Killeen ready to take reins at UI

Killeen ready to take reins at UI

Timothy Killeen has had lots of on-the-job training since that day in mid-November when he arrived at Chicago's Midway Airport to accept his new position at the University of Illinois.

There to greet him at the bottom of the escalator was his predecessor, current UI President Robert Easter.

The two had never met; Easter was holding a photo of Killeen so he'd be sure not to miss him.

It was the night before the announcement, and Killeen and his wife, Roberta, went to dinner with Bob and Cheryl Easter.

The two presidents hit it off and have worked closely together ever since, on decisions big and small — including a tuition freeze and the creation of a new medical school in Urbana.

The unusual arrangement was designed to provide a smooth transition for Killeen, former vice chancellor for research at the State University of New York, who officially takes over as UI president on Monday.

At first Easter was uncomfortable with the idea: "You're going to name someone and then the old guy's going to hang around for six months?"

Both were in deferential mode for a while, each offering to "sit in the back," Killeen said. "I was very careful that everybody knew who was the president and who was not the president."

Over time, Easter has deferred to Killeen more and more, "because it affects his time, his watch."

In the decision to endorse the new medical school in March, Easter wrote a rough draft of the statement to the board; Killeen added the "absolutely critical" line that the two medical schools would be collaborative by design, Easter said.

"We tend to think about things in a similar way," Easter said. "He's been very respectful of my responsibilities and I've tried to respect his increasing role."

The UI worked out an arrangement for Killeen to reduce his time at SUNY while he gradually took on more responsibilities in Illinois. He was paid $200 an hour for his UI work, or about $47,200 — 12 hours a week in January and February, 16 hours a week in March and April, and 40 hours a week since April 22, according to the UI. He will take on his full $600,000 presidential salary on Monday.

Killeen has already moved some things into the UI President's House and stays there when he's in Urbana. His wife will remain in Albany until their son, Cormac, 17, graduates from high school, then join him here. Killeen will also spend significant time in Chicago, but said, "I'm going to be an Urbana resident. I've met many members of the community already and feel wonderfully welcome there."

Easter will formally hand over the presidential regalia to Killeen at the Springfield commencement, the last of the day.

Whereupon Killeen will face plenty of challenges — from a UI budget under duress to faculty discontent over the Steven Salaita controversy to allegations that arose last week about the UI's football program.

Perhaps the biggest? Sticking to his agenda as crises pop up.

"That's the hardest reality," said former UI President B. Joseph White, who knew Killeen at the University of Michigan.

We asked the UI's past, current and future presidents for their thoughts on what's ahead.

The budget ...

The state budget crisis tops Killeen's to-do list, as the university works through how it might shoulder a potential 31.5 percent state funding cut — or roughly $208 million.

"I'm actually optimistic that it won't be that bad," Killeen said Tuesday, on his way to Springfield for legislative meetings.

The university is not immune from responsibility in solving the state's budget problems, but "I'm making the case wherever I can: This is a very important institution to the state of Illinois," he said. "We're going to make it cogently, we're going to make it with data, we're going to demonstrate the value we bring to the table."

Killeen has visited Springfield with Easter and on his own, meeting with Gov. Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, as well as their chiefs of staff and committee chairs.

In the meantime, the university is looking internally at what might be cut, and externally at other "best practices" it could adopt to save money, he said.

... and pensions

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the 2013 law intended to address the state's pension shortfall was unconstitutional, and lawmakers are now trying to figure out another solution.

It's a critical issue for employees and the UI's ability to be competitive, Killeen said. He's working with the governor's staff and said the UI also has plenty of public policy experts who can contribute.

"We want to be at the table for these kinds of conversations," he said.

The university is looking into its own operating costs, responding to questions from legislators and the governor, working through different scenarios and their implications, he said.

Historically the UI has offered its faculty members a strong package relative to its peers but the new "Tier 2" benefits system for employees hired since 2010 isn't competitive, Easter said. Addressing that has to be a priority, whether it's through a separate 403(B) tax-deferred plan, with contributions from the university and the employee, or some other supplementary benefit, Easter said.

Unlike most other Big Ten schools, UI employees are not part of Social Security, as the state opted out of the federal system years ago, he noted.


A theme Killeen has pounded since he was announced as president is the UI's role in the state's "economic revitalization" through research and development, which he also championed in New York. He wants to tie it to the UI's academic mission, to "enrich the student experience."

The university has a strong tradition of economic development through its research parks, patents, startup companies and the new UI Labs, Killeen said. He wants to see a new "innovation ecosystem," through public-private research partnerships.

"It's developing the human capital for the 21st century, as well as developing opportunities so students can get good jobs and stay in Illinois."


The UI's athletic programs fall under the purview of the chancellors at each campus — until things get serious. The president gets involved when the Board of Trustees has to make a decision — on a coach's hiring or firing, a contract extension or buyout — or "if there's some issue that will get public attention," Easter said.

