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Three in One: The University of Illinois Takes A United Front in its Approach for the Future

University of Illinois President Michael Hogan served in the same capacity at the University of Connecticut.
University of Illinois

One of its three campuses is just four decades old and aspires to be no less than a premier small, public university. The 5,000-student school in the state’s capital excels at online education and public affairs offerings, among other programs. 

Another is among the top-funded research institutions in the country, but also educates one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation just outside the heart of downtown Chicago. It boasts the country’s largest medical school.

The other is the state’s flagship campus, considered one of the top 15 public universities in the nation. Its faculty and students created LED lights, some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, the first Internet browsers and YouTube. It’s a Big Ten powerhouse that boasts the largest international student population of any public school in the United States.

The three campuses of the University of Illinois in Springfield, Chicago and Urbana-Champaign have historically acted as separate entities with very distinct missions. But now, a new team of university leaders has embarked on a push to unite the three at unprecedented levels as the institution begins a new chapter in its history. 

The school’s push toward unification involves increased collaboration in curriculum development, research, credit sharing and even admissions and financial aid. Officials also hope to consolidate a range of functions including purchasing, information technology, human resources and lobbying.

The changes are being made to not only save money in an era of tight budgets but to end a formerly “siloed” approach where each campus looked out mainly for its own interests and even competed against the other campuses at times. 

Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise is the former provost and interim president at the University of Washington
Credit University of Illinois
University of Illinois
Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise is the former provost and interim president at the University of Washington

  The school’s united front is just one of the new approaches its leadership believes is essential for its future. Changes in campus governance have strengthened the office of the presidency overseeing the three campuses and emphasized the universitywide role of the three chancellors. The board has also created several new positions within the highest levels of the administration, leading to the centralization of a number of functions on all three campuses. 

And the relatively new board of trustees promises university leaders that they will be allowed more freedom to run the institution on a day-to-day basis. Changes in the school’s bylaws mean the trustees will be less involved in the minutia of operations such as approving contracts or hires. The move, trustees say, is designed to bring the school’s governance structure more in line with private corporations and nonprofits and is aimed at creating more accountability for university employees and campus leaders in the hopes of stopping wrongdoing in the future.

The changes at U of I follow an admissions scandal in which clout-connected applicants were given a leg up in the admissions process, an event that led to the ouster of many of its top leaders and board members. In their place are a new university president, Michael Hogan, hired away from the same post at the University of Connecticut; Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise, the former provost and interim president at the University of Washington; and Springfield Chancellor Susan Koch, past provost at Northern Michigan University. There are several other new top officials, including the Vice President for Health Affairs, Joe “Skip” Garcia, who formerly chaired the department of medicine at the University of Chicago. All but one trustee was appointed to the board since the scandal in 2009.


Paula Allen-Meares has been the chancellor at University of Illinois Chicago since 2009.
Credit University of Illinois
University of Illinois
Paula Allen-Meares has been the chancellor at University of Illinois Chicago since 2009.

While many of the changes came in response to the scandal, they also come at a time when state funding as a percentage of the total budget is at historic lows, with the vast majority of the university’s funding coming from other sources. There is no indication the state budget picture will improve anytime soon. 

While some faculty have expressed concerns about some of the changes (see sidebar), new board chairman Christopher Kennedy says the board’s new approach comes with the goal of letting the true experts in university management simply do their jobs. He says it is in stark contrast to what he believes was “meddling” by some members of the previous board, who spent too much time trying to extend their “tentacles” into the everyday business of the 78,000-student university.

“The university is a $5 billion-a-year enterprise,” Kennedy says. “There are 45,000 [staff] who get W2s. There are 40-50 colleges or institutes and other organizations like that. It has a massive academic footprint, $800 million a year in research, a huge athletic program. 

“A board cannot run the day-to-day operations of something that complex.” 

The board still sets the vision and goals for the school and acts as a conduit for the public. But to reduce its role in operations, the board took a number of steps, including shrinking the number of committees from 14 to four and upping the dollar threshold on contracts it approves. For example, the board now only votes on capital construction projects of $5 million or more — up from $2 million. Construction contracts only require board approval if they are more than $2.5 million, up from $500,000. 

The new direction shifts the ultimate responsibility for most actions to the professional employees and administrators on campus — away from the part-time, unpaid lay board. Not only were politically appointed board members not qualified to make those decisions, but in the past board members could be deluged with information and resolutions to approve that they might understand little about, Kennedy says.

