Stewarding Excellence @ Illinois: Four more project teams reveal 'next steps'
A year of introspection is closing for the 17 UI academic-led teams charged with forming strategies to streamline operations and squeeze the most out of existing resources.
But the Stewarding Excellence @ Illinois process, started last February, is far from finished.
Administration officials say work to turn committee recommendations into actionable plans already has started on 12 of the original project categories – and more new teams could be announced this year.
In fact, Bob Easter, interim vice president and chancellor, and Richard Wheeler, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost, this month announced the formation of two new project review teams – one for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the other for the Beckman Institute and the Institute for Genomic Biology. (See accompanying story, page 5.)
Campus officials say they’re pleased with the speed at which team members have met comprehensive project goals, though the Stewarding Excellence timetable doesn’t include an absolute endpoint.
Some projects review teams have recommended discontinuing activities such as the Police Training Institute. Other reports led to the formation of steering committees to take action on recommendations.
Others, like revenue generation, involve many activities already taking place on campus and will be addressed on a continuing basis.
In 2004, then-chancellor Richard Herman announced the UI’s renewed commitment to public engagement, and in 2006 the Task Force on Civic Commitment for the 21st Century was created.
By 2011, with changing needs and a new financial landscape, the Stewarding Excellence project team charged with studying the issue suggests it’s a commitment that needs revisiting. The team found that the way in which public engagement is handled by various units on campus is in need of both clarification and coordination.
“We were responsible for answering a list of questions and finding areas of overlap,” said Larry DeBrock, project team chair and the dean of the College of Business. “But the new provost and chancellor, they sort of determine what will go next. My team met a lot, but we were not responsible for making policy.”
The team focused on the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement and asked whether that office’s ever-increasing responsibilities had limited its effectiveness. The office currently houses the functions of community engagement, sustainability, corporate relations and economic development.
The overriding conclusion among committee members was those varied efforts have become “duplicative” and they should be better “aligned” with units already performing those functions.
“At one time many of the colleges had their own corporate relations officers,” DeBrock said.
Easter and Wheeler concurred with the project team’s findings, noting the criticisms were not a reflection of staff performance but an indication the office had taken on too many responsibilities.
“We agree that there are cases where multiple well-intentioned campus activities engage with the same constituencies without significant coordination of effort,” the administrators wrote. “During the past eight years, functions have been added to the portfolio of the OVCPE in an ad hoc manner – more in response to a current need than to a strategic, long-term focus.
“A lack of coherence of the functions is a theme that runs throughout the project team’s observations … (but) the OVCPE should not be faulted. As more functions and duties were added … the staff has been able to balance these added tasks.”
Easter and Wheeler said the next step is to form a group comprising faculty and staff members to discuss an action plan. That could lead to joint recommendations that include the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Institutional Advancement, Extension, and the possibility of a realignment of the Office of Sustainability. The group has been asked to submit a report by May.
“A review of other public and private institutions reveals a central coordinating role at the campus or system level or other senior campus administrator,” Easter and Wheeler noted.
“We are committed to preserving the progress that has been made by the OVCPE in its public engagement activities.”
Herman, in a 2004 statement that appears on the office’s website, reminded campus leaders that part of a land-grant institution’s responsibility is to vigorously advance public engagement because of the value of its potential as a community-building mechanism.
“So much of what we do takes the form of faculty members collaborating with communities, agencies and organizations to address critical issues,” he said.
Easter and Wheeler – as well as the project team report – reiterated the importance of that mission.
“We will rely on the guidance and wisdom learned through this Stewarding Excellence process in charting a new course,” the administrators said.
Mary Kalantzis, the dean of the College of Education and project team chair, said her team found numerous strategies to help UI better parlay “an extraordinary collection of intellectual property.”
She said while the Stewarding Excellence approach to streamlining academic units is a necessity against the backdrop of uncertain funding, the issue of generating revenue has become equally important in sustaining future, effective operation.
Since 2001, UI’s Office of Technology Management received 1,816 invention disclosures from campus faculty members that have yielded nearly 400 U.S. patents. Kalantzis said patent revenue last year equaled about $6 million.
“We have to keep looking at the assets we have,” she said. “We can’t simply focus on cutting and diminishing what we do.”
According to the “next steps” letter from Easter and Wheeler, the topic will receive more study.
