Excellent student experience a priority for new chancellor
To new Urbana Chancellor and UI Vice President Phyllis M. Wise, education and family are inextricable elements.
She was raised by Ivy League professor parents – her father was a neurophysiologist and her mother was a nurse – and spent her childhood immersed in campus culture.
“I was imbued with science from the get-go – I didn’t really have a choice,” she said.
As an adult, she carried on the family’s academic tradition, becoming a world-renowned endocrinology researcher and top-level leader at several universities, including the UI starting last October.
And somehow, in the middle of it all, she successfully raised a family – a son, now 41, who has become a successful lawyer, and a daughter, 35, who has become a celebrated cellist.
To say Wise knows a little about the pressures facing college students and their parents is an understatement.
“I know what a big commitment it is to trust your children to the university,” Wise said. “With my children, the biggest emphasis was just making sure that they took full advantage of their college environment.”
That can be a daunting task for new students, considering the practically limitless personal and academic enrichment opportunities available on campus.
“My first impression is that the opportunities to learn here are deeper and richer and more complex than I ever imagined,” she said. State-of-the-art laboratories, newly renovated and updated lecture halls and a multitude of cultural offerings: “It’s all here.”
And while students are responsible for finding and involving themselves with the myriad opportunities, she said university officials are working to ensure the student experience remains second to none.
Wise has spent a large part of her first few months in office listening to campus constituents, students included, in an effort to capitalize on existing strengths and identify problems needing attention.
Her Listening and Learning Tour, which is ongoing, has included appearances before the Urbana Student Senate and a Student Affairs-sponsored luncheon. She also participated in the annual meetings of the UI Moms Association and Dads Association.
She said one message has been consistent in the feedback she has so far received.
“The universal theme I’ve been hearing every time is that people are here because of the people here,” she said. “For a great many of these students, their lifelong friendships are going to be formed here.”
Keeping it all intact will continue to be a challenge because of state and national financial constraints – state funding alone has dropped more than 30 percent in the last decade – but it’s a battle university leaders are facing head-on, Wise said.
The university has recently undergone several efforts to reduce administrative overhead and to target campus programs not relevant to the university’s mission, culminating in millions of dollars in annual savings.
“We are cutting some corners where we can, but cost hasn’t been the only consideration,” she said. “We are trying very hard not to let it affect our students. That’s what we’re trying to guard.”
Officials also have ramped up scholarship program efforts, with UI President Michael J. Hogan last year unveiling a new three-year fundraising program with a goal of $100 million. The new program, Access Illinois: The Presidential Scholarship Initiative, is being led by the UI Foundation and will ask for donations from 600,000 alumni and supporters. In addition, money available through the 25-year-old President’s Award program, which serves underrepresented students, was nearly doubled last year, rising to nearly $8 million.
“There is no higher priority to me than making sure that rising costs don’t deny students the life-changing opportunities that a University of Illinois education provides,” Hogan said. “College is the cornerstone of the American dream and we are committed to preserving it for our students.”
In an effort to make future tuition increases more foreseeable and manageable, UI trustees last year approved a plan limiting increases to the rate of inflation. And this year trustees approved an initiative to eliminate some student fees and bundle others together, making it easier for families to understand and afford.
“We have so many different fees I think it’s confusing to parents,” Wise said. “This new system will make it more transparent.”
She said student access will continue to dominate the discussion into the future.
“The number of students applying continues to increase and we don’t want to turn away any well-qualified students,” she said.
The efforts have paid off, Wise said, as indicated by a recent Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine that had UI raising 18 spots in its annual “Best Values in Public Colleges.” UI moved from 45th to 27th in the public-university rankings, which take into account factors including academic success, tuition, costs, fees and financial aid availability.
“People pay attention to rankings and we do too, but I don’t want to improve things just for rankings,” Wise said. “We must maintain that push to forever get better. Our graduation rate is very high, but you never stop working to make it better.”
The chancellor said officials will continue to spotlight ways to improve campus life as well.
For example, following a Campustown crime-rate increase three years ago, the university immediately placed an added emphasis on campus safety.
In the time since, officials have bolstered the police department budget, hired more patrol officers, expanded the Student Patrol program, adopted a new-and-improved Illini-Alert system and added a network of several hundred security cameras scattered across key locations on campus.
“We have done so much in the last couple of years to make it as safe as it can be,” she said.
Currently, administrators are working to meet a student-led effort to create a “smoke-free campus,” banning cigarette smokers from using university grounds.
She said it’s another example of student concerns being listened to and acted upon.
“We’re investigating it to figure out how to implement it,” she said of the smoking ban.
The new chancellor is expected to culminate her Listening and Learning Tour this spring with a report of her findings. She is quick to point out that her recommendations won’t represent her vision for the future – it will encapsulate the vision of students and faculty and staff members. She also notes it will take all of the stakeholders working together to carry on the long and proud tradition of the UI into the future.
“We’re supposed to be enablers,” she said of her administrative position. “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.”