UI system question settled for now

UI system question settled for now

URBANA — Too big to be a single university, too small to be a system.

An identity crisis of sorts has dogged the University of Illinois for years as it grew to include three very different campuses in Urbana, Chicago and Springfield.

A new "Strategic Framework" settles the issue, at least for the next 10 years.

The fifth line of the new strategic plan refers to "the University of Illinois System" — with a capital "S" — including "two world-class research universities with extraordinary depth and breadth, a top-ranked regional liberal arts university in the state capital, and an expansive health care training and services enterprise."

"We're not talking about the University of Illinois with three campuses," President Tim Killeen told trustees last month. "We're talking about distinctive identities for each of the three universities."

It's the way the university has operated for years, some faculty said, but it's also a reversal of the stance taken by former UI President Michael Hogan and former Board of Trustees Chairman Chris Kennedy. Hogan's advocacy for "one university" with three campuses got him into hot water with Urbana faculty, who saw it as a threat to the campus' international reputation.

"It's a 180-degree reversal from the Hogan model," said Professor Nicholas Burbules, chairman of the University Senates Conference and a frequent Hogan critic.

The "system vs. one university" issue arose at the very first strategic planning retreat a year ago, and at most of the town hall meetings about the plan, Killeen said.

"We really wanted to have no elephant in the room. This relationship of the individual campuses to the system administration and to the office of the presidency was something that was discussed intensively from the get-go," Killeen said.

A consensus rapidly emerged that "we were going to refer to ourselves as a system now," said UI spokesman Tom Hardy, a member of the strategic planning steering committee. "If it looks like it, talks like it, walks like it, it probably is."

Trustees also embraced the idea, whereas past board leaders hadn't.

"I think it helps clarify for a lot of people how the University of Illinois system is organized," Hardy said.

The role of the system is to provide services and support to the individual universities, be their advocate in Springfield and work on external partnerships, Killeen said.

"There's a general sense that it provides more oxygen in the room, to sort of empower the universities as full-blown universities," Killeen said.

The issue goes beyond terminology, Burbules said. The phrase "one university" is usually code for centralized authority, empowering the president to direct the work of the chancellors on each campus, he said.

That was a major source of tension during Hogan's presidency, "and is still codified in changes to the Statutes and General Rules that are only now being undone," Burbules said. Those new rules changed the reporting of campus-level officials in human resources, research, IT and other areas to university-level officials, not to their own campus provosts and chancellors, he said.

The issue also involves "branding," he said.

"When Indiana did this, with their eight campuses, their slogan was 'One university, eight doorways.' I am sure the main campus at Bloomington didn't just see itself as a 'doorway,'" Burbules said.

"A comprehensive university campus like Urbana isn't at the same level as a regional campus or smaller satellite campus. They aren't just alternative 'doorways' to one thing," he said.

"Urbana didn't like being submerged as just a part of a 'one university' whole."

The "one university" model also caused tensions between Hogan, on the one hand, and former Chancellor Phyllis Wise and the Urbana campus senate on the other.

The shift to a system puts greater emphasis on the independence and self-governance of the universities, he said.

It also recasts the university administration — or perhaps "system administration" — as a service unit supporting the universities rather than a "command and control center," said Burbules and Professor Gay Miller, chairwoman of the Urbana campus senate.

"Any campus inside the system is not going to dictate what another campus can do. We have never operated as a multi-campus university. So saying that we are a system is just a recognition of the relative independence of the three universities, something that already existed," Miller said.

The higher education landscape includes a number of systems, in California, North Carolina, Texas and elsewhere, Hardy said.

"It underscores the breadth and the comprehensiveness of this entity ... and the vast impact that the University of Illinois writ large has," he said.

