Honest introspection, vigorous discussion, strong leadership, increased outreach and effective strategic planning will not keep the U. of I. from the tumult encompassing higher education.
But continuing to enlist those strategies will allow the U. of I. to navigate any challenge placed before it.
University President Bob Easter delivered that message Jan. 28 during his state of the university remarks to members of the Senate Executive Committee.
Easter did not mince words about some of the issues facing higher education - and universities specifically - citing continued state-funding problems, threats to federal research funding and the speed with which the online revolution is calling into question instructional delivery or even the need for walled classrooms.
"These are things we need to talk about - even if it's difficult," he said. "We have to be sure that we are engaging in these types of conversations."
The president said much work had been done internally over the last year to break down institutional barriers and improve communication among the board of trustees, the administration and the three campuses. He said that work has shown internal university structures are capable of reacting to change, a trait necessary to face ever-faster challenges.
"I think we've managed to get things done," Easter said. "The governing process is working well and I think we're in a good position."
Still, Easter said he has called for a study of the university's administrative structure and expects to have recommendations by the end of the academic year. The senate's standing-committee chairs recommended members to be appointed to the president's committee.
"I don't think there's been ... a careful look for a while," he said. "We need to ask, 'Are all the things we do at UA serving the students?' The focus should be on their needs."
While stopping short of advocating for a one-university approach, Easter said there are many untapped opportunities for synergy between academic leaders and researchers at all three campuses.
"How do we leverage the power of three campuses?" he asked. "The campuses have to think about this profoundly."
For his part, Easter said he is working hard to establish relationships at the state and federal legislative levels. He said he meets with local legislators regularly and has the impression most see the university as a key player in turning the state's economic prospects around (as evidenced with the positive press reports about the new UI Labs venture; see story on page 2).
As for the U. of I.'s limited influence over the pension issue, Easter said "we feel like we've made some headway" convincing legislators about the importance of maintaining normal contribution levels in the years to come.
He said the state last year did make some changes in the new procurement rules, exempting universities from some of the more onerous obstacles after officials asked for changes.
"We continue to work those issues and hopefully they'll get some attention this year," he said of the spring legislative session. "I get a sense of respect for the U. of I."
Easter said one of the university's unexpected immediate challenges is the change in Medicaid reimbursement rates, which could affect nearly half of UIC's patients. Current changes to the reimbursement rate have cost the hospital $15 million this year, a number that is expected to rise to $30 million next year.
"I spend more time than I ever thought I would worrying about Medicaid," he said.
Easter challenged campus leaders to address the online education issue and to discover delivery methods that will serve a wide range of students with varying individual needs.
He said he has had a "foreboding" feeling that "the model of education we've had for so many years is changing. I don't think this is something we can run from. Where is this going to lead in 10 years?"
He said the university's recent agreement with Coursera, a Massive Open Online Course platform host created by Stanford University and involving several top-tier universities, leaves the university "well-positioned" to work through the technological side of the issue in the coming decade.
But he also urged leaders to consider adding more "out of class" activities for students to help maximize the value of their campus experience.