“The project team urged the campus to take steps to promote and reward entrepreneurship,” the report said, “and recommended that we carefully evaluate whether an institutional culture of risk aversion presents undue burdens to entrepreneurial activities.”
Easter and Wheeler highlighted the following areas as opportunities for revenue-generation activities:
- Improving technology transfer performance and corresponding assistance to faculty and staff members.
- Creating a task force to identify programs leading to new revenue streams, such as online classes, professional development training, certification programs and international partnerships.
- Improving budgeting principals and practices.
The administrators did not endorse the project team’s ideas of increasing student-body size and tying revenue generation to an academic-evaluation system. In fact, Easter and Wheeler said those methods might in fact be counterproductive and require more evaluation.
“The goals of our social and scholarly work are to maximize our public value as a source of ideas and learning,” the administrators said. “We think it is unwise to tie financial metrics based on instruction, research productivity or other revenue-generation opportunities directly into the academic-evaluation system.”
The administrators also cautioned against adding more students to campus, saying, “Class size can impact the dynamics of the learning environment, as well as how students and others … perceive the value of our educational offerings.”
Kalantzis said she understands the resistance to placing a higher emphasis on revenue generation, but thinks a balance can be struck without sacrificing academic autonomy.
“We’re also looking at ways to encourage faculty members to seek and obtain grants,” she said. “The question is, ‘How do we do improve the bottom line when the taxpayers don’t want to pay increased costs? We have to make our own future.’ ”
Other project team-identified issues include providing greater online course access to attract more non-traditional students that don’t directly tax the physical campus.
Implementation of the plan, which includes ongoing efforts, is slated for the 2011-2012 academic year.
UI Extension was already in the midst of an internal reorganization process when the Stewarding Excellence project team was formed last year.
But Robert Hoeft, Extension’s interim associate dean and director, said the two processes complement each other and will lead to a more effective program.
“We’re going through a major reorganization of our field offices,” he said “The plan that was developed was designed to best utilize the financial resources to deliver high impact programs to Illinois citizens. Increased use of e-technology will allow the system to more efficiently serve audiences.”
While the field-organization plan has already started, Hoeft, who provided a response to the Extension team’s examination along with associate chancellor William Adams, will lead the next step to put some of those recommendations into place. Hoeft said Stewarding Excellence is more targeted toward Extension’s on-campus footprint.
One of the major points in the project team report was the need to include more academic units in the well-known, statewide Extension service-delivery system. It also pointed out the need for a new reporting structure that might provide a “central campus presence.”
Hoeft said Extension is an ideal delivery system that is already in place, and that cross-discipline participation was already happening in the fields of parks and recreation, fine and applied arts, economic development and home-energy.
He hopes the Stewarding Excellence process will lead to new collaborations.
“Extension is the part of the land-grant mission that takes research information generated at the university to the public. A second mission of Extension is to listen to the public and respond to problems and opportunities they have identified,” he said. “In reality, it’s the door to the university for the majority of the population.”
In their response, Easter and Wheeler said many of the project team’s recommendations had merit … among them:
- Investing general revenue funds that leverage additional funding. (It was noted the $11.8 million spent last year generated some $56 million in grant-matching funds.)
- Increasing urban programming.
- Expanding collaborative proposal-writing.
- Creating a “shared services” concept for grant writing.
- Exploring further the advantages/disadvantages to a separate Extension appropriation. (Hoeft said many of the current collaborations use Extension-generated funding.)
While Extension has always been rooted in agriculture, Hoeft said the service in fact provides many non-ag programs that “have done a great deal to help the people of this state.” Other Extension program areas include family life and consumer economics, consumer finance, community and economic development, and 4-H and youth.
Extension already has pushed into urban areas where it provides needed nutrition, consumer finance, consumer economics and youth education.
“These are the kinds of programs that have positively impacted the lives of many individuals,” he said.
Easter and Wheeler said the Stewarding Excellence working group will consult with leaders of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, the Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability, the Office of Public Engagement, the Council of Deans and representatives of the Urbana-Champaign Senate. The opinions of state and local elected officials, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other stakeholders also will be considered, they said.
This working group is expected to yield final recommendations by June 30 and it is expected the plan will be implemented next academic year.
“The restructuring of Extension also could include combining the functions of Public Engagement and Extension into one office to bring coherence to an outreach portfolio that has traditionally been diffuse and poorly aligned,” Easter and Wheeler said.
