UPDATED: Former UI chancellor leaving Feb. 15 for Colorado biotech job

UPDATED: Former UI chancellor leaving Feb. 15 for Colorado biotech job

URBANA — Former University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise, a biomedical researcher who spearheaded a new UI medical school before resigning under pressure, is leaving Champaign-Urbana to lead a new biotechnology project in Colorado.

Wise, a professor in the UI Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology for the past year, plans to leave Feb. 15 to become chief executive officer of the Colorado Longitudinal Study, a project of the nonprofit GoldLab Foundation.

The Aurora, Colo.-based organization’s mission is to create the largest “biobank” in the world to aid research into the detection, diagnosis and treatment of diseases. The goal is to collect 10 years of samples from 1 million Colorado residents, pairing them with health records and survey data to study health-related behaviors and outcomes.

Wise is working with Larry Gold, a University of Colorado professor and biotechnology entrepreneur who also serves on the external advisory board for the UI’s Institute for Genomic Biology.

The Colorado project is still in its early stages, but Wise has told friends that she’s been consulting with Gold for the past year, visiting Boulder, Colo., once a month.

“It became clear that if we were really going to succeed at this, I would have to accept Larry’s offer to become the CEO and move to Boulder to devote full time to this. I am very excited about this project and its potential to improve health and health care,” Wise wrote in an email shared with The News-Gazette.

Wise has not responded to messages left by the WDWS newsroom and The News-Gazette. Officials with the Colorado Longitudinal Study also could not be reached for comment Thursday.

“I just hate to see her go,” said Lou Liay, a friend of Wise and former director of the UI Alumni Association. “I think she’s been the most refreshing and wonderful leader we’ve had over there for a long time.”

Wise resigned as chancellor in August 2015, a day before the UI disclosed that she and other administrators had used personal email accounts to conduct UI business — specifically about plans for the Carle Illinois College of Medicine and the case of Steven Salaita, a professor whose job offer was terminated after his angry tweets about Israel. An investigation found some administrators had failed to turn over those documents as requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

The decision not to hire Salaita, made in conjunction with UI trustees, earned Wise the enmity of many faculty members on campus, who felt it violated the professor’s academic freedom.

But Wise never lost the support of others in the community and on campus who had worked with her on the medical school and other projects.

“It’s a tremendous loss to our community,” said Champaign attorney David Sholem, one of about 250 people who signed a letter backing Wise after her resignation. “She’s just such a unique talent. I think she bridged the town and gown difference well” because of her long academic career and her experience on corporate boards.

Sholem said Wise told him about her new position and “she seemed very excited.”

“I’m sure she’ll be successful. She’s got such leadership qualities,” Sholem said.

Wise had returned to the faculty after her resignation, as allowed under her UI contract, and taught a small undergraduate course for the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology last spring.

Wise informed her superiors recently that she would be leaving the university in February, according to Stephen Sligar, head of the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, which includes that department.
Sligar said he received an email about it from her department head, Professor Milan Bagchi.

In an email, Bagchi would not confirm or deny Wise’s plans, saying she had not officially turned in her resignation to the university.

Wise was scheduled to teach a graduate course in scientific writing in the spring, an overflow class for a similar course offered this past fall, Sligar said. It’s now been canceled, he said.

Officials avoided giving Wise a bigger teaching load because they weren’t certain of her long-term plans, Sligar said.

"We were never sure how long she was going to actually be here,” Sligar said Thursday. “We can’t put someone up in front of 450 students that’s a critical course for their graduation and not have them show up at the last minute."

Most faculty in the sciences spend the bulk of their time working on research and instructing graduate students, he said, but Wise gave up her research lab several years ago.

A neurophysiologist by training, Wise studied how hormones, including estrogen, control brain activity. She was funded by the National Institutes of Health for 32 years, studying neural and endocrine mechanisms that regulate the brain’s “plasticity” during aging, with an emphasis on their impact on the female reproductive system. She also studies the impact of estrogen on the brain during aging.

Wise was elected to the National Academy of Medicine — the only active faculty member in the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology who holds a primary appointment in any of the three national science academies, Sligar said.

“Phyllis had an outstanding research history. We had hoped at some point she would get back into (it),” he said. “It’s very difficult after being out of the research game for a period of time.”

Sligar said Wise’s situation was a “special case.”

“Somebody is chancellor and all of a sudden is thrust back into a standard faculty role,” he said. “It’s a big transition, and I think there has to be some flexibility in recognizing that.”

The feedback on her teaching was “very good,” Sligar said. She also worked with other faculty in the department, he said.

“She’s a very personable person with a lot of experience. I’m sure she shared a lot of that experience in a very articulate way,” he said.

For the past year, Wise has also served on the committee planning the curriculum for the new medical school, set to open in fall 2018.

“We benefited greatly from her advice, commitment and experience,” said its co-chair Professor Rashid Bashir, head of the UI’s Department of Bioengineering. Bashir praised Wise’s “remarkable service” to the campus, especially in leading the vision for a new medical school.

“It is wonderful that she will be putting her talents and experiences to focus on the challenges of precision medicine and personalized health in her new position. She has made so much impact in so many areas (research, leadership, service) over her career and this next endeavor is equally and more exciting as there is so much potential to improve health and save lives,” Bashir said in an email.

Wise earned $298,926 as a tenured faculty member in 2015-16, and was scheduled to receive the same this year, according to the UI’s salary book. She also received a $66,428 summer stipend this year.

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Reykjavik wrote on December 22, 2016 at 7:12 pm

She was a superstar as a scholar and an administrator but was crucified for making the dumb and incredibly naive mistake of using private email.  At public institutions, process and purity are paramount.  Fortunately for UIUC, she got a lot done.  She can look back on her term with pride.