How a new strategic plan is changing the University’s future.

How a new strategic plan is changing the University’s future.

All part of the plan.
The Strategic Plan.
Objective: To be the pre-eminent public research
University with a land-grant mission and global impact.
Resources: Deep, but stretched.
Challenges: Tremendous.
Outlook: Promising.
Story: Here goes.

When Phyllis M. Wise arrived at Illinois in fall 2011, she arrived in the aftermath of upheaval and distress. Revelations of a shadow admissions process had decimated the administration, including the Board of Trustees. This, for a new chancellor, was, as the proverb promises, an “interesting time”—and a compelling opportunity for change. Without delay, Wise, an endocrinologist and veteran of top administrative posts at UC Davis and the University of Washington, set about educating herself on the campus she’d come to lead—with its 44,000-plus students and hundreds of millions of dollars in faculty research, its colleges, instructional units and research institutes, and its Nobel- and Pulitzer-studded history. For 100 days she walked through this Illinois city of the mind, from Beckman Institute to the South Farms, from Facilities and Services to Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. She met with faculty, students and staff all over the campus. When she asked why they were at the University of Illinois, she heard the same answer again and again: I’m here because of the people.

“Whether I was at the Campus Police or LAS or Engineering, what I found was that everybody felt they were a leader in some sense,” Wise recalls of the exercise, which she called her Listening and Learning Tour. “People really felt their ideas were valued, regardless of title. No one was ever ashamed to voice how they felt about a given issue.” Working at a pace that might be called brisk, she talked with as many as four groups a day throughout the autumn and early winter of 2011-12, also meeting with stakeholders in the local community and with alumni in Chicago. “I did realize,” Wise says, “that I would never be done with listening and learning.” What she came away with was a view both broad and intimate of the Urbana campus—its peaks and valleys, its keeps and playing fields, its resources and obligations, its citizens and leaders. And the ongoing immensity of its potential.

Wise then set a new horizon: Visioning Future Excellence. Conducted during the winter/spring of 2012, VFE sought answers to two questions:

  1. What are society’s most pressing issues?
  2. What distinctive and signature role can Illinois play in addressing those issues in the next 20 to 50 years?

Through surveys and focus groups, more than 3,000 University faculty, students and staff members participated in the exercise. Through the tried-and-true method of writing responses
on sticky notes and arranging them on whiteboards, the responses were compiled, grouped and distilled into “word clouds” of synonymous and related terms. From these clouds, six major themes emerged:

  1. Economic Development
  2. Education
  3. Energy and the Environment
  4. Social Equality and Cultural Understanding
  5. Health and Wellness
  6. Information and Technology

In September 2012—less than a year after her arrival on campus—“We were working on how we would turn those themes into actions,” Wise recalls, “when President Bob Easter, PHD ’76 ACES, said, ‘I’d like you to create a strategic plan.’”

Big ideas, enormous potential
Under the leadership of UI Provost Ilesanmi Adesida, a professor and former dean of the College of Engineering, a 20-member working group of administrators, faculty and students gathered. The group spent considerable time over the next few months developing, in Adesida’s words, “the flesh and bone” of a strategic plan. Proposed initiatives for each VFE theme were shaped and then ranked. Metrics were developed for initiatives so that progress could be measured. Three-year targets were set for desired outcomes in each theme.

“We didn’t want to create just an umbrella plan,” notes UI associate provost Stig Lanesskog ’90 BUS MBA ‘94, who served on the group. “We really distilled down the priorities.” The plan uses a range of data, from student completion rates to fundraising, with targets set University-wide and also for every college and instructional unit. The data, regularly updated, are available, along with a constellation of other information about the Strategic Plan, at, a site that takes University transparency to a new level in its wealth of statistical detail and exceptionally interactive format.

The detail is big. The potential is enormous.

And—without being contradictory—the timeline is both short and long.

The Illinois DNA
Published last fall and inclusive through 2016, the Strategic Plan of the University of Illinois is as much about what the University is as what it will become—a map of the institutional genome, showing the continuing potential for self-realization in a place that encompasses supercomputing, genetics research and one of the world’s best libraries, agricultural technology, work on the Higgs boson, curb cuts and architecture students who dress themselves as buildings at Halloween. An inexhaustible tale of excellence has been told and told again in Illinois-centric discoveries such as the LED and the first graphical Web browser and the plasma screen. This potential has been expressed in various ways since the land-grant beginnings of the U: Learning and Labor. Teaching, research and service. The Strategic Plan encodes four guiding principles that are like the base pairs of the University’s DNA:

  1. Scholarship, discovery and innovation
  2. Transformative learning experiences
  3. Significant and visible societal impact
  4. Resources for strategic investment

A strategic plan for an organization as big as Illinois is necessarily a plan begun and implemented in phases, such phases being determined by priorities and such priorities being based on resources. The most critical in the first wave of initiatives is boosting faculty numbers, which have wobbled as a result of the economic difficulties of the recession and its aftermath. The target is 500 new tenure-track hires by 2016. In the past year, 180 searches were launched. The effort is being developed with an emphasis on cluster hiring—the recruitment of groups of scholars whose expertise is in different disciplines but whose research interests share a common overarching theme or goal. An example of the kind of high-achieving faculty member the U of I is seeking is Jimena Canales, a Harvard scholar who will take the Siebel Chair in the History of Science at Illinois this fall.

“Jimena Canales’ scholarship shows how thinking about history and thinking about science and technology inevitably shape one another,” observes Diane Koenker, chairwoman of the UI history department. “She reaches across the disciplines, incorporating developments in experimental psychology, philosophy, astronomy, optics, film studies and imaging technologies;
and her goal is to challenge not only conventional histories of scientific disciplines but also the very categories of experiment and observation.”

Promoting cutting-edge research across the disciplines is essential, both for the future of the U of I and the world. Research offers answers to questions large and small, from helping resource-starved nations grow crops to diagnosing medical conditions using a smartphone.

“We talk all the time about doing the very fundamental work—which is sometimes considered esoteric,” Wise notes. “But we also talk about making sure that it gets translated and applied, whether through patents or Extension or incubator and startup companies in our Research Park.” It also entails finding ways to centralize informational resources that support research—to which the University has allotted additional funds for faculty salaries and also has convened working groups to envision roles for the humanities, the arts, social and behavioral sciences and computation, data and information in the future excellence of the U of I.

Visions for student success, societal impact
Encouraging and enhancing the transformative experiences that can render education at Illinois a game-changer for undergraduates also is paramount. Last year’s Campus Conversation on Undergraduate Education, a VFE-style project led by UI administrators Chuck Tucker and Lauren Goodlad (also an English professor) promises a 21st-century view of what undergraduate success means and how students can be helped to achieve it through experiences both in the classroom and beyond. Held with faculty, staff, administrators and students, the conversations “really brought to the surface a lot of enthusiasm and commitment to undergraduate students and their development,” according to Tucker, an engineering professor who serves as the University’s first vice provost for undergraduate education and innovation.

Teaching initiatives at Illinois include more emphasis on blended learning—which combines online and classroom delivery, including “flipped classes,” in which students attend lectures online, then gather with classmates and the instructor to work together on problem-solving and group projects. This model has been found to work especially well for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses. (As to literature, Tucker notes, “They’ve been doing flipped classes all along because students read the work, then come to class to share perspectives and insights.”) High-quality videos and other teaching materials from the massive online classes taught by UI faculty for Coursera classes—which are free and open to anyone in the world—are being repurposed for credit-bearing classes at Illinois. The University’s new Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning combines disparate campus resources in a single place, providing faculty with support for teaching activities of all kinds, from writing syllabi and guiding discussions to developing online teaching modules and communicating with students in virtual classrooms. The campus’s real-world classrooms are being updated with new technology. Further funds are addressing the deferred maintenance of enduringly handsome but nonetheless aging Illinois infrastructure. And, under the Strategic Plan, the University has added almost $10 million to the pool of funds for undergraduate and graduate student financial aid.

A “significant and visible societal impact”—third strand in the plan—is being made by Illinois in ways from local to global, such as the University office in Shanghai, which opened in November to support and build cooperative research and teaching ventures and drive student internships and job placement throughout China.

A serious look is being taken at opening a new college of medicine that could leverage the University’s strengths in engineering and technology in a groundbreaking medical context. (SeeSynergetic Energy p. 41.) Announced in December, the Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment is fostering interdisciplinary research on big-issue questions around Earth’s changing future. Modeled on other research centers at the U of I, such as Beckman and the Institute for Genomic Biology, ISEE is led by integrative biology professor Evan DeLucia, who says that goals include carbon neutrality for the campus by 2050 through renewable fuels, green-space and landscape management, emphasis on public transportation and other measures. In June the institute announced almost $1 million in research funding for three projects: a prototype for a solar stove; innovative water disinfection; and developing wood and hedge crops as alternative food sources. “All three are expected to address very real problems this world faces with solutions that will help a growing population in a way that doesn’t continue to deplete Earth’s dwindling resources,” says DeLucia.

