Friday, March 23, 2012

U of I's next president says he intends to listen and learn

By Jamey Dunn

The man tapped to be the next president of the University of Illinois says his first priorities are to learn the ropes and listen to what people have to say.

Robert Easter will take over for current President Michael Hogan, who announced that he plans to step aside July 1. “I think my primary responsibility over the next two or three months, especially during this interim period, is to listen to people and really get to know the issues,” he said today.

Hogan, an expert in American diplomacy, plans to stay on with the university as a tenured history professor, earning a $285,100 annual salary. Hogan will be able to take a one-year paid sabbatical with the professor's salary and then start work at the campus of his choosing in 2013. Hogan was hired as president in 2010 and had a salary of $651,000 this year.

Easter served as dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences for seven years. He also served as interim chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus for two years, until last fall when current Chancellor Phyllis Wise came aboard. Easter said his most recent job serving as interim vice chancellor for research has kept him removed from many of the challenges that he will face as president. “I have been out of the conversation,” he said.

Easter earns $250,000 in his current post and will be paid $450,000 annually when he moves up to the position of president. He said he plans to travel to all the U of I campuses “to understand the challenges, to get to know the faculty, to get to know the leadership of the campuses that I need to work with.” He added, “I need to spend some time in Springfield and get to know the leaders there.”

He said he was not prepared to comment specifically on issues that have recently caused controversy, such as Hogan’s efforts to combine some functions across all three U of I campuses, including a centralized enrollment program that caused friction with faculty. But Easter did make some general statements on consolidation. “The challenge always is to find efficiencies, and sometimes, those efficiencies come about when you consolidate activities.” However, he said, “I think part of the genius of the University of Illinois is enabling local units, departments and colleges to be very nimble” in responding to the different issues they face.

Easter said about his appointment to the job, “It came about quickly.” He said he received a call from U of I Board of Trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy over the weekend, and the two met to discuss the job. “We spent about two hours over breakfast, and he pretty much put it on the table.” Easter said he thinks the board felt a “sense of urgency to bring stability” to the university system.

The U of I has been plagued with controversy in recent years after an admissions scandal caused former-President B. Joseph White to step down in the fall of 2009. Since then, there have been incidents of inflation of grades and test scores at the university’s law school, and most recently, more than 125 faculty members signed on to a letter to the board of trustees that accused Hogan of a “lapse” in ethics, said he used bullying tactics and called for his resignation. Members of the board have said that they did not ask Hogan to step down, nor does his resignation imply he was guilty of any wrongdoing.

When asked why he took the job when the university is weathering scandals and budget concerns, Easter said: “I’d been a citizen of the U of I and an active part of the faculty for almost 40 years, so there’s some sense of responsibility. I think it’s an exciting job.” He added, “The U of I is populated by really great people, and I enjoy working with people.”  Easter said he has made a two-year commitment to stay in the position.

Easter said the issues currently on his radar are budget concerns, pension reform and health care for university employees. He noted that changes to the pension system could be approved before he even steps into the new job. He said making college affordable for students is also a top concern. “Longer term, this is a period in American higher education where there’s uncertainty about what is the role of tier-one research universities.”


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