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URBANA – James Stukel launched his career at the University of Illinois at the end of a January. In 1962. And that's the way he intends to end it.

Stukel said Friday that his decision to conclude his rise from student to president at the end of next January is fitting timing for his family and for the university.

"It's kind of an anniversary for us. But it will also give the board of trustees and faculty an opportunity to get started early finding candidates," Stukel said. "There are a lot of presidencies open now, and getting started early increases the odds of getting someone good."

Administrators, trustees and faculty say it will be a difficult task finding someone as good as Stukel, president since 1995.

"Selecting the president is about the most important thing we do," said Lawrence Eppley, chairman of the board of trustees. "The good thing is we haven't had to do it for what'll be 10 years. It's not very often you can find a president who has his breadth of experience and knowledge about an institution."

Stukel's breadth will be hard to match. From a student and faculty member at the Urbana campus, he joined the engineering faculty on the Chicago campus, where he rose to chancellor before becoming president of the entire three-campus UI system.

Urbana campus Chancellor Nancy Cantor said she wouldn't mind seeing a successor with the same qualities.

"He's given in extraordinary ways," she said. "I hope the next president will be, as Jim is, a national leader and someone who can bring the university the kind of recognition it deserves."

Stukel said he isn't concerned about his influence being diminished by his lame-duck status.

"Presidents typically announce retirement a year before. All of us are lame ducks the minute we announce," he said. "I'm frankly very positive about the future. If you look at what we've dealt with in the past decade, we're positioned very well."

Stukel said student quality has improved, faculty awards have increased, federal and privately sponsored research grants are up and private giving is at an all-time high.

A spate of building projects have strengthened the university in a variety of ways, particularly in Urbana with facilities for genome research, bioengineering and nanotechnology.

Stukel also said new economic development initiatives and emerging technologies, backed by Gov. Blagojevich, plus a new administrative structure have the UI poised to make great strides for the community and the state.

"I am absolutely bullish on the opportunities for this university. The budget has been difficult, but if you look at everything else, we're positioned very favorably," he said.

Still, Richard Schacht, a philosophy professor who serves on the Executive Committee of the UI faculty Senate, said the perception among many faculty members is that the UI's status has slipped in recent years, putting it in danger of losing its world-class prestige.

Schacht, who also chairs the Senate's General University Policy Committee, said he wouldn't blame Stukel for that.

"He's done his best in a difficult time," Schacht said. "Just to maintain the quality that we've got, it's been very difficult."

But he said the situation does argue for a new president who can navigate a different kind of landscape, one where political support for the UI isn't what it once was, trustees lack extensive experience and affiliation with the university, government funding is tight, and active alumni and other private support is increasingly important.

"Not somebody to mind the store," Schacht said. "It's not business as usual anymore. It's a very complex situation. We have to fight for attention and support these days."

He said he also hopes the trustees understand that faculty and staff representatives need to be deeply involved in finding Stukel's replacement, as is common in academia and has been past practice at the UI.

Meanwhile, the Urbana student trustee, Nate Allen, also had high praise for Stukel.

"He's served this university with all his heart. I never had a doubt about his priorities, always putting the university first."

Robert Easter, dean of the UI's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, said Stukel's role in unifying the university's campuses, and in guiding it through tough budget times in recent years, were the first things to come to his mind when considering the president's legacy.

"I think he's been a very, very steady force," Easter said referring to what he called "the incredible economic difficulties" faced by the UI at a time when the economy has been stagnant nationally and in Illinois and the state is confronted with a huge budget deficit.

"I think we have one system now that has three campuses that have come together as one unit," he said of Stukel's role in integrating the UI's Springfield campus, formerly Sangamon State, with its Champaign-Urbana and Chicago campuses. "That's the first thought that comes to mind."

David Daniel, dean of the College of Engineering, said Stukel will leave behind "a significantly stronger university than it was a decade ago. Jim has been a good steward."

He noted the more than $400 million in state-funded building projects, along with a number of privately funded additions to the Champaign-Urbana campus.

"It really is remarkable," he said. "I think that is one of the lasting legacies of his presidency."

He and Easter said Stukel also has made his mark as a knowledgeable and articulate spokes-man for the UI, one with the ability to communicate with legislators in the halls of power as well as the university's public constituency.

Daniel said that while Stukel has been a good leader for all of the UI's units, he's a particular pleasure to work with for the College of Engineering.

"He had a wonderful reputation ... as a teacher and a scholar," Daniel said. "It's always nice to have leadership that understands you and certainly as an engineer he understood" the engineering college.

Search for next UI head could last up to 1 year

URBANA – The process for replacing the president of the University of Illinois will be thorough, inclusive, collegial and probably quite lengthy, according to people involved in prior searches.

Updated procedures for selecting major administrators, including the president, were approved by the Board of Trustees in 2001, according to board Secretary Michele Thompson.

The procedures call for the creation of a "consultative," or search committee, to be approved by the board. The committee will include faculty representatives from each of the three campuses, chosen by their respective senates; representatives of civil-service workers; representatives of the academic support staff; a graduate student; an undergraduate student; a representative of the UI Foundation; and a representative of the UI Alumni Association.

That was basically the structure of the 20-person committee appointed to find a replacement for former UI President Stanley Ikenberry. After an approximately 7-month search, Stukel was named Ikenberry's replacement in February 1995, taking over that position in August 1995.

Officials now have a year to name Stukel's replacement. He said Friday he hoped the new president can be named by fall.

The last committee was co-chaired by Janice Bahr, an animal sciences professor. Bahr said the committee and the trustees developed the criteria they were looking for in a president and then used the services of Korn/Ferry, a Dallas-based executive search firm, to help develop a list of candidates.

The committee reviewed some 145 names initially. Bahr said the names were winnowed to 12 people who were interviewed at a hotel at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago over several weekends. After background searches and interviews, that list was narrowed to six people who were then interviewed by the committee chairs and trustees.

"I felt we were very thorough. It went extremely well," Bahr said. "If you ask anyone, in terms of fairness and thoroughness, it was an exceptional committee. The real key is to build unanimity among committee members. You have to decide what the criteria area and the kind of person you're looking for and stick to that."

You can reach J. Philip Bloomer at (217) 351-5371 or via e-mail at pbloomer@news-gazette.com. You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at gkline@news-gazette.com.