Killeen 'awestruck' upon entering Illini Union

Killeen 'awestruck' upon entering Illini Union

URBANA — Way back in the summer, when the presidential search committee was just getting underway, members invited University of Illinois president Bob Easter to reflect on the leadership qualities they should look for in the next president.

Easter spoke about integrity, a willingness to be educated and the ability to be a team player.

"If you go down that list, there's tick marks all the way" with Timothy Killeen, said UI engineering professor and search committee member Roy Campbell.

Campbell was among the hundreds of well-wishers who filled the Illini Union Wednesday to welcome Killeen, an accomplished geophysics and space sciences researcher, to the university as its 20th president.

As Killeen walked through the doors of the South Lounge on Wednesday afternoon, with a grand view of students crossing the Quad behind him, he got "a real jolt of energy."

"I'm awestruck. This is an incredible institution. To take it to the next level is an awesome responsibility," he said.

Killeen spoke about the university needing an "outbound vision, a feeling of reaching for that brass ring, a shared vision" that is powerful, but realistic, feasible and "forged collectively by all of us."

In a move similar to Chancellor Phyllis Wise's early days in Urbana, Killeen plans to embark on a "listening tour" in the coming months to ask people about their priorities.

"I'm not going to come in with a blueprint and say, 'This is how it's going to be.' But I am going to be insistent on motion, momentum, building enthusiasm, optimism," Killeen said.

The 62-year-old Killeen, a native of Wales, is president of the State University of New York Research Foundation, where he oversees a research portfolio of almost $900 million. A member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering, Killeen has written more than 150 publications in peer-reviewed journals, plus 300 other publications and papers. Throughout his career, he has moved through academic and political circles, serving on White House committees, testifying to Congress and working with legislators in New York.

Prior to his position at SUNY, he was an assistant director for geosciences at the National Science Foundation. He's been a faculty member and administrator at the University of Michigan and University of Colorado, where he was director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Act like 'heavyweights'

Killeen's breadth of experience is what drew the search committee to him initially, said Co-Chair Doug Beck, a UI physics professor. He was also bright, "even-tempered" and had a track record of collaboration, he said.

"With that kind of background, there was lots to like," Beck said.

"What I like best about him is he's very innovative," said UI atmospheric sciences professor Don Wuebbles, who met Killeen years ago through the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Back then, Killeen was known for asking the question, 'Where can science go?'

"Now that question is, where can the university go? How can it improve upon itself? That's what I like about him," Wuebbles said.

Wednesday's announcement came after an eight-month process marked by secrecy. After winnowing down a list of 200 candidates to 25, then choosing six finalists, the board of trustees interviewed three final candidates last Tuesday. On Thursday, each trustee, including the students, discussed the candidates behind closed doors.

"At the end of the day, we went around the room and it was unanimous support" for Killeen, said trustee Ed McMillan of Greenville.

Killeen received the call around 9:20 p.m. that evening. At the time, he was holding his mug printed with "Stay calm and carry on," a saying made popular by the British sci-fi television series "Dr. Who." He signed the offer letter on Friday.

Board Chair Chris Kennedy said Killeen's experience — and connections — in research and policy-making were major attractions. He called Killeen "one of the greatest living researchers in America."

But perhaps his strongest asset, Kennedy said, was his vision for what higher education can be.

The UI, Killeen said, can define what higher education should become as the new land-grant institution of the 21st century, by building "human capital" and connecting basic research and "knowledge-building" with economic development to improve society.

"It can be the best. And by that I don't mean rankings in charts. I mean meaningful, substantial contributions to our collective futures, firing on all cylinders with excellence and integrity painted throughout everything we do, in the classroom, the laboratories and beyond," Killeen said.

"We should act like the heavyweights that we are. We must engage, shape and lead agendas, with academia, foundations, industry, government and international partners," he said.

Killeen also won faculty points by pledging his commitment to shared governance, collegiality, collboration and "respectful listening."

'It's what we need'

Killeen, Kennedy said, thinks on a global basis. He's looking outward, not inward.

"He's not going to get caught up in the myriad of issues that can trip people up at the university," Kennedy said, such as who is sitting in the president's box, who's greeting the mayor, or whether a title should be "vice president and chancellor or chancellor and vice president" — a point of faculty contention with former UI President Michael Hogan.

