Senate hosts townhall meeting on administrative changes
Faculty members and students have numerous concerns about changes being proposed by the UI Board of Trustees to the university administration and to key university governing documents.
Among those concerns raised at a special meeting of the Urbana-Champaign Senate on Oct. 18: Are the changes only intended to centralize authority? Will the changes add bureaucracy where bureaucracy is already a problem? Will the changes downgrade the mission and reputation of the Urbana-Champaign campus in favor of homogenizing the university?
UI President Michael Hogan responded to those concerns for nearly two hours, attempting to reassure those in attendance that most of their concerns about the changes were far from what the board intended in recommending them. In the context of an ongoing budget crisis and following in the wake of a “leadership crisis,” the changes were seen as a way to aid faculty members, not to “make your life more miserable,” and to free up dollars for faculty salaries and the university’s academic mission, Hogan said.
The recommendations came out of a Sept. 23 meeting of the board of trustees in which Hogan was asked to move forward with a plan to re-structure the university administration in order to reduce costs, streamline operations, create opportunities to generate new revenue and better coordinate shared teaching and research missions.
Part of the plan calls for amending the University Statutes and General Rules. Among the proposed amendments: changing the three campus chancellors’ titles to “vice president and chancellor,” adding “research” to the title and portfolio of the vice president for technology and economic development, and establishing a new position of vice president for health affairs. Other plans call for establishing executive directors of human resources and enrollment services.
The senate hosted a townhall meeting on Oct. 11 to provide background and information about the changes, and then to gather questions, which were then relayed to the president’s office. In response, Hogan put together a list of frequently asked questions, with answers, that was posted the morning before his appearance Oct. 18. Those FAQs are posted on the senate website.
In his remarks at the Oct. 18 meeting, Hogan continually stressed that the statute changes and other plans were intended primarily to address concerns at the university level, not the campus level – in particular noting “back-office” redundancies in areas like human resources and informational technology.
Several faculty members, however, questioned whether valued support offices within their units might be threatened as a result. Among them, Doug McDonald, a professor of chemistry, said “we see the university as a dysfunctional unit” that’s already a barrier to getting things done. He and others feared the proposals “would add another level of bureaucracy to what we already have,” and “could be the worst thing that you could do.”
Hogan said McDonald’s concerns were a campus-level issue, and not relevant to the universitywide concerns he was addressing.
Almost every question raised during the meeting communicated distrust, or at least anxiety, about the motivation behind changes or what might result from their implementation.
Mark Steinberg, a professor of history, described the meeting to Hogan as an “articulation of anxiety.” The changes suggested a greater centralization of authority, a greater uniformity between the campuses, and a “redistributed leveling” at the expense of the Urbana campus, Steinberg said.
In answering Steinberg, Hogan acknowledged “this is an anxious moment,” adding that many other universities were dealing with similar struggles and choices – though many of them 18-24 months ahead of the UI.
In addressing concerns about centralization, Hogan said “the campuses are not autonomous, they were never intended to be autonomous,” noting language in the statutes. He added later on, however, that it was not his intention, or that of the board, to alter or homogenize the missions of the three campuses, or to do anything but add to their reputations. “I didn’t come here to preside over the decline of this campus,” he said.
He also said he was not aware of another large research institution that did not have vice presidents for research or, where relevant, health affairs.
“Right now, we’re a university that’s less than the sum of its parts, and we have the potential to be a university that’s more than the sum of its parts,” Hogan said.
In explaining the reasoning behind the plans and statute changes proposed by the board, Hogan repeatedly came back to the need to address the dire budget situation the university found itself in – also making note of recent drops in academic ranking and research support.
“The sad news is we can’t run away from it,” Hogan said.
Discussion will continue in Senate meetings scheduled for Oct. 25, Nov. 1 and Nov. 8 – in preparation for providing input to the board prior to its Nov. 18 meeting.