"Then the president usually gets a heads-up from the chancellor. The board is told as soon as possible what's going on so they don't get blindsided," he said.

Easter spoke before former Illini lineman Simon Cvijanovic took to Twitter to complain about his treatment by Coach Tim Beckman's football staff. The allegations that his injuries were mishandled have prompted the campus to hire an outside law firm to investigate.

Killeen on Tuesday deferred to Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Athletic Director Mike Thomas, saying, "From everything I know and can see, the appropriate steps are being taken to manage this."

But he added, "As president, I'm going to be looking carefully at all aspects. ... This is such an important area for our students, for our reputation. So yes, I'm paying close attention."

Faculty and unions

Leaders have to pay attention to the voices of faculty, Easter said. He had his "waking up moment" as a department head many years ago, sitting at a faculty meeting trying to work through a problem.

"I thought, 'You know, there are 40 really smart people who are part of this faculty. They can help me figure this out. They can offer ideas that would never occur to me.' From that point on, I always tried to see the advice of the faculty and their input, and more often than not, I benefited from that."

The UI has certified faculty unions at the Chicago and Springfield campuses, and the Campus Faculty Association backs the idea at Urbana. Nontenured faculty recently formed a union as well.

"Faculty who feel that their interests are not being heard, that their perspectives are not being given attention, see formation of a collective bargaining unit as a way of achieving that," he said.

Easter argues that the best universities are those where faculty and appointed university leaders work together for the best interests of the school. That can happen through various structures, he said, but it's a challenge with a union because it's an advocacy group and the relationship often becomes "adversarial rather than collegial."

Managing crises

People who hold major public jobs — university presidents, mayors or governors — always have an agenda they want to accomplish during their terms, White said.

"The reality of your job is that you have to cope with and manage surprises, crises, the unexpected, without getting thrown off your agenda," White said.

For White, it was the Category I admissions scandal in 2009, which eventually forced him to resign.

Administrators don't get a lot of practice for that in the leadership jobs they hold along the way, whether it's dean, provost or even chancellor, he said.

The best way to maintain balance? "Appoint a great group of people who you depend on to keep things going while you tend to the crises and other distractions," White said.

The agenda has to be short — "not more than three or four things that you can keep returning to."

In White's case, his "Global Campus" initiative, a separate online campus for the UI, eventually foundered in the face of faculty opposition. But he achieved other things on the list: launching the "Brilliant Futures" fund drive; creating a chief financial officer; and ensuring the renovation of Lincoln Hall.

"That was very personal to me," he said.

Identity crisis

Too big to be one university, too small to be a system.

With 78,000 students combined, the three UI campuses are much larger than the 50,000 considered the maximum for an "ideal campus," Easter said. But the UI also doesn't have the resources to be a true system with independent campuses, he said.

"We're more than one university," he said. "How do you brand that? How do you manage that? What's the role of the president vs. the leadership and tremendous responsibilities of the chancellor?"

Former President Michael Hogan stepped into a minefield when he attempted, with trustees' blessing, to push the idea of "one university," making the three chancellors each vice presidents and strengthening the president's hand in other ways. He ran into strong faculty opposition, particularly at Urbana, and some of his changes were later undone.

"It's still a work in progress," Easter said.

University of the future

Easter describes his role over the last three years as "closing the chapter on the last century of the University of Illinois."

"I think Tim has the challenging task of creating the future for the University of Illinois," he said.

He likened it to the role of UI President Edmund James in the early 1900s, who created a vision for the 20th-century university.

World War II was also a watershed, when the federal government discovered the "incredible capacity" of universities to support a national research agenda, Easter said. Major funding agencies emerged — the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health — and "served the nation well."

But the traditional financial model for public higher education — where the federal government provides research funding and states pay faculty salaries and provide the infrastructure for teaching and research — is changing as states struggle to keep up, he said. Technology is also altering the way education is delivered.

"One has to wonder about the future of that model," he said.

Killeen is confident the UI has a strong future but said it has to ensure that it uses money wisely and provides a world-class education that students can afford.

"Clearly there has to be a real focused emphasis on what I call the three Es, — efficiency, effectiveness and excellence," he said.

That may involve new structures, greater use of technology, sharing services where that makes sense, and "focusing on what you can be truly excellent at."

Killeen plans to launch a new strategic plan for the university at the board's July meeting, building on plans already developed by the three campuses.

"We want the University of Illinois to be the model for the land-grants for the 21st century," he said.

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Reykjavik wrote on May 17, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Killeen's Job One is dealing with Springfield and super-macro-issues related to dollars.  His success will be measured by the extent that he does not meddle with the three rather independent campuses, such as trying to force collaboration and over-centralization.  In that regard, Hogan gives him a good model not to follow.