Chancellor's plan breath of fresh air

Chancellor Phyllis Wise's plan to revitalize the University of Illinois offers exciting possibilities.

The University of Illinois — battered by financial woes and personnel problems — has been on the defensive for the past five years.

Now, under the leadership of Chancellor Phyllis Wise, the UI is back on the offensive again.

"All I can say is: Be ready to move," Wise said last week at a campus town hall meeting where she announced plans for an aggressive campaign aimed at restoring the UI to the top of the list of this country's pre-eminent public research universities.

Wise announced a hiring initiative aimed at bringing 500 new professors to the UI campus over the next five to seven years, the goal being to focus strategically on new initiatives that reflect the top priorities in our ever-changing society. They include economic development, health and information and technology.

That sounds a lot better than what this community has seen in recent years — pay freezes, reorganizations and early retirement plans punctuated by scandal, shortfalls in promised state financial support and a revolving door in the UI's top leadership. Things have been downright depressing, far more chaotic than a traditionally bucolic campus setting ought to be.

Fortunately, some of the unpleasantness the UI has endured is paving the way for the new program Wise announced.

Campus officials say that $17 million in savings generated by the early retirement program for faculty and staff members will help pay for new faculty members. Energy conservation initiatives are estimated to be saving an additional $11 million a year.

Other cutbacks, like the elimination of the UI's Office of Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement and money-saving information technology efforts, including a new phone system and computer server consolidation, and reorganizations within individual colleges also are saving significant sums that will be reinvested in this new venture.

One point on which people may be confused is the hiring plan. Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the UI will not be increasing the size of its faculty by 500. She said the total increase "will be about 150."

"But with expected turnover, we'll have 500 new people/minds joining us within the next few years. That's an important distinction because this isn't so much about growing as it is about strategically moving in new directions to address the problems society must solve in the next 20 to 50 years," Kaler said.

There is no question that Chancellor Wise has made a hugely favorable impression on the campus and local community since she arrived here 18 months ago. That may, in part, be due to the unpopularity of former top administrators who passed by the wayside. But it's also because of her willingness to listen to and work with faculty members who felt so shut out of the decision-making process that they felt compelled to make a public issue about it.

The process by which Wise devised the hiring plans reflects her determination to follow the path of joint governance.

Working together, campus officials devised a series of top academic priorities and then came up with specific proposals on how best to address each one.

A key ingredient to implementation is so-called "cluster" hiring, that is, bringing on multiple faculty with cross-discipline skill sets.

That may sound like so much academic gobbledygook, but Kaler fleshed out the details.

"We have a strategic hiring plan in place. Simply put, units do not simply fill vacant positions. Instead, colleges have teams of leading faculty (members) review the most important areas for new hires. The plans are vetted by the provost and his staff. With this many hires, we will be reinventing Illinois. We will ensure that we are training students in emerging areas and that we are bringing research funding to our state to solve society's critical challenges," she said.

Maintaining a great university is a herculean task because there are so many moving parts, all of which require money to keep the wheels turning. Wise's plan includes more than hiring faculty to study problems. It's also as basic as continuing plans for $70 million in classroom renovation and overseeing great teaching to bright students.

So there is much more to be revealed as Wise proceeds with implementation. But what we've seen so far is not only exciting but most welcome. The UI has been on its heels long enough; it's time to break out of the pack and lap the competition.

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