New UI dean: 'We have a bright future'

New UI dean: 'We have a bright future'

CHAMPAIGN — A University of Illinois associate dean has been tapped to succeed Barbara Wilson as dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the biggest and most academically diverse college on campus.

Feng Sheng Hu, a UI professor of plant biology since 1998, was named dean Thursday after an internal search. He will take over on Jan. 1 pending Board of Trustees approval. He will be paid $320,444 annually, including a faculty salary of $247,444 and an administrative stipend of $73,000, the UI said.

A native of China, Hu has been associate dean for biological, chemical, physical and mathematical sciences in the college for two and a half years. He is former head of the UI Department of Plant Biology and is also the Ralph E. Grim Professor of Geology.

“It’s really a very exciting opportunity,” Hu said Thursday, citing the college’s central role in educating students, its leadership in interdisciplinary teaching and research, and its “unwavering commitment to inclusiveness.”

“I kind of grew up in this college professionally. It’s truly a home of academic excellence that I’m really proud of and passionate about. I’m very deeply honored to have the opportunity to serve,” Hu said.

The deanship wasn’t on Hu’s radar when Wilson appointed him as one of four associate deans in August 2014. Wilson had been named dean in May 2014 following the departure of Ruth Watkins, now senior vice president at the University of Utah.

But 15 months later Wilson was asked to be interim chancellor following the abrupt resignation of Phyllis Wise. Wilson kept her title as dean but appointed Brian Ross as executive associate dean to handle day-to-day college responsibilities.

The turnover has made things “a bit unstable,” Hu said, with two or three people doing the work of four.

But the team handled the transition well, he said.

Hu’s first priority is to fill the two associate dean vacancies; Ross retired in October as associate dean of social and behavioral sciences.

With 648 tenure-system faculty — one-third of the campus total — the college offers more than 70 majors, and 99 percent of UI students take an LAS class.

“It’s a vast college, and it’s complex, and we need to have a team of people who work together,” Hu said.

Beyond that, the state budget crisis “is the top of our list,” Hu said. With no full state budget for a third year running, planning has proven difficult and faculty flight is an ongoing worry, he said.

“The uncertainty is very unsettling,” he said. “The budget has put our academic enterprise in jeopardy. We need to do our best to work with campus leaders and executive officers in the units to make sure our outstanding faculty will stay and we will continue to recruit outstanding faculty.”

Hu hopes to focus on a comprehensive budget approach — working with the provost’s office on budget reforms, developing innovative new resources for strategic investments and continuing strong fundraising.

“We have a bright future. It’s a wonderful place,” Hu said.

The top capital project is a top-to-bottom renovation of Altgeld Hall and Illini Hall, two iconic buildings that are among the oldest on campus.

Interim Provost Ed Feser, who hired Hu after an internal search, called him an “outstanding scholar” with an impressive record as an administrator who is familiar with issues facing the college. He said Hu is an “excellent communicator and an energetic advocate for LAS.”

Hu has been recognized as a Packard Fellow in Science and Engineering, a University Scholar, a Fulbright Scholar and a fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science. His research integrates biological, geological and atmospheric sciences, with the aim of understanding long-term ecosystem dynamics under changing climatic conditions.

Born in Guandong, China, Hu holds a bachelor’s degree from Xiamen University in China. He earned his master’s degree in botany and Quaternary studies from the University of Maine and his doctorate in ecosystem science from the University of Washington.

He was a postdoctoral fellow in the National Science Foundation’s Research Training Group on Paleorecords of Global Change at the University of Minnesota from 1994 to 1996, and an instructor in several departments there from 1996 to 1998.

Hu is married and has two children.

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