Toxicology professor Mike Biehl makes a point during a luncheon session that was part of Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise’s Visioning Future Excellence tour.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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Chet Utterback has worked at the UI's Poultry Research Farm for 26 years and not once has a chancellor dropped by to ask for his advice.
That all changed two weeks ago after Utterback, along with about 50 campus civil service workers, was invited by Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise to attend a session of her ongoing Visioning Future Excellence goal-setting tour.
Not only did the chancellor ask for the farm manager's advice, she stayed around to listen to it.
And according to Utterback, that means something - that maybe his "two cents" has some value and will be used to help guide the university successfully into the future.
"The chancellor didn't just give an introduction and then leave - she floated around and really seemed to care about what people were saying," he said of the session. "She made it a point to talk to each person there."
Utterback used his opportunity to push the value of institutional outreach and the importance of ensuring the state of Illinois is the biggest beneficiary of the university's work.
"We need to get back to where we're working in the same direction," he said.
The Visioning Future Excellence exercise has been carried out with about two dozen academic and employee units, and Wise has promised to keep hosting the events until she feels all campus stakeholders have been heard.
Mike Biehl, a professor of toxicology in the department of comparative biosciences, participated in an earlier faculty-targeted Visioning luncheon. He said everyone in his group took the exercise seriously and he felt it was effective.
"It challenged participants to think 'big picture,' " he said. "It was a very contemplative and productive process. I was impressed and extremely pleased that Chancellor Wise reached out to faculty; there is an unlimited intellect and talent in the people residing here."
He said the Visioning process is just the first step, though an important one, in charting the university's future.
"Innovation and technology advancement that benefits society do not happen overnight," he said. "It results from a careful, collaborative, directed thought process and hard work - plus a few dreams."
There also are plans to offer the luncheon-format sessions to community leaders and alumni, and the chancellor's office recently unveiled an online survey conveying central themes of the luncheon meetings to allow students and anyone else interested to be included in the process.
"I keep adding groups because I want this to be as comprehensive and complete as possible," Wise said. "I don't want to leave anybody out because the outcome of these conversations will help chart the university's future path for the next several decades. I value every comment."
The luncheon sessions divide participants into small discussion groups. Led by a facilitator, the groups are asked to independently identify grand themes and issues of global import, as well as areas where the UI can harness its academic power to solve those issues.
"Did I get everyone's thoughts?" is a common question facilitators ask.
The groups' answers are added together, categorized, then ranked, with the major themes added to a database that will eventually lead to a multilayered "word cloud" ranking them by importance according to the frequency a given topic was mentioned.
"These are not easy questions and the answers will have to come from many directions," Wise said. "If we don't decide on our mission, somebody else will."
Certain topical themes already have risen to the surface, such as "food," "the economy" and "health care."
Cheryl Westlund, an office support specialist for the College of Law, said it was exciting being part of the process and she felt like it would help lead to solutions that everyone could support.
"It was so amazing to see how all of us, on our own, came up with some of the same ideas," she said.
Becky Burklund, a recruiting assistant at the College of Business, echoed Westlund.
"I am very pleased," she said after the session. "It seems like a great way to get our feedback and I'm anxious to see the results."
"It's like voting," said Jenny Gibson, a business manager with the department of landscape architecture in the College of Fine and Applied Arts. "You don't have a right to sit back and complain about it unless you participate.
"Sometimes you think, 'Do they really want to know what I think?' " she said. "The chancellor even stood behind us for a while and watched us discuss all of this. I feel like she's not afraid to talk to us and not afraid to listen to what we have to say."
Online survey gets instant response
By Mike Helenthal
It took less than 24 hours for leaders in the UI Provost's office to discover people all across campus had something to say.
In that amount of time, more than 1,200 Urbana employees and students had answered a massmail from Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise encouraging them to participate in the Visioning Future Excellence online survey.
"It tells us that people are engaged and thinking about the future of the campus," said Jason Kosovski, senior communication and evaluation coordinator for the Office of the Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, which has assisted in the delivery of the survey and carrying out the chancellor's Visioning luncheon initiative.
"It means people are eager to have their voices heard," he said. "We're really trying to hit a broad section of campus and people seem to appreciate the opportunity. The chancellor has been a very active participant and has interacted with all of the groups."
Kosovski said leaders appreciate the feedback, which is being compiled and will be included in a final report once the process is completed. Initially the process was to run through April, but that deadline may be extended as more stakeholder groups are added to the process.
If you haven't been asked to be a part of a Visioning Future Excellence luncheon session you still may participate by filling out an online survey. The survey will take 15 to 30 minutes.