Experiments, equations and the occasional medical emergency form the foundation of Phyllis M. Wise’s lifelong love of learning.
The Urbana chancellor and UI vice president, who officially started the job Oct. 3, is the daughter of a neurophysiologist father and a nurse-educator mother – a combination that left a young Wise with little other direction but living up to the family name.
“I was imbued with science from the get-go – I didn’t really have a choice,” she said Monday in her office in the Swanlund Administration Building. “I spent my days after school in the lab watching experiments. It was the natural thing to do.”
Soon, her inherited inquisitiveness led the young Wise to forge her own direction.
Her undergraduate major in biology practically predetermined, she was leaning toward a medical career before discovering in the classroom her eventual scientific niche – endocrinology.
“I was amazed that we were studying the chemicals in the blood and I’ve never gotten away from that feeling,” she said.
That feeling also is credited with the groundbreaking research and recognition that followed, with the list of awards and accomplishments growing on her resume.
But in the midst of the recognition, Wise began to think more outwardly, prodded by a colleague at the University of Maryland who saw leadership potential in her easy personality and uncompromising principles.
“I think you need to do more,” Wise said the colleague told her.
Wise started doing just that, taking on additional training and working through the administrative ranks at three universities before becoming provost and executive vice president of the University of Washington in 2005, where she eventually served as the campus’s interim president.
She said she never was discriminated against and readily concedes she may actually have benefited from being an Asian-American woman – but she also vowed to maximize the opportunities that were afforded to her.
“In some ways I was given more opportunities because I was a woman and Asian-American, and there were not many of us around,” she said.
While the varied experience has been helpful in shaping Wise, she said she’s also been fully committed to every university for which she’s worked. She said she never thought she would leave any of them and has always been surprised at the opportunities that have presented themselves.
As a researcher she has been funded continuously for 32 years, with two of her awards achieving 10-year merit status – a designation afforded only a small percentage of well-performing projects. Wise’s research focuses on the effects of female hormones on the brain.
“I’ve pretty much decided to put my funded research down,” she said. “I look at it as, cooking is my short-term experiment, research is my mid-term experiment and my children are my long-term experiments.”
As for major policy changes over the next few months, don’t expect many from Wise, who has vowed first to undertake a “listening and learning tour” to become attuned to campus issues.
She told members of the Academic Senate on Monday that she would be considering all requests for an audience over the next several months as she seeks input and guidance.
Wise spent Homecoming weekend making meet-and-greet appearances and said she looks forward to beginning the work phase of her new position.
Her first impression after meeting so many people?
“The more people I meet the more I realize this university is all about the people,” she said. “We have some of the most amazing people here.”
The new chancellor was spared a complicated senate meeting, though the parliamentarian was close at hand in the event of questions. All of the items passed without opposition.
In opening remarks to the senate, Wise said she hoped to help lead the university through “critical times” for public education.
“The future of our country depends on higher education,” she said.
Wise was anxious prior to taking the gavel for the first time, but was guided through the proceedings by senate leaders.
“This is the first time I’ve ever presided over a body like this,” she said.
Prior to the meeting she said that she still is making adjustments to being head of the campus.
She continues to fight the urge to say “you and “your” instead of “my” and “ours” when referring to the UI – so much so that she frequently stops herself to point out the misuse.
“I’ve spent a lot of time on your website, I mean our website,” she said in answering one question, laughingly correcting herself.
Wise said she has an advantage coming in as chancellor, and his name is Bob Easter, the outgoing interim chancellor.
“He had to deal with some pretty challenging situations and he kept this place moving ahead,” she said, noting the ongoing Stewarding Excellence @ Illinois initiative.
She said the initiative fits her approach to tackling problems.
“You’ve got to always be asking questions and then you go on to the next thing,” she said. “A university is an ever-changing place and we should always be looking for new opportunities and niches.”
She said that quest will be among her greatest responsibilities.
“What is our niche?” she asked. “What do we value most about this place? I want to listen and learn from a lot of people.”
She said funding will continue to be an issue facing the university and it’s something Wise also had to grapple with at the University of Washington, which saw its state support cut by half during the recent economic downturn.
She said it will take a concerted effort and new ideas to convince legislators of the importance of continued support.
“All public universities are facing these challenges right now,” she said. “We have to think differently than we ever have before. We have to figure out other, better funding models. It still takes great people and planning to be at the top.”
She said she is aware of recent efforts to tie higher-education funding to performance, though she does not fear the concept.
“I think it’s critical that measurements are effective, that the metrics are the right ones,” she said. “We have to be deeply involved to ensure that.”
As for campus leadership, Wise said she believes in the concept of shared governance, noting she doesn’t make decisions that don’t have support.
“We’re supposed to be enablers,” she said of her administrative philosophy. “I don’t have an agenda of my own and I’m not going to force anything on anyone. I expect the faculty to be open with me and I expect to hear from a broad audience. We’re going to share the kudos and the blame for everything that happens.”
At the end of the day, Wise said she wants the same things from employees that employees expect from her: respect, trust and positive outcomes.
“I think that should be the same going both ways,” she said.