Credit University of Illinois
University of Illinois
University of Illinois Springfield Chancellor Susan Koch previously served as an administratro at Northern Michigan University.

The past system gave “the bureaucracy the capacity to pass around responsibility for bad acts,” he says. Employees could say, “‘Hey, I disclosed it. I got board approval.’ That is an old trick. But we are no longer approving that. We’ve given [the staff] the authority. We no longer absolve the staff from bad acts.” 

That, he believes, should increase accountability and decrease the temptation for those staff who might not act in the best interests of the public when spending public resources or hiring staff. It also could reduce the influence of politics in such sensitive decisions.

“If there is any of that stuff going on, someone will go to jail now,” Kennedy says. 

This new “active restraint” approach to board decision making, as Kennedy calls it, has a fringe benefit. The new university leaders found through extensive search processes were hired with the full knowledge that they will be left to lead the school largely without untoward interference. That, he believes, attracted a much stronger pool of candidates to U of I than it would have otherwise.

“We needed to signal that to the workplace, to the pool of prospective candidates, we weren’t going to pick architects, we weren’t going to pick coaches, we weren’t going to set the ticket price for the football game, we weren’t going to meddle in the academic enterprise,” Kennedy says. “That philosophy was heavily discussed with prospects for the highest jobs. President Mike Hogan, ... Skip Garcia, both the new chancellors, they want to hear that. Because we said those things, they agreed to come.”

The other priority was to strengthen the position of the university president as not only the head of the administration over the three campuses, but actually the CEO of the entire university. They also added the title of vice president of the university to the chancellors.

That’s because in the past — and especially during the scandal that tarnished the university’s reputation — officials said it wasn’t always clear who was in charge. Trustees often met or communicated directly with chancellors and tried to influence them. The new structuring of the board restricts formal contact with the trustees to the president only. 

Adding the vice president title to the chancellors emphasizes the chain of command, Hogan said in written remarks sent to Illinois Issues.

“The added title serves a dual purpose in also clarifying the organizational structure and chain of authority of the university, which is led by a single president who represents the university and all of its campuses, and is the sole direct report to the Board of Trustees. The chain of command had become murky in recent years, which created substantial governance problems for the university,’’ he stated.

The school’s moves also include creating or enhancing several vice president or director positions to oversee important functions that take place across all three campuses: research, health affairs, academic affairs, information technology, communications and labor relations. In the past, similar officers with similar duties were positioned on each campus and reported to the campus chancellors. But the new vice presidents and directors report directly to Hogan. 

Kennedy says the new positions help the school better handle issues that affect all three campuses, and give the school a more uniform response and approach to problems that crop up. The university should present a more united front in negotiating with its more than 40 unions, for example. It also helps stop various entities from competing against each other for research grants, he says, or for lobbying state and federal officials for different goals.

Part of the push includes recognizing the school as a single entity. In interviews, nearly all top officials emphasize the fact that the university’s bylaws have always stated the school is not three separate universities or a system of schools, but a single university with three campuses. 

However, they acknowledge the campuses had for years acted very independently. Going forward, they believe the schools have to work together. 

“We can be more than a sum of our parts,” Hogan says, “by taking advantage of the uniqueness of each campus and promoting greater coordination across the campuses. … When any of our campuses becomes stronger, the whole becomes stronger.”

There are several ways the university plans to implement this philosophy. It starts with collaboration academically.

Under resolutions approved by the board, the vice president for academic affairs has “increased responsibilities … to develop and implement cross-campus policies for curricular development, student and faculty affairs and articulation agreements across the three campuses, as well as with other colleges and universities.”

Wise, an expert in women’s health, says she is looking for additional ways her school, which offers veterinary medicine and some medical courses, and UIC, which houses the medical school along with several other schools like nursing and pharmacy, “can work together [and] … complement each other.” 

One example is the new University of Illinois Cancer Center, which “will combine the Urbana campus’ cancer-focused strengths in engineering, computational sciences as well as behavioral and basic sciences with Chicago’s clinical and biomedical expertise,” officials said in a November announcement. “It will enable the effective translation of knowledge gained from research into improved clinical care and quality of life for people and families affected by cancer.”

Koch says Hogan recently asked the three chancellors to lead a group to find ways to increase collaboration in online learning. 