“We’re going to have to communicate with a lot of different people,” Hoeft said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
When it started work on its Stewarding Excellence action plan last year, the Biology Education and Research project team had the benefit of the 2008 Committee on Defining and Advancing Biology Education Report.
Herb Whiteley, the dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and committee chairman, said he believes the foundation provided by the previous study will lead to solid cross-disciplinary collaborations – not more study.
“Our (2008) study was rather broad and there’s a lot of data there,” he said. “Our charge (for Stewarding Excellence) was to pose some solid questions.”
Whiteley said questions will continue to be asked during discussions at an upcoming biomedical retreat, and university administrators already have accepted his committee’s report and formed a steering committee to be chaired by Rashid Bashir, a professor of electrical and computer engineering.
Easter and Wheeler said the steering committee will take what’s been done and put together an actionable plan. Those recommendations are due by May 31.
“We ask the steering committee for structural recommendations that might be pursued in both the short- and long-term,” the administrators said.
They went on to point out the next phase is “an ambitious undertaking” that could take months to complete.
Whiteley said the process may seem slow from an outsider’s perspective, but the issues are complicated and wide-ranging, and they affect the entire campus.
“I think this next group is going to sort some of this out,” he said of the steering committee.
As a result of the 2008 study, he said, many across-discipline efforts, like co-teaching, have already started. He said the Stewarding process should push that effort further.
“We want to improve the depth across colleges,” Whiteley said.
Easter and Wheeler said the steering committee will address the following questions:
- Do current structures enhance interdisciplinary collaborations and if not, are there enough campus resources to expand biology education across disciplines?
- Are current financial models providing optimal research and teaching support?
- How does the university most efficiently leverage its resources to hire top talent?
“We recognize these questions raise complex issues that require careful deliberation and consultation,” the Easter-Wheeler response said.
Whiteley said he looks forward to upcoming findings and a plan of action.
“The effort is important because it will help us better define how we spend our resources,” he said. “We’re trying to find where we can get the best return for what we have.”
University administrators have added two more Stewarding Excellence @ Illinois project teams and more could follow.
Bob Easter, interim vice president and chancellor, and Richard Wheeler, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost, announced the formation of a project team to review the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and a project team to review both the Beckman Institute and Institute for Genomic Biology.
That makes 19 project teams. All of the original 17 projects, which were announced last spring, have submitted reports and have gone through the consultation process with the campus that includes senate and student leadership feedback, public comment periods, review by the Campus Advisory Committee and the Council of Deans, and response from the units under review. Easter and Wheeler have completed their review of 12 of those projects and issued “Next Steps” memos that announce the administration’s decisions and recommendations for action.
Robert Dodds, chairman of the NCSA project team and a professor of civil and environmental engineering, said it’s too early to speculate on finding outcomes but he is encouraged that these conversations are taking place and being followed by action.
“It seems like an appropriate time for all of this,” he said of the Stewarding Excellence process. “NCSA has a large footprint on this campus and across the nation.”
Dodds said committee members already have started formulating ideas to reach goals under the administration’s charge.
“We’re in the process of starting to gather our thoughts and get the ball rolling,” he said.
Easter and Wheeler said the review, like others under Stewarding Excellence, is aimed at finding ways to restructure academic units and functions, and is partially a response to the current economic and funding landscape.
“We ask that the review openly examine the extent to which the resources dedicated to NCSA support the mission of the campus,” the administrators wrote. NCSA currently receives about $9 million in direct campus money.
The project team also is charged with finding ways to enhance NCSA’s responsiveness to the campus research community, exploring new funding avenues and partnerships, and helping determine whether UI should attempt to develop a “critical mass” of researchers using high-performance computing.
Similar goals exist for the Beckman-IGB team, led by K.C. Ting, who heads the agricultural and biological engineering department.
Easter and Wheeler asked the project team for the two institutes, which boast combined annual funding of nearly $12 million, to find ways to reduce budgets “in ways that protect their ability to serve the campus community.”
Discussions also should focus on a system to better provide space and resources for all academic departments, an issue that has created “tension” among units, and whether the two institutes can form more partnerships, the administrators said.
Ting said it’s still too early to comment on the process, though it will produce results.
“It may be too premature to discuss this project at this time because the project team for this particular Stewarding Excellence @ Illinois task is still being finalized,” he said.
Both project teams are expected to submit reports by May 2.