Making an impact on the 21st century will require the vision, cooperation and collaboration of all three U. of I. campuses.
That was the message of Timothy L. Killeen as he delivered a town hall meeting address May 18 to a near-capacity crowd and began his tenure as the university’s 20th president.
The event, held in the Tryon Festival Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and followed by a reception, included remarks by the three campus chancellors and a question-and-answer session led by Killeen.
Despite the challenges that lie ahead, Killeen said that as president, he will protect the university’s world-renowned reputation at all costs and keep students and public service as the core foundations of its work.
It won’t be successful unless everyone contributes, he said.
“There is nothing stronger than a shared vision,” said Killeen, who has been directed by the U. of I. Board of Trustees to develop a strategic plan to guide the university’s future. He said the process will be inclusive, melding the campuses’ strategic plans and input from the university community into a single working document.
He said his immediate priorities include responding to the findings of a university task force that is currently reviewing university programs for efficiencies, starting with the administration, and formulating a response to threatened state budget cuts.
He said he would like the result of a June leadership conference to be the creation of a “readable document” on the guiding principles behind university decision-making.
“We will move aggressively on several fronts,” he said. “Teamwork and mutual respect will be the way to do business on campus.”
Intercampus collaboration will be emphasized on his watch, he said, as will the increased development of partnerships with government and industry.
The end result will be even more life-enhancing discoveries by a thriving academic community.
“The word ‘public’ is very meaningful to me,” he said. “We’ll be defining what the land grant means in the 21st century. This is a defining moment for us.”
Killeen recalled the words of U. of I.’s fourth president, Edmund J. James, who said higher education “is fundamental to human progress” as well as the “scientific arm of the government.”
Killeen, a geophysicist and space scientist, was the vice chancellor for research and the president of the research foundation in the 64-campus State Universities of New York system.
He said he is confident he can improve communication and collaboration between the three U. of I. campuses.
Killeen said he would work tirelessly to lift the university from its place among the world’s best to a place where it is the very best.
“We’re going to move forward with large aspirations,” he said. “I’m somewhere between freaked out and excited. My every waking effort will be all Illinois all the time.”
He said he is not one to see the proverbial glass as just half empty or half full.
“My personal glass is always half full and then some.”
Killeen addressed several issues during the question-and-answer session.
He told one questioner that while university officials had spent much time advocating for employees and reminding legislators of the direct economic return from higher education investment, the need for resource stewardship has never been greater.
“We’re making every case we have (for adequate funding),” he said. “But we have to make sure we’re doing our part to be as efficient and effective as possible. We can’t sacrifice excellence.”
Killeen told another questioner who asked about the future of liberal arts and small programs on campus that economics should not be the sole measure of university academic programs.
“Vitality and vibrancy on campus flows out of these pursuits,” he said. “Things shouldn’t displace one another.”
He said his plan to increase on- and off-campus connections would lead to new collaborations that may even revitalize some of those sometimes overlooked disciplines.
Killeen told another questioner that he “passionately” supports academic freedom.
He said he already had met with local leaders of the American Association of University Professors to discuss the university’s response to possible censure and the issue of civility as it relates to freedom of speech.
He said he also foresees helping formulate a “best model for civic engagement” to guide campus discussions and avoid confusion in the future.
“I think we need a model of best practices,” he said. “We need to stand for elevated discourse.”
Other topics raised in the Q-and-A session included a student organization asking that the U. of I. divest from the coal industry, union groups asking for negotiation and representation improvements, and a call to revisit equal pay issues.
Killeen’s presentation also is being made to UIC, UIS and the Rockford and Peoria satellite campuses.
Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise, in her address, said the campuses were being asked “to reinvent ourselves” because the foundation on which they are operating was created in the 19th century.
She said Killeen’s call to parlay the power of the three campuses would enhance the impact of all of them.
“It’s an opportunity to redefine what a state university system is,” she said. “This is absolutely the right time. The timing is almost perfect.”