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CHAMPAIGN – Come Feb. 1, retiring University of Illinois President James Stukel is looking forward to one thing: "Peace."

Two days after his successor was named, Stukel reflected on his own term at a Champaign County Chamber of Commerce breakfast Thursday.

It's been almost 10 years since Stukel was appointed president, a time when budgets were flush and programs were in expansion mode. His term is ending on a different note, with an 18 percent state funding cut over the last three years – the largest since the Great Depression.

Still, the UI has improved student and faculty quality, he said. Freshman ACT scores at the Urbana, Springfield and Chicago campuses rank first, second and third among state public universities. Federal research funding has doubled, to $558 million, placing the UI seventh among all universities nationally. Faculty salaries, ranked fifth in the Big Ten when Stukel took office, are now third. Private giving has tripled, with the UI endowment at $1.5 billion.

Beyond the numbers, Stukel pointed to some "transformational" changes during his term.

– The university won state backing for tuition surcharges that protect core courses in humanities, the arts, education and other areas.

– A new partnership between the state and the UI emerged to promote economic development by embracing biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology. The UI created its research park, including a state "incubator," to help firms grow from a "germ of an idea" to successful enterprises, he said. Illinois Ventures was launched to provide local venture capital, including the $20 million Illinois Emerging Technology Fund endowed primarily by UI alumni.

To oversee those efforts, the UI created a new post of vice president for technology and economic development, "a major change of philosophy for our university," Stukel said.

– The UI acquired a new campus in Springfield that has been transformed into a high-quality liberal arts program. The idea is to attract top Illinois students who dislike large campuses but can't afford private colleges. Illinois exports 8,800 high school graduates each year to out-of-state schools, second only to New Jersey, he said.

– The $190 million Banner project replaced aging information and business systems with a centralized computer system. Old systems couldn't talk to each other, some created 40 years ago "in languages no one understood anymore," he said. In effect, the UI was a $3 billion corporation – ranking it among the Fortune 250 – with no economies of scale, he said.

It's been "a very difficult transition," Stukel admitted. The Banner project was launched four years ago, before the state's fiscal crisis hit. The plan was to keep using the old systems while Banner was developed, but that was scrapped when funding cuts forced the UI to eliminate 2,000 jobs.

"It's like trying to get on a train going 20 miles per hour," he said. "But we had to do it."

– Overhead costs dropped from 4.9 percent to 3.9 percent of the budget, though Stukel noted that cutting every job from deans on up would still have left the UI with a $200 million funding shortfall.

– The university's relationship with the community and state has improved through Illinois Connections, a network of 330 "ambassadors" in key counties who can lobby for the UI. Stukel visited 81 of Illinois' 102 counties during his term.

Stukel had kind words for the new president, B. Joseph White, former business dean at the University of Michigan.

"He's a wonderful person, with integrity and good Midwestern values. I've always thought that's a good start," Stukel said.

Stukel said he will miss Champaign-Urbana, where he lived for 25 years and raised four children before becoming a vice chancellor at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1985.

"It's a wonderful community, with wonderful people," he said.

You can reach Julie Wurth at (217) 351-5226 or via e-mail at jwurth@news-gazette.com.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).