URBANA — Shortly after trustees approved Robert Easter's promotion, The News-Gazette sat down with the president-designate to discuss his new leadership role, the university's reputation, his leadership style and more.
Easter is an animal sciences professor who was dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences before he was tapped a few years ago to be interim provost, followed by interim chancellor and most recently interim vice chancellor of research for the Urbana campus. Just a year and a half ago, Easter, 64, whose research is in swine nutrition, told The News-Gazette he planned to be an emeritus professor and teach a course on swine production after he finished serving as interim vice chancellor for research. Come July, Easter will be president on a permanent basis, with no sign of interim in his title.
N-G: What do you have against retiring?
Easter: I never really intended to stop working. We continue to live here, we plan to live here forever, and I was just going to go back to the ag school and continue to do things. So I'll just go to a different office and continue to do things in some sense. Maybe that's too nonchalant. I enjoy having something productive to do every day.
N-G: Could you tell us when and how you were approached about the position of presidency?
Easter: Very quickly. Chairman Kennedy called me sometime early last week. ... We got together Sunday evening (March 18) on the phone. At that point he said I'd like to visit with you and then he brought up the subject of the presidency. And it worked out I was going to be in Chicago Tuesday. ... We met on Tuesday and I told him I'd have to come back and check with my wife. Wednesday morning I called him and said I'd commit to do this for two years.
N-G: Why two years?
Easter: There's a need to have stability. And I think the decision not to make an interim was a good decision because there's always a tendency when you're speaking with someone and the word interim is in the title, 'Well, I think this person may not be here in two months.' I think this gives more of a sense of stability and purpose.
N-G: Did you have to be convinced?
Easter: I think there's some sense of loyalty to the institution that's important. It's a great job. I sometimes tell people as long as I've been here 40 years, I thought I knew this university, this campus well. When I left the College of ACES to come here (as interim chancellor) I learned so much about other parts of campus. This will be a journey of discovery to learn about the other two campuses.
I'm comfortable with our board of trustees. And I think that is important. I've gotten to know them these last couple of years. They're people who really have the best interest of the institution at heart. Chairman Kennedy is a good leader and we had an opportunity to kind of talk about their philosophy and their goals on Tuesday and I felt comfortable with that.
N-G: What is the board's philosophy and your philosophy about this next phase?
Easter: I think the board wants this to be a successful institution. They want it to be a university that serves the entire state. Dr. Hogan and his tenure did a lot to help us think about diversity and the real critical need to reach very broadly across the student population in the state. That's important to the board and it's important to me.
Quite simply we can't achieve our potential as a society in this state unless all of the ... intellectual opportunity is taken advantage of, is given an opportunity to flourish. The board is concerned about excellence and that's the lifeblood of especially this campus. The board is also concerned that the discoveries made across the three campuses create opportunity and create economic growth and jobs in the state of Illinois. That's the history of land grant universities, and I think it's very much what we've done, and continue to do, and need to do.
N-G: You're president-designate as of Friday, and will be president in July. What will you be doing during this transition time?
Easter: I'll work with Dr. Hogan through a transition period. He's still president of the University of Illinois. I really have to make a priority of getting to know the other two campuses. I've obviously been here, I know the senior leaders. I need to spend time meeting faculty, understanding their concerns and the opportunities. And so I'll spend some time in Chicago and Springfield.
N-G: In recent years there has been more talk of the University of Illinois as one university. That seems to have struck a chord with faculty here who fear a loss of autonomy. What are your thoughts on that debate?
Easter: It's a complex question. We are one university in a sense. We have one board of trustees. We have one president. There are places where it makes sense to be coordinated and we probably started down this road years ago when (the computer system) Banner was introduced. ... There were people who struggled a great deal with that, but the reality was, if you look back, it was the right thing to do. The challenge sometimes comes with how do you maintain the appropriate level of autonomy so departments, colleges and the campus can be really nimble and move in response to opportunity and at the same time take advantage of efficiencies of central systems.
I think over the next couple years we're going to spend quite a bit of time talking about ... optimized efficiency but at the same time allow campuses to do the things that are important to them.
N-G: How would you describe your leadership style?
Easter: I view leadership as primarily team building — build a team, build a consensus, a sense of common purpose and goals. There's a bit of coaching. There's also a responsibility to help formulate visions for future directions. And leaders are given responsibilities for making some decisions and those have to be, in my view, informed by serious consultation. But at the end of the day a leader is responsible for the decision that has to be made.
N-G: Some faculty have said they want to have a greater voice in how the university is run, and some propose a faculty union here like at UI-Chicago. Some want a seat on the board of trustees. What do you think?
Easter: I am aware of those conversations but I really haven't thought a great deal about them. The composition of the board of trustees is a matter for the state legislature to decide. The state has statutes that govern the formation of board groups ... but it's not something I have an opinion on.
I come from a department that has, throughout most of the time I have been associated with it, been ranked one of the top departments in the country and I think there's always been within the department a real sense of faculty ownership, a sense it's our responsibility to make this a top-ranked department. We have the expectation the person in leadership will be a part of it in getting that done. As I served as chancellor I came to view that was not an uncommon philosophy across the campus. ... I think we've been incredibly fortunate to have across this campus to have a strong history of faculty participation in the governance of the institution.
N-G: Do you think Lisa Troyer, President Michael Hogan's former chief of staff, should be paid for the month of work she did for Hogan after she said she resigned?
What I know about that situation is what I've read in your newspaper. It seems to me that if she was asked to do work and the president had the authority to ask her to do work, there ought to be some consideration for that. That's not something I have much background on. I've been out of the conversations now for about six months now.
N-G: At the last trustees meeting, comptroller Walt Knorr delivered a presentation on the decrease in state appropriations over the years. How can you as president work to address that?
Easter: One of the roles the president has is to help the General Assembly understand the importance of higher education to the state and the future of the estate. I think one of the challenges is we live in a state that has many multiple needs, and the General Assembly struggles to assign priorities and I understand the very difficult nature of that. It's not unique to Illinois. ... The reality is we figure out how to address our needs through tuition and other activities. But the real challenge is every time we do that, we make it more difficult for students with limited resources to get a high-quality education. Over the next several years we have to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to do that. It may mean we increase our partnerships with community colleges. It clearly means we have to be more aggressive about fundraising to support scholarships, and we also have to be alert to controlling the costs of our operation.
N-G: Has the university's reputation suffered in last couple months?
Easter: These things always cause people to ask questions like that. I understand that our applications for freshmen admission are up by about 3,000. We're still able to retain faculty, to hire really top faculty. So I think the bedrock reputation of the university is very strong.
N-G: Anything else you'd like to say?
Easter: It's a real privilege to be in this spot.