Back-to-school Q&A with UI chancellor

URBANA — Phyllis Wise didn't change much about the office she inherited when she became University of Illinois chancellor in 2011.

Same cherry-wood desk, same printer's cabinet in the corner, same artwork just outside her door (a wrought-iron door from the Chicago Board of Trade).

She changed the artwork, and added a 2010 photo with President Barack Obama. It was taken on Wise's 14th day as interim president at the University of Washington. Obama was in town for a campaign event for Sen. Patty Murray, and Wise welcomed him to campus.

What questions did we miss? Let columnist Tom Kacich know here

Funny story (for academic circles): After the two joked that he had more tenure as president than she did, Wise said she wished he had time to mentor her on the presidency. Obama quipped, "I guess there are some commonalities between the legislature and a faculty."

As Wise begins her sixth semester as chancellor, the challenges facing campus have a familiar ring. State pension reforms are hung up in court, "Unofficial" lurks on the calendar, and there's still no Alma Mater statue at the corner of Wright and Green streets.

We caught up with Wise as she finished editing her first blog post of the spring semester, on the Martin Luther King commemoration.

She talked about tuition hikes and rising athletic salaries, made clear her opposition to a faculty union, and revealed the next big top-to-bottom building renovation.

What's the latest forecast for Alma's return date?

We are still aiming for graduation. There was so much more damage to her than we ever, ever expected that it's taken us a whole lot longer. But it's certainly our hope.

Are you going to get your picture taken with her?

I don't know, I guess I should. I haven't even thought of that.

Could this be the last year for Unofficial? Is there anything new the campus is planning to discourage it?

No, you know I think what I've learned over the first two years that I've been here is that I think the city and university have cooperated with each other beautifully, that we obviously wish that these kinds of things that are disruptive wouldn't happen. But at the least I hope that students don't hurt themselves or anybody else. And continue to go to class.

What do you do on that day? Are you here?

Oh, yeah, I'm here. in fact, the first year I was here I went around with (UI Police Chief) Jeff Christensen around Campustown to see what this was really all about. And he said it actually had improved over the last two years.

Did that surprise you?

I had no baseline to compare with. I certainly saw congregations of students, but I didn't see anybody really out of control.

Have you weighed in at all on the new student housing development on East University Avenue? Residents are upset about the prospect, worried about the impact on the neighborhood.

No, in fact you've alerted me to something I'd better get up to speed on.

I know you've made a push in the last few months to get more involved in the community.

Yeah, and that I really have tried to do. I'm really interested in economic development, in part because it was one of the themes that was raised in Visioning Future Excellence (the campus strategic planning process). But I really think that the vibrancy of Urbana-Champaign has a direct impact on the university, and the vibrancy and respect and impact of the university has a great impact on the towns.

So would you take residents' concerns into consideration?

Yes.

When trustees discussed Athletic Director Mike Thomas' new contract James Montgomery raised concerns about athletic salaries in general and how they're rising (the board will vote this week on raising his base salary to $554,321). What's the remedy for that, and is there an end in sight to the athletic arms race?

We were very careful when we decided to look at Mike Thomas' contract, which we promised him we would do after 24 months. We feel it's really important to be fair. He is in a position where he could look elsewhere if he wanted to. I believe that the athletic salaries are on a different scale than academic salaries, but we have to keep them connected. We have to always remember that these are athletic directors of great universities. And the success of the university in part is seen through the eyes of athletics, and vice versa.

So I don't see an end to what is going on.

So the sky's the limit?

Well, I hope not. I think it's a national problem and not one that the university can fix, or even one that the Big Ten can fix. And I mean not only college athletics but even professional athletics. The kinds of salaries that some of our players are getting is pretty ... unreasonable, and difficult to understand.

The new tuition rates will be voted on next week. Base tuition will now be $12,000 a year plus any surcharges, plus $3,000 in fees. For middle-class families, how do we afford that?

We're proposing an increase of 1.7 percent, roughly $202 a year. It's as low as we can possibly go and still maintain access to excellence. You don't want just access, and you don't want excellence that's not accessible to anybody. So we're very, very wary of what happens every time you raise tuition.

