freezes amid an uncertain state funding outlook and employees leaving for opportunities elsewhere. The campus has organized several hiring programs to counteract that trend, but numbers are still down, particularly because of a high number of faculty who retired last year.
Rebuilding faculty "is how we bring new energy" to the campus, said Adesida, whose office oversees faculty hiring.
"Hiring 500 faculty over the next five to seven years will be a challenge, but an exciting and a welcome challenge," said Barbara Wilson, executive vice provost for faculty and academic affairs.
The new faculty hires will be in six theme areas — "cluster hires" — but the campus will also be looking to prop up faculty numbers in departments as well.
"Cluster hiring offers the ability to quickly build critical mass in targeted areas," Adesida said.
These cluster hires will likely be scholars whose work extends beyond one discipline, department or even college, according to Wilson.
"We will focus on bringing in groups of faculty, some at the senior level, who can help us address the grand challenges even more effectively than we currently do," she said.
When Wise arrived on campus about 18 months ago, many people asked her, "What's your vision for Illinois?"
Rather than responding with a specific answer, she said, she wanted to launch a process that sought input from the campus community, alumni, area business leaders and more. She wanted to "create a shared vision," Wise said.
The new campus leader went on a "listening and learning tour" and began a "Visioning Future Excellence" process, which asked people to consider society's most pressing challenges in the decades to come and how the university can address those challenges. The process yielded six different themes: economic development; education; energy and environment; health and wellness; information and technology; and social equality and cultural understanding. For each theme, a committee came up with dozens of recommendations for short and mid-term actions.
Several pieces are already being shaped. In addition to the effort to rebuild faculty, Adesida outlined other initiatives being planned. Some examples include:
— An initiative to be launched this fall that will enhance support for grant writing and proposals, essentially to help researchers write and win more grants.
— More support for arts and humanities by increasing funding for a small grant called the Humanities and Arts Scholar Support Program.
— Create a searchable database of faculty expertise to help researchers and students connect with possible collaborators.
— Continue with the $70 million renovations of classroom spaces throughout campus buildings. "We can't provide a 21st century experience by putting students in classrooms of the 1940s and '60s," Adesida said.
— A new campus center to be launched this fall that supports teaching in all its forms. "Transformative learning starts with transformative teaching," he said.
— A new social sciences institute.
— Regular review of academic programs are coming and several departments will undergo the process this fall.
Throughout the town hall, Wise stressed that the visioning excellence process involved input from many, and that shouldn't change going forward.
Adesida said they came up with a set of principles that will guide the process and any actions that come out of it. Those principles call for any possible change to be in the best interest of the institution and students; enhance intellectual synergies; enhance efficiency and impact; be done in a public, transparent way; follow the university's shared governance system, and be done in uniform, measured way; and be consistently applied.
That principle of shared governance, a concept in which university decisions involve input from faculty and student leaders, is what caught the ear of UI computer science Professor Roy Campbell, vice chairman of the Academic Senate, who attended Monday's town hall.
"The chancellor and the provost are working as a team and they're working with faculty, which I've been very impressed with," Campbell said. As Wise discussed in her speech, higher education is facing a crossroads, he said, "We have to act together."