"What's relevant to him is, what are the Germans doing? What are the Chinese doing? What are the great models around the world that we can mimic?" he said. "He's trying to solve the big issues."

Kennedy also drew a contrast between Killeen's hiring and the conditions surrounding the last search in 2010.

"We were coming off a scandal, the world was in financial crisis, the state was reeling from corruption. We really couldn't offer the ideal job for great leaders in higher education," he said. "Today, those issues are largely behind us. As a result, we had a great list of candidates for the presidency. Everybody we wanted wanted the job."

Kennedy said he asked former University of Michigan President Jim Duderstadt about Killeen, who spent 20 years at Michigan as a faculty member.

"I asked Jim if Dr. Killeen in fact could walk on water. Duderstadt said, 'No, Chris, no, probably not. But if you needed a scientist to protect the water supply on the Earth, I'd hire Tim Killeen.' It's a great recommendation from a great leader."

Killeen was introduced to faculty, staff and students on all three campuses Wednesday. In Urbana, Killeen praised the UI's 147-year-old flagship campus and its rich research tradition.

"I've been here many times. I've wanted to come here before on jobs that I won't tell you about," he said, prompting some laughter.

Turning to Chancellor Phyllis Wise, he said, "I look forward to being your colleague and supporter in the leadership of this exceptional campus. ... We are about making you succeed and propelling UIUC forward as best we can."

Wise said it was her first meeting with Killeen — the two had talked by phone on Monday — and she came away impressed.

"He looks wonderful, from his record, his interests, his breadth," Wise said. "The fact that he's been in a system, the SUNY system, means that he knows how to work with multiple campuses. He clearly has been focused on research, which is so important to us being a research-intensive university.

"He wants to work with us, and that's clear. It's what we need."

Wise presented Killeen, the UI's 20th president, with two UI football jerseys for him and his wife, with the number 20 on the backs.

Killeen, who described himself as a "congenital optimistic," also told her, "We're going to win athletically as well."

Killeen is married with three children. His wife, Roberta Johnson, has a Ph.D. in geophysics and space physics from UCLA and is executive director of the National Earth Science Teachers Association and clinical professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at SUNY-Albany.

What Timothy Killeen's hiring means ...

For campus cohesion

In his current job, Killeen works with 64 schools. That should come in handy as he manages the UI's three campuses — particularly as he weighs what to do about a proposal for a new medical school in Urbana, which has gotten pushback from Chicago.

"The worst thing is to have the campuses competing with themselves," said UI Professor Michael LeRoy. "There's just too many headwinds to deal with."

For organized labor

Killeen comes from the SUNY system, where faculty are unionized. That's a positive sign, says Campus Faculty Association head Bruce Rosenstock, who is pushing for the same in Urbana.

"I hope he can bring the same spirit of reconciliation, dignity and respect for labor" that new President Janet Napolitano did to Cal, he said. "This is an opportunity to really reshape the climate across the university."

For research

Said search committee member Nick Burbules: "We do many things — teach, public service, play sports — but the heart and soul of this institution is our research mission. That's in his DNA."

Now vice chancellor for research at the The State University of New York, Killeen's science-rich resume includes time as assistant director for geosciences at the National Science Foundation and a Ph.D. in atomic and molecular physics.

For finances

With the UI unsure how much the cash-strapped state will be able to support it, Chris Kennedy said the board wanted someone who had "credibility with national funders" and could attract economic resources. Trustee Tim Kortiz said he hopes Killeen will engage with legislators and business leaders of Illinois companies like Caterpillar and Deere and convince them "the future of the University of Illinois is vital to the future of the state."

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Bulldogmojo wrote on November 20, 2014 at 6:11 pm


Well OK I guess I'll be the one to play the Cynic card right out of the gate...

You can still hear the echos of "won't it be wonderful all the amazing things President Hogan will do", in the halls of administration.

Just Saying

Lets hope Mr. Killeen will break the cycle of scandal and corruption that has had a stranglehold on our University, but we've heard it before and I'm not holding my breath.

byrdslover wrote on November 20, 2014 at 6:11 pm

Glad he was given a football jersey.  He needs to understand his top priority.  I hope it had a chief head on it too, so he could really understand.

Kingdomwrker wrote on November 21, 2014 at 11:11 am

I have three words for President Killeen:

People    Not    Profits.