November 14, 2014

APAC Hosts Town Hall with President Easter

President Robert Easter addresses the audience at the APAC Town Hall.
Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares is in foreground.
Dr. Natasha Barnes, Associate Professor, African American Studies and English,
posing a question to President Easter during the open question and answer session.
By William S. Bike
APAC HOSTED a Town Hall meeting with President Robert A. Easter on Oct. 6 in Student Center West. The event was open to all staff, faculty, and students.

APPROXIMATELY 200 people attended, with another 150 watching via live streaming online. More than 2,100 others watched the Town Hall after the fact at, where it continues to be available.

“THE INTENT of this meeting was to provide a forum for President Easter to address concerns among UIC’s faculty and staff,” said APAC member Kathleen H. Stauffer, Assistant Dean for Administration, Institute for Policy and Civic Engagement.

“QUESTIONS WERE solicited from the faculty and staff prior to the Town Hall and consolidated by topic and given to President Easter,” she noted. “President Easter answered the questions at the Town Hall and then provided 10 minutes of open question and answer period for the audience.”

PRESIDENT EASTER was introduced by APAC member Kate C. Pravera, Academic Director of the School of Continuing Studies. “We received over 60 questions from staff and faculty,” she said.

UIC strengths
IN HIS opening statement, President Easter noted that the UIC budget is larger than the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) budget, and that UIC enrolls more graduate and professional students than UIUC.

HE ALSO noted that UIC is “ranked as one of the top 50 up-and-coming universities under 50 years of age—UIC is ranked 14th by the Times of London. This is a defining time for UIC—the time to move from where you are today into the next level that defines your future.”

AMONG UIC’S strengths, President Easter noted that the Chicago campus has the largest and most diverse medical school in the country, and that the Hispanic/Latino population of the UIC campus has grown to the point that it “allows us to be designated as a Hispanic/Latino-serving institution, which enables the campus to access additional federal funds,” he said.

A WEAKNESS is that the number African-American students is not as large as he would like, Easter noted, saying, “We need to be more creative as to how we approach those young people from that population.”

A UNIVERSITY-WIDE strength is that last year “we had the greatest fundraising year we ever had--$295 million from donors to the University of Illinois,” Easter said.

Personnel moves
EASTER THEN moved on to answer pre-submitted questions. He noted that the University is not only looking for a new President and that UIC is looking for a new Chancellor, but that three U of I Trustees’ terms are up in January, including that of Chair Chris Kennedy. (Governor Bruce Rauner will appoint the new Trustees.)

EASTER EXPECTS that the Chancellor’s search will be completed soon after the new President is announced, so that the new President “will have input into that decision,” he said.

A SEARCH for a Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs will begin soon, Easter added, noting, “We had an awkward situation where some of the health enterprise reported to the President and some to the [UIC] campus, so the Board decided we would change that and the whole enterprise would report to the campus. That would fall under the leadership of a Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs. The next Chancellor has to participate in that [hiring] decision.”

CONCERNING A question about the resignation of former Provost Lon Kaufman, Easter noted that about a year ago, he approached Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares “with the concern that there seemed to be the lack of a team within” her administration. So this summer, she approached Easter “with the suggestion that we make a change at the Provost level,” Easter said.

EASTER NOTED that the Chancellors of the campuses report to him and “have the authority to make decisions about the team that reports to them.” Allen-Meares presented her case to Easter, he reviewed it and discussed it with Board members, and “I supported her authority in the decision that she made.”

HE THEN discussed the withdrawal of a job offer to Dr. Steven Salaita at the UICC campus. Easter said that because of Dr. Salaita’s inflammatory online posts concerning the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, he was concerned that students in Dr. Salaita’s classes might be intimidated from offering a differing view.

“WE MUST have an environment in our classrooms where students feel they can offer an opinion,” Easter said. “On that basis the decision was made.”

THE NEXT topic was on a proposed new medical school at UIUC. “The question on the table is, are we best served as a University by having an independent college in Urbana, or are we best served by maintaining the continued relationships that we have,” Easter said. “I have not come to any decision, and the board has not come to any decision.”

Civil Service conversions
EASTER THEN discussed a hot topic among Academic Professionals: Civil Service reclassification.

“UNTIL THE 1990s, the Universities were part of the Civil Service system,” Easter explained. “The change that occurred in the ‘90s was granting the University the authority to decide whether a position should be classified as Academic Professional or Civil Service.”

IN RECENT years, the State Universities Civil Service System (SUCSS) and Civil Service Merit Board “began auditing more closely the decisions that we were making,” Easter said. “And they were requiring a significant number of positions to be reclassified.

“THE AUDIT is now expected of all public universities in the state,” Easter continued. “When the Presidents and Chancellors of the universities meet in six weeks, we will again talk about the difficulties we are having with the rather rigorous standards that are being applied now by the Civil Service Merit Board in reclassification. We are in serious disagreement at some level with some of the decisions that are being made.

“WE DON’T dispute the authority of the Civil Service Merit Board to check what we’re doing and propose changes,” he added. “What frustrates us is the lack of clarity and the lack of understanding of why some of these changes are being made.”

HE ALSO noted that in retaining and attracting employees, “the classifications can be a problem.”

“SO I would say it’s a work in progress,” Easter said.

THE PRESIDENT then addressed the budget situation, noting that while the State ostensibly provides 14.8% of the University’s budget, with what the State contributes for employee and retiree pension and healthcare costs, “the State provides about one-third of the cost of operating the University of Illinois,” he said. “When people say the state is stingy, I like to point out that the state provides almost $2 billion per year.”

THERE IS a bill in the legislature, however, that if passed, will “begin to transfer the cost of pensions to the universities,” Easter said.

CONCERNING CASH on hand, “we could write checks for about 150 days,” Easter said. “We would like to be a bit higher than that. In 2008-09, we were in very extreme circumstances. That number almost went to zero. We need a reserve to be able to pay employees in case something catastrophic happens.”

WITH STATE appropriations per student declining since the early 1990s, tuition has been going up. “We believe we are preventing qualified students from enrolling because of the cost of tuition,” Easter said. “Of those students who are admitted, fewer and fewer are deciding to come here. It’s a disturbing trend and we believe to a significant extent that’s a result of financial challenges to the students.”

TO COMBAT that problem, the University is putting more money into financial aid for students, and has undergone a process to increase efficiency and reduce costs.

AMONG OTHER challenges Easter mentioned are declining enrollments at Illinois public universities, the likelihood that some community colleges will petition to become four-year universities, competitors from around the globe, the possible transfer of benefit costs to the University, and a non-competitive pension program for Tier 2 employees (those hired since 2011).

“WE ARE at a defining point in the history of UIC,” Easter asserted. “The world’s economy is increasingly based in 20 to 30 global cities. Chicago must be one of them. To succeed, it needs a large, world-class public university. UIC is poised to fill that role. The competition isn’t Urbana—it’s in Delhi, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the University of Sao Paolo, and Seoul National University.

“LEADERSHIP IS important, but great universities are ultimately the product of an absolute commitment to nothing short of excellence by faculty and staff,” Easter concluded.

HE THEN took questions from the audience on a variety of issues.

“I BELIEVE the President applied good wisdom to answer all the questions asked, based on is knowledge of the subject matter, at the Town Hall meeting,” said APAC member Nester Komolafe, Contract Coordinator, Office of Business and Financial Services.

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