We are trying very, very hard to increase the amount of financial aid that we give to students, so that we are reaching families that are in the middle class, so that we can help them to afford the college education that they want for their children, and the kinds of students we want to attract — very talented, very diverse backgrounds in terms of life experiences, in terms of cultural backgrounds, in terms of geographic backgrounds, in terms of racial backgrounds. We want to have a really rich environment for students. We realize we have to be able to provide financial aid to them. I've talked with many donors about the importance of scholarship money for students.

With the $70 million renovation of Lincoln Hall in the bag, what's the next big project on campus?

We're working on the Natural History Building. We're doing a lot of classroom renovations — not whole building renovations, but classroom renovations to try and bring the best technology to the classroom. Inside out, I think the next building ... is Altgeld. And we need to be able to raise money to be able to do that.

Is there a time frame for it?

We've just started fundraising for it. We won't even start it until we can b sure that we can get some of our own money, some donor money and hopefully some state money.

Have you lost any faculty prospects because of the recent pension changes?

We have several faculty who are thinking about retiring. We have a couple who have left — more than a couple.

Can you say who?

A person from the College of Engineering who went to Dallas this last year. We just heard from a couple who have said they are thinking about retiring before July 1.

I think the uncertainty is the worst part of it all. Because it's going to be a court challenge. We have to make plans for how we can still be competitive with the fringe benefit packages that we know our peers and aspirational peers are giving to their faculty and staff.

The Campus Faculty Association seems to be gearing up for a unionization drive. What is your position on a faculty union?

I think we have benefited from great shared governance. I think that we and the faculty work with each other really, really well under the current organizational structure. I see no need.

I've always seen unions as a way for management and employees to come together in a more confrontational way than what I'm used to under the current structure of shared governance, and I would hate to see that change.

There is no great public research university that we count as our peer or aspirational peer that is unionized.

Today is the first day of the spring semester at the University of Illinois. Here are some other dates to remember:

MARCH

7

Get out your green cups for Unofficial St. Patrick's Day.

16

Selection Sunday: Will John Groce's team be invited to play?

22-30

Two months after returning to campus from winter break, students get another week off.

APRIL

4-6

Good luck trying to get a table for brunch during Moms Weekend.

MAY

17

Graduation returns to Memorial Stadium.

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kiel wrote on January 21, 2014 at 7:01 am

Seriously? "Unofficial" and the lack of a statue are listed prominently as "challenges" for the university? At least uncertainty over pensions was raised, but then it was downplayed with, "a couple [of faculty]" who will be retiring before July 1. Heck, I know "a couple" who have decided for early retirment; projected campus-wide, I'm guessing it's many dozen. And it's a real joy trying to lure new faculty here, given the pension situation and that state funding has been cut so low, the U of IL is a "state" school pretty much only in name these days. TA lines have been and are being slashed dramatically, affecting future generations of researchers. 

But by all means, let's start the discussion with a day of drinking and a statue, and follow it up with a dormitory and (yet another) big administrator salary. This story makes the Chancellor's job sound pretty easy (which it is certinaly not). 

Sid Saltfork wrote on January 21, 2014 at 12:01 pm

The Illinois Supreme Court will postpone it's decision on the constitutionality of the Legislature's "pension reform" until after the fall election.  The retirees did not get a reduced pension contribution since they are already retired.  The current employees did get the reduced contribution.  There is no trade off for the retirees.  The court may agree on the "pension reform" for the employees, but not for the retirees.  If one is thinking about retirement without the hit of "pension reform"; it would be wise to do it prior to the court's decision. There will be many state, and university employees becoming retirees before June.  It will not make much difference anyway if the supreme court decides to violate the state constitution based on the justices' politics, and payoffs.

Who in their right mind would accept public employment in Illinois?    

Bulldogmojo wrote on January 21, 2014 at 3:01 pm

"I'm really interested in economic development"

Yeah the development of her own personal economy first, then Nike's, then Busey's, then the University in that order.