Chicago campus Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares points to an agreement to give early admission to 15 undergraduate students from Urbana-Champaign to her school’s College of Pharmacy, as long as they meet admissions requirements. 

The collaboration extends to helping students from one campus get credit for their work on another. It’s no secret that getting full credit — for students seeking to transfer between campuses, take courses at one campus while pursuing a degree at another or switch to a different U of I campus for graduate school — hasn’t always been a simple process. 

“We ought to be able to make the transfer among the three campuses much easier than it is,” Koch says. 

In terms of research, Kennedy sees it as an obligation to the state for the university’s strongest programs to work together, particularly engineering at UIUC and the medical school at UIC.

“We want to make sure [that when] medical breakthroughs occur using engineering and computational power in America, that they occur first in Illinois. … It is in the best interests of the state for there to be greater cooperation between a computational power in engineering in Urbana and the medical infrastructure in Chicago,” he says. 

There is another powerful reason to unite, officials say: economics. 

Federal sources of research funding and private foundations increasingly require collaboration, particularly when competing against the likes of Harvard, MIT and Stanford. 

“If we want to go after large [National?Institutes of Health] grants, then we need to cooperate amongst ourselves. If we want to get money from the MacArthur Foundation or the Community Trust, then we need to demonstrate that we are cooperating,” Kennedy says.

Already, to save money, the school has pushed a consolidation in its back-office functions, including in procurement, information technology, human resources and capital planning. 

“We were not taking advantage of situations where it has been beneficial for us to combine our power on the three campuses, and the scale of the three campuses,” says Avijit Ghosh, the former vice president for technology and economic development who chaired an Administrative Review and Restructuring Working Group that sought ways to streamline administration, eliminate duplication of services and create efficiencies on all three campuses. 

“We all buy office supplies. Instead of everybody buying separately, if we negotiate a universitywide contract, we can get much better terms and save a significant amount of resources,” he says. 


In total, officials estimate they saved $26 million last year with the new system. Hogan believes the savings could grow to $60 million to $70 million a year. 

“It frees up resources for everybody,” Ghosh says. “You are actually benefiting not only [universitywide], but individual campuses and departments. They can buy supplies and maybe save some money, and those monies can be invested in more high-priority academic priorities.”

But some of the upcoming moves could go beyond back-office areas. Admissions has always been controlled by the campuses. But Hogan is searching for a universitywide enrollment manager to coordinate those activities better. A series of recommendations by an outside consultant suggests adopting a centralized admissions and financial aid processing system. Among other goals, the consultant suggests sending one aid letter to students applying to multiple campuses, creating more central scholarship funds and doing more to market the university as a whole “while maintaining strong messages of campus identity.” 

The proposal includes creating a universitywide projected enrollment plan and accepting the Common Application on all three campuses.

Says Hogan: “It’s too early to tell if all the recommendations will be implemented, but the clear message in the report is we need much better coordination across our campuses when it comes to enrollment management.” 

In all, Kennedy acknowledges that the approach his board has taken is different from that of any previous board in U of I’s history. But he believes the philosophy is working based on “the quality of the people we attracted” from top jobs at other prestigious schools. 

“Those are highly respected rock stars in academia, and we were able to attract them to Illinois a year after the worst scandal in university history. You want great people running the organization. That’s the great proof of the success of this program.” 

And all the changes in philosophy and approach, officials note, come with a backdrop of the state’s crumbling financial picture. The school receives $140 million less per year from the state now than it did nearly a decade ago, which amounts to more than a third less per student, considering rising costs, inflation and enrollment growth. To top that off, the state owes the school $228 million in unpaid bills. 

But Wise, who came from the equally cash-strapped University of Washington, says leaders cannot let that paralyze them when planning “for the longer term vibrancy of one of the finest public research universities in the world.’’

“We have to remember that the reason why we are here is to provide the strongest educational experience for our students that they can possibly get. To provide that we have to have excellent faculty here to be able to teach and do the research that is so critical to the learning experience,’’ she says. “Obviously, we need the money to be able to do that, but we are not focusing on money first. We are focusing on our mission first.” 

Dave Newbart is an assistant metro editor and former higher education reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times.


The Aftermath

For faculty members at the University of Illinois, the admissions scandal of 2009 was a major embarrassment, one that was largely the fault of some of the top administrators and officials within the university.

But now, as the university embarks on a strong push to reform the system by giving more power to the new president of the school and also pushing to centralize more decision making, faculty fear they might be the ones being punished, even though they had little to do with the problems of the past. 