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Alex M. Mobley wrote on June 04, 2016 at 9:06 am
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Wonderfully vague and ominous. This article will have some people panicked - does this mean that all of the liberal arts folks should get ready to pack up for Springfield? We know that there's a move to get all government jobs to the capital. Is this to be the great dismantling of the "flagship" UIUC? Is this also an effort to assuage folks at UIC, to be included as one of two great research universities rather than the usual distinction of the "flagship university" and them other two? Is this evidence of a kiss and make upcompromise made between UIC and UIUC over that nasty dustup over the College of Medicine? Are we going to be hearing really good news about that place soon - like the announcement of a new awesome Dean to make the new strategic plan seem really optimistic and forward moving? Is this strengthening of the President's executive power the logical solution to Phyllis Wise's oft-quoted lament "This place is messed up" that was referring to the awkward configuration of 3 chancellors and a president? 

For us little guys, -- as if there wasn't already the usual anxiety for renewal at every level of employment and uncertainty for all citizens of Illinois. It also seems that President Killeen is trying to make some friends in Springfield by making such statements (only to the Board of Trustees a month ago). But that is June in Illinois - when heads roll. Brace yourselves for some more details of the strategic plan forthcoming. "Go U of I System" just doesn't have the same ring to it, but it sure does match up with my favorite mascot idea: U of Illinois System Interims! All systems Go!


Reykjavik wrote on June 04, 2016 at 11:06 am

In a way, the changes are just word smithing, but these descriptions have longer terms implications.   Now lets hope that the state makes these institutions whole through its annual allocation.

Orbiter wrote on June 04, 2016 at 11:06 am

I think this is a wonderful turn of events.  Several years ago The University tried the "Illinois brand identity" approach and many of us found it rather arrogant and insulting.  All email addresses, for example, were converted from "@ uiuc.edu" to "@ illinois.edu", and all campus websites were changed in a similar fashion.  It was at once a dismissal of the UIUC legacy and reputation, and an arrogant decision that The University would represent the entire state (with the simplistic "Illinois" as a brand).  The U of I system is better off as a network of individual campuses, rather than as a single entity with multiple doors.  Just as municipalities are better off with City and County identities, instead of just a State identity and a GPS coordinate.


Hopefully we can now go back to the former email addresses (which actually still do work, but are discouraged), websites, and UIUC identity.

andrewscheinman wrote on June 04, 2016 at 11:06 am

Treating the three as part of a "system" does a number of things.  It disunites them in some ways in terms of their power: UIC is NOT UIUC is NOT UIS.  From UIUC's point of view that could be a good thing, in that it's an even more powerful statement that, for example, UIUC doesn't have to 'splain to anyone why it should have a College of Medicine; so what if other members of the system have 'em, UIUC is only in loose affiliation.

It also allows one to disclaim the others in terms of funding, in the worst case allowing the three to hang separately rather than together.  The California university system certainly has a heirarchy, I never paid attention to the politicking between them when I was in that system, but there's no doubt that the ones at the "top" of the system (Cal, UCLA) are perfectly happy to take resources that would otherwise go to the others.

The real question is what this implies for our lovely state that's unwilling to give our schools much of any money.  I suppose that's up in the air, but I worry that defining out separate places now is likely unwise for the system as a whole, even if it might be great for UIUC.

Orbiter wrote on June 04, 2016 at 1:06 pm

It's easier to sell-off (or privatise) the individual campuses than the whole system at once.  I'm sure UIC would bring in a great deal of money when sold to a foreign concern. And why not? We've sold off our other infrastructure, from tollways to municipal water to parking to lottery.

vcponsardin wrote on June 04, 2016 at 6:06 pm

A bit like rearranging the deck chairs, ain't it?  Ultimately, it's all rather pointless.  After nearly 15 years on the faculty, I'm leaving for greener pastures anyway.  And not a moment too soon.

Sid Saltfork wrote on June 05, 2016 at 2:06 pm

If Illinois adopted a university system, who would hold the money?  Would the "flagship" hold, and distribute the money?  Some state univerisities are going under now.  More would close under an elite state university system.