Paying it forward
While the University has valued research, learning and service since its inception, resource stewardship and development—fourth of the plan’s four goals—is newer, shaped by the 21st-century exigencies of public higher education, particularly state support that is stagnant at best. Among the most dramatic of the plan’s target metrics is doubling the number of prospective donors by 2016 and quadrupling major gift proposals, while reducing deferred maintenance and keeping energy expenses flat. For Dan Peterson, who serves as the University’s vice chancellor for institutional advancement, small steps lead to big differences. “At almost any public institution, the percentage that philanthropy plays in today’s budget is a fairly narrow slice of the pie,” he says. “But it’s often referred to as ‘the margin of excellence.’ It’s the money that allows us to support pre-eminent faculty in an additive way through an endowed chair or professor position. It’s gift money that a dean or a department head can apply to faculty members’ research or scholarly activities.”

For Peterson, fundraising is about involving people in a long-term relationship with the University. “Increasingly what we’re seeing is that if we wait to try and get people re-engaged with the institution after they leave, if we wait until they’re 40, by then often it’s too late,” he says. “They’ve moved on. They’ve started careers, they’ve started families, they’ve become enmeshed in their communities. They’ve started to develop a philanthropic agenda that many times doesn’t include Illinois.”

Ideally, support for Illinois begins in the student years. That this is possible was made clear in the recent College of ACES “Pay It Forward” campaign. With a goal of 100 donors and $1,000, the effort, which took place in April, significantly exceeded expectations. More than $15,000 was raised for scholarships, and more than 35 percent of students in the college contributed. Largely run by students, the campaign went “like wildfire,” according to ACES development officer Stacey Labrecque Cole ’04 (UIS), who served as an adviser in the effort. “I’ve never seen the school spirit so high.”

This school spirit may be contagious. Peterson notes that FY 2013 brought a record $172 million in cash contributions from alumni, friends, corporations and foundations. And, he expects FY 2014, which ended June 30, to approach $180 million—considerable progress from the $135 million the campus had averaged during FY 2008-12.

The long view
As to the vision of both global and local pre-eminence, “we will always be aspiring to get there,” notes Chancellor Wise. For her, the key question is: “How do we configure our thinking so that we are pre-eminent in whatever we do?” That process of configuration will clearly continue beyond the plan’s 2013-16 timeline. Wise notes, moreover, that 2017 is the 150th anniversary of the University’s founding.

Since the Brilliant Futures Campaign, which raised more than $1.6 billion for the Urbana campus in eight years, ended in 2011, “it’s logical that we would be thinking about launching a comprehensive public fundraising campaign in 2017,” Wise says, “so that campaign and the new strategic plan will probably be hand in glove.”

The objective will endure: To be the pre-eminent public research university with a land-grant mission and global impact.

University DNA: Pre-eminence.
Progress: So far, so good.
Story: To be continued.


A college of medicine at Illinois would enhance the intersection of medicine and technology

Among the most ambitious initiatives of the new University of Illinois Strategic Plan is establishing a college of medicine on the Urbana campus. The college would be positioned at the intersection of medicine and technology, where research is beginning to revolutionize patient care with new treatment options and greater affordability. UI Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise says the idea began as a “thought experiment” during the Visioning Future Excellence process (see main story), above, leading to economic impact and feasibility studies, which have given it serious legs.

“The future of medicine is going to rely heavily on discoveries and inventions in engineering—new materials, new sensing, new imaging, new big data, new computer science, new IT,” Wise says. Such technology has in fact been streaming from the UI College of Engineering for some time, in innovations that range from biodegradable electronics for use in medical implants to high-resolution imaging for surgery. Research partnerships have been established by Illinois engineers with such top medical institutions as Johns Hopkins and Mayo Clinic. A college of medicine would help keep more such projects entirely on the Illinois campus, potentially bringing in hundreds of millions of federal research dollars and creating well-paid jobs for a cadre of highly skilled professionals.

Other campus entities well suited to partner with a college of medicine range from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and Beckman Institute; to the colleges of Veterinary Medicine, Applied Health Sciences, LAS and ACES; and the School of Social Work. “There are multiple colleges here that will, I think, partner. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine one that will not,” says Wise. Additionally, she says the college would complement and synergize with the strengths and research foci of the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Carle Health System, a hospital and health-care network headquartered in Urbana, Ill., and one of the state’s largest providers of clinical care, has been proposed as the anchor partner for the college. The initiative is considering various types of governance structures and will go before the University Academic Senate and the Board of Trustees this fall. The feasibility study is online.