CHAMPAIGN — It's a long trip from a scenic and remote corner of northwest Wyoming to central Illinois, but it's one Michael Aiken knows well.
The former UI chancellor, now 87 and living near Yellowstone National Park, has a daughter who still lives here, and he and his wife, Catherine Comet, make the trek to Champaign-Urbana a couple times a year.
But this weekend is extra-special. Aiken, chancellor from 1993 to 2001, is being honored Saturday with an honorary doctorate from the UI for his contributions to the university.
He was feted at a College of Education reception Thursday at the Illini Union and will attend a dinner with fellow honorary degree recipient Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, today before the campus commencement ceremony Saturday.
"I was very surprised, and I'm deeply honored," Aiken said in an interview Thursday at the Illini Union. "It means a lot, particularly given my great esteem for this university."
He was nominated by several former colleagues who praised his focus on undergraduate education, fundraising for faculty support, and the revitalization of Campustown.
"I think he just did a superb job," said former UI President Stan Ikenberry. "It's a good decision, long overdue."
Aiken spearheaded the community effort to improve the Campustown area along Green Street in Champaign, pulling together local mayors, city staff and business leaders on a long-term plan known as Campustown 2000.
He had spent 23 years as a professor at the University of Wisconsin and said Campustown did not compare favorably with Madison and other college towns at the time.
"The neighborhood was not attractive. Some of the buildings were a little shabby," he said. "It makes a difference in how students feel about this place."
He's pleased at the transformation that has taken place since then, though he added, "I would not have anticipated these high-rises."
Former University of Texas President Larry Faulkner, who was provost under Aiken, said it was a remarkable achievement that took a great deal of persuasion and "community building."
"He put all that in motion," Faulkner said. "The improvement was really dramatic."
Aiken left a "profound impact" in other areas, outlined in the strategic plan "A Framework for the Future," said UI College of Education Dean James Anderson. The plan "stood the test of time," still guiding work being done today, he said.
It called for improving the freshman experience, student advising and international experiences for students.
Aiken created a New Student Convocation that brings together freshmen each August, a tradition he had seen work at private schools. He also launched the popular Discovery program, which included small freshman courses taught by full professors at a time when most were taught by junior faculty or teaching assistants.
The strategic plan also called for more endowed faculty positions. Aiken led the UI's first billion-dollar fundraising campaign, which provided money to supplement faculty positions with endowed chairs and professorships. The number of endowed positions rose from 32 to 192 during his eight-year tenure and today stands at 284.
Faulkner and Aiken said that helped recruit and retain top faculty and keep the UI competitive.
"Michael was always very farsighted, and he had outstanding academic standards," Faulkner said. "He was, and remains, a man of first-order integrity. I've compared him in my mind against many, many other leaders. This is a man who stands out."
The fundraising campaign also led to the creation of the UI Research Park, the expansion of "living and learning communities" in residence halls, construction of the ACES Library and Campbell Hall and the renovation of Engineering Hall, said Richard Wilson, who was associate chancellor with Aiken and later became president of Illinois Wesleyan University.
"He brought great vision and integrity to his work, and his accomplishments were both significant and enduring," Wilson said.
Ikenberry said he recruited Aiken in part because of his experience as provost at the University of Pennsylvania, a private school, feeling that perspective could help the UI manage resources during lean budget times.
But he said he didn't realize "what an engaging, quiet yet persuasive person he is," or recognize Aiken's "deep and passionate commitment to undergraduate education, which I think a place like Urbana-Chamapign needs constantly to be reminded of."
"He was a gem of a colleague," Ikenberry added, "a great team player."
A previous president at Penn, Martin Meyerson, had encouraged Aiken to consider the Illinois job, saying, "It's not as appreciated as it should be."
"That certainly proved to be correct," Aiken said. "It really is one of the great research universities of this nation, if not the world."
Aiken is the UI's second longest-serving UI chancellor, surpassed only by Jack Peltason, who had the job for 10 years.
Two chancellors who served after Aiken were forced to resign, along with two UI presidents.
"Universities need stable leadership," Aiken said, adding that it is now in "good hands."
"I think the university is stronger than it's ever been," he said.
Aiken said he has enjoyed fishing and hiking during retirement in Wyoming. Their mountain home sits on 10 acres next to the Shoshone National Forest, on Chief Joseph Highway, about 25 miles from the northeast entrance to Yellowstone and 50 miles from Cody, Wyo. He and Comet had vacationed in the area every summer and decided to retire there.
"It's a beautiful, beautiful area. The winters are a little tough," he said.
"I have a guy who plows me out," but they keep a pantry stocked for the days they get snowed in. "We're a very good customer of Costco," he said.
Aiken, who grew up in Mississippi, said he disliked the hot and humid summers in the South.
"There is no hot and humid in Wyoming," he said.