The campuses have always had a tradition of strong faculty involvement in shared governance, and some faculty wonder if the scandal has actually led them to lose input at the expense of gains for President Michael Hogan and other top officials.

They also feel that in the push to unite the school, the three individual campuses could actually lose some of the uniqueness that distinguished each campus.

Although there have been past attempts at greater centralization, Nicholas Burbules, past chair of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee at the Urbana-Champaign campus, said the current administration has gone the furthest in that direction.

“There has never been a president who has pushed as far in the direction of centralization of the unified corporate model and the greatly expanded university administration in size and power as this president has,” says Burbules, who is vice chairman of the University Senates Conference, a group that represents faculty on all three campuses. “Many people have felt the pendulum has gone too far in that direction at the expense of the distinctness and autonomy and self-governance of the campuses.”

He worries decision making is getting further and further away from the faculty, to the schools’ detriment.

“In an academic institution you generally want academic matters and academic-related matters to be decided closer to the level where the work is actually done. The bulk of the teaching and research is obviously done by faculty. ... To me it argues for a more decentralized model,” he says.

One example would be a plan to bring in a single person to manage enrollment. The number of students on each campus, admissions requirements and which students are accepted are decisions that have always been very campus- and program-specific. While faculty don’t know how the plan will be implemented, they do fear that too much centralization could rob them of the essential function of determining the make-up of each campus. 

“There would be universal opposition to having control taken away from the campuses and the appropriate faculty bodies and college bodies which are involved in admissions,” says Philip Patston, chairman of the Faculty Senate on the Chicago campus and also a member of the University Senates Conference. “Enrollment needs to be looked at from a context of what each school is about. … We are three different schools and have very different needs.”

Another fear is whether similar programs on campuses would face the ax as officials seek ways to prevent duplication of programs or save money. One of the university’s goals for 2012 is to create a sunset policy that would reduce investment in “underperforming, noncore, low-demand programs.” The aviation program at the Urbana-Champaign campus was recently eliminated because of declining enrollment, along with the master’s program in math and bachelor’s program in teaching Russian, among other cuts. But university officials insist programs with strong enrollment would not be eliminated, even if they were taught at more than one campus. While faculty welcome a push to make the university easier for students to navigate, they point out the realities that the campuses are not equal in the quality of students they attract nor the rigor of some programs, particularly engineering and other similar disciplines at the flagship Urbana-Champaign campus. Making it too easy to transfer could actually hurt students who are admitted without the proper preparation.

“There are areas on this campus that are extremely selective, high-powered elite programs in the country,” Burbules, a UIUC education professor. “You are not going to succeed in engineering if you haven’t taken … the right calculus course. It doesn’t serve the students well to say Psychology 101 is the same on this campus as that campus. … Let’s be honest. Springfield is not Urbana. Very few universities in the country are. It’s not elitism to say all the campuses are [not] the same. It’s not fair to students to bring them in if they aren’t ready.”

Others question whether the Board of Trustees should really limit its contact to Hogan, another recent reform. In a letter sent last year to Board Chairman Christopher Kennedy, Alexander Scheeline, an Urbana-Champaign professor of chemistry and a member of its Senate Executive Committee, expressed concern about what he called the “ossified, hierarchical communications model” the school has adapted. 

“I fail to see how walling off the board from talking with anyone but the president ... can do anything but shield the board from knowledge of what’s actually happening, thus preventing board members from making wise, informed decisions,” he wrote. 

He concluded: “If we are to be responsive, agile and adaptive, multiple, nonhierarchical lines of communication are an asset. From where I sit, the problem of two years ago was NOT a breakdown in shared governance. It was a top-down abusive exercise of power. Rigidifying process cannot help prevent abuse; people acting ethically prevent abuse.”

That’s not to say that faculty don’t support many aspects of the move to unite and centralize, including efforts to save money by combining purchasing power or, as Patston points out, having a single office actually helping faculty fill out all the necessary forms that go with applying for research grants. 

And Patston emphasizes that many faculty do see the benefits of a more united university and say some of the competition and jealousies between campuses in the past have now been put aside. “Collectively, we really are a powerhouse, I don’t think the faculty view each other as rivals or competitors. Everybody sees the benefit to a really strong University of Illinois.” 

Dave Newbart


Illinois Issues, January 2012

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