URBANA — The results are in, and the winner is: energy and the environment.
A "visioning" process launched earlier this year by University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise recently concluded its first phase, identifying the major challenges facing society over the next few decades and how the public land-grant university can help address them.
The answers coalesced around six themes, headed by energy/environment and followed by social equality and cultural understanding; economic development; health and wellness; education; and information technology.
The findings will guide campus planning in coming months and years, Wise said at a UI town hall meeting Monday, her one-year anniversary as chancellor.
"These are ... unprecedented times in the world of higher education," she told the crowd. "The pace of change throughout the world, not just in higher education but in the corporate world, is quickening, and I want us to be leading it."
The campus convened more than two dozen groups of 45 to 60 people over several months, asking them to identify major societal challenges over the next 20 to 50 years. An online survey drew another 2,055 responses. Wise said she wanted to use a process that everyone could embrace, not pay "a pretty penny" to a consultant who would come to campus for a few days and "tell us who we are."
The question was not, she emphasized, what are the UI's strengths now, but rather how it can position itself to solve those problems.
"These are not generic. I don't think you would put the same six themes at almost any other university," said Wise, who said a process at the University of Washington yielded different priorities.
Within each group were subheadings. Energy/environment, for example, included food supply, natural resources, innovative alternative energies, water quality, climate change, sustainability, population growth and air quality.
Wise said she will consult with the Council of Deans and the academic senate and put together small groups of faculty and others to draw up action plans for the next 12 to 18 months, the next three to five years, and beyond.
She believes all six areas touch on wide-ranging parts of campus. "It's pretty inclusive," she said.
The chancellor also outlined her own goals for the coming year, including empowering faculty and staff. A strong faculty "allowed us to become who we are," Wise said.
She has already streamlined recruitment processes to speed up critical hiring, created a director of undergraduate research position to optimize student opportunities for research, and plans to examine class sizes and instructional delivery methods.
Other goals include becoming a more "agile" university to take advantage of new opportunities like Coursera, the online consortium the UI joined over the summer; expanding the UI's research portfolio to include more global and public-private partnerships and innovative funding sources; and reinvigorating the UI's efforts to become a more diverse community.
Wise began her talk by reflecting on her first 12 months in office, a time when her former boss, President Michael Hogan, resigned following a controversy over enrollment changes and the actions of his chief of staff, Lisa Troyer.
Wise didn't mention the controversy but drew laughter when she said, "This first year has been very exciting."
"No, I mean that," she said. "It has been exciting and rewarding and challenging. And I think I expected all of those, probably not in the concentrated doses that I got them."
"Dick and I have never felt more welcomed by a community as we have here," she added.
Wise noted that all but one of the vice chancellor positions have been filled, marking the first time in several years that the campus leadership team won't have an "interim" in the title. She thanked those who filled temporary roles, including former interim Provost Richard Wheeler and former interim Vice Chancellor for Research Ravi Iyer.
"They navigated us through amazingly tough times and rough waters and never hit the shoals," she said. "I walked into a wonderful situation."
Coming off the turmoil of the last few years, Wise said she doesn't want to waste the opportunity of this "distinct time" to chart the university's future.
"I really feel a palpable sense of anticipation and of optimism here. We've put the distractions behind us. No excuses now. We really have to come together as a community and think about our future."
As a colleague described it to her: "This is a very pregnant moment, and you can't stay pregnant forever."