URBANA – New University of Illinois President Robert Easter shares one key challenge with two presidents before him: balancing the problem of dwindling state support with the need to hold tuition costs down.
But in his first day on the job, Easter listed a new priority, one created by the rocky previous three years that ended with Easter in the president’s office: to calm the storms that have become a regular part of university life since 2009.
The 64-year-old Easter was named president in March when Michael Hogan resigned under intense pressure from faculty. Hogan himself had been on the job less than two years, hired in 2010 to replace B. Joseph White after White resigned during an admissions scandal.
“I think clearly one of the immediate issues is to bring some sense of stability and a sense of positive approach to the office,” Easter told reporters Monday in his office on the Urbana-Champaign campus.
Easter is a longtime administrator on the flagship campus, serving for years as dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences in Urbana before taking on several interim leadership roles in the past few years. When Hogan resigned as president, Easter was a popular pick among faculty who had called for Hogan to step down. Easter has agreed to stay on the job for two years at $450,000 a year, $170,000 less than Hogan was paid.
In talking about finances and tuition, the new president acknowledged Monday that he’s looking at many of the same challenges his most immediate predecessors faced and believes administrators, faculty and others are ready to work through those with him.
“I sense a desire to make tough decisions, adult decisions, about our future,” Easter said.
The state government budget just passed includes a 6 percent cut in money for the university. State funding accounted for only about 15 percent of the last school year’s $5 billion university budget. It isn’t clear how much the cut for the next school year will drop that percentage.
And university trustees have said tuition – the largest provider of university funding – shouldn’t be raised by more than the rate of inflation. Including room and board, a year at the university’s three campuses costs anywhere from just under $19,000 in Springfield to more than $24,000 in Urbana-Champaign.
One obstacle Easter will encounter that neither Hogan nor White did is an increase in planned university employee retirements, part of a larger spike among state workers this year stemming from expected changes in the state’s badly underfunded pension systems.
Each of the university’s two largest campuses, in Urbana-Champaign and Chicago, will lose more than 500 employees to retirement this calendar year, an increase of well over 150 people in each case over 2011 levels.
A faculty leader who was critical of Hogan said Monday that Easter will have strong faculty support even if he has to make difficult decisions.
“I think he has a lot of credibility with the faculty,” said educational policy professor Nick Burbules, a member of the faculty senate.
He said Easter emailed him Monday asking if they could get together soon. “He is a very good listener,” Burbules said. “He is not threatened by honest disagreement.”
Faculty support will be critical.
Hogan, who is now a professor at the university, resigned as president following months of pressure from faculty over what they saw as his dictatorial leadership style and anonymous emails sent from his chief of staff’s computer trying to sway a decision on a controversial enrollment management plan. A pair of letters signed by some of the university’s most influential faculty leaders requested his resignation and, when that didn’t immediately happen, called for him to be fired.
One of the people who signed those letters, journalism professor and Pulitzer Prize-winner Leon Dash, said Easter has about as much faculty support as he possibly could have and understands the university’s financial situation as well as anyone. Dash pointed out that as interim chancellor at the flagship campus a couple of years ago, Easter led a review of all the University of Illinois colleges and departments with a focus on finding savings.
But Dash said Easter and whoever eventually succeeds him face serious financial challenges.
“What he can do or what even a new president can do is a big question mark, when we bring in a new president two years from now,” Dash said.
At the time of Hogan’s resignation, some trustees noted that many of the same initiatives the former president started to cut costs and streamline operations will have to continue.
Easter said Monday that he has already started talking with state and federal lawmakers, reminding them of the university’s mission and needs.
“The legislative leadership has been eager, I think it’s fair to say, to hear our perspective,” Easter said.