A Man For All Seasons

More than 40 years ago, Robert Easter began a career at Illinois that took him all over the world and led him to the University’s highest post. Here’s a look back at his illustrious University accomplishments and career.

UI President Robert A. Easter addresses the Memorial Stadium crowd at University of Illinois Commencement in May.
More than 40 years ago, Robert Easter began a career at Illinois that took him all over the world and led him to the University’s highest post. Here’s a look back at his illustrious University accomplishments and career.

When they arrived at Orchard Downs, they arrived the same way thousands of young couples have arrived at the University of Illinois graduate student apartments: with a U-Haul full of stuff, a growing family and a plan. He’d get a Ph.D. in animal sciences. She’d work and support them. At the end of his program, like as not, they’d head back to Texas and a post for him in teaching or industry.

Operative word in previous sentence: not.

Instead, an unexpected, long and challenging journey awaited Cheryl and Robert Easter, PHD ’76 ACES, when they arrived on campus in the winter of 1973, a journey that would lead to the topmost reaches of the University, whose presidency he assumed in 2012. Along the way, Easter—irresistibly known as “Bob” to uncounted alumni, friends and colleagues—has won a well-deserved reputation as a leader of integrity, fairness and strength.

His roles at the University have varied from swine researcher and mentor of graduate students to international envoy, department head and dean to provost, chancellor and now president. Easter has endowed the University with the entirety of his time, even coming out of retirement in 2012 when called to the presidency.

So—when he retires this time, will it take?

In retort to this question, Easter invokes a Founding Father: “Ben Franklin said, ‘Guests, like fish, smell after the third day.’ I’ve been here three years. It’s time.”

Easter issues the quip with signature chuckle and a glint of his fearless smile. His eyes are intent within the frame of his glasses, one white eyebrow sporting an angle, ready at the merry. In on-duty dark suit and colorful tie, he’s the embodiment of a job that includes oversight of the Urbana, Chicago and Springfield campuses and alliance building with faculty, legislators, agencies, corporations, agencies, other institutions of higher education, even entire nations. And not to forget donors, one of whom is coming in an hour to see Easter here in his office on the Urbana campus, an airy, vintage space in Henry Administration Building. His brow flinches—distractions untold—as he considers the extraordinary events of the past five years.

But Bob Easter stands firm. “I didn’t do much,” he insists, his grin turning a little wry. “In all honesty, I did my job.”

Make that: several jobs.

A beacon of calm among the chaos
In 2009, Easter was preparing to retire as dean of the UI College of ACES when Urbana Provost Linda Katehi left for another post. Invited by then-chancellor Richard Herman to fill in as interim, Easter did so. “And then there was an admissions scandal,” he says, a discreet reference to the exposure of Category I, a special list for UI applicants with powerful connections. By the end of that year, most of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees had resigned, as well as UI President Joe White and Chancellor Herman. “So I was asked to stay on as interim chancellor,” Easter recalls. “And I did that for two years, steadfastly telling anyone who asked me that I had no interest in the job long-term.” After Phyllis M. Wise became chancellor of the Urbana campus in 2011, she invited Easter to become interim vice chancellor for research. He started the new job on Jan. 1, 2012.

Just 12 weeks later, on March 23, Easter got a call from Chris Kennedy, UI Board of Trustees chairman. “He asked me to have breakfast with him,” Easter says. Kennedy had urgent news: After fewer than two years in office, UI President Michael Hogan had decided to step down in light of a faculty vote of no confidence and allegations that one of his staff had attempted to interfere with faculty governance.

“And that,” says Easter, “led to this role.” He came to an understanding with Kennedy and the board that he would serve as president for no more than three years. He assumed duties immediately and was confirmed in the office on July 1, 2012.

Easter sketches the events with a light hand, but the times were painful. Matt Wheeler, an ACES professor who studies reproductive biology and animal development, has worked alongside Easter for 26 years, observing firsthand his colleague’s progress from running a swine nutrition lab and supervising graduate students to heading the animal sciences department to the ACES deanship—and beyond. All along, Wheeler observes, Easter has “understood that when chaos is going on around you, you need to be calm.”

“And that has served him all the way through his administrative career.”

Wheeler himself was a leader in the UI Faculty Senate during the time Easter stepped up as chancellor and then president. “He was the leader we needed at the time,” Wheeler says. “He basically instilled a sense of confidence back into the faculty.”

Chancellor Wise says that Easter “is universally respected for his fair-minded and inclusive approach to all questions and has dedicated his whole academic career to helping to make the University a better place.”

“I thought he was a brilliant choice for president,” she says.

Chairman Kennedy, too, is unstinting in his praise for Easter’s collegiality. “We have learned from each other,” Kennedy says. “And that’s the best relationship you can have.”

From nerd to nutritionist
Learning from—and with—others is a lifelong mode for Easter, who grew up in La Pryor, a small Texas town 100 miles southwest of San Antonio. His grandfather came from Missouri at the turn of the century to homestead there, but by the 1930s his family farm had failed.

Working to support the entire family during the Depression, Easter’s father, Edward, did highway construction, served in the Army and eventually managed a ranch for an oil tycoon.

“He was a natural-born leader and lived a life characterized by courage of conviction, compassion, moderation and an absolute commitment to integrity,” recalls Easter, who grew up farming, herding cattle and raising hogs.

Easter was one of approximately 20 members in the La Pryor High School Class of 1966. “I was in the band. I did public speaking. I was in slide-rule competition,” he says. “I showed pigs at the county fair. I played basketball.

“I was kind of a nerd.”

He also became interested in vocational agriculture through teacher James Bevel, adviser for the high school’s chapter of Future Farmers of America. (The bond between the two was lifelong, lasting until Bevel’s death in 2005.) Through the nationwide youth organization, Easter met Jimmy Cheek, a young man from Corpus Christi, Texas, whose life was to run curiously parallel to his own.

“I knew him as ‘Bobby,’” says Cheek, now chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The two competed in FFA events, and they later attended Texas A&M together. They were both to become educators, deans—Cheek at the University of Florida—and eventually chancellors.

“If you get a good education, work hard and do the things you’re supposed to, your life can unfold in ways you never dreamed of,” Cheek says.

Easter credits legendary Texas A&M professor T.D. Tanksley with encouraging him to continue his education beyond a baccalaureate. “He said, ‘Have you ever thought about going to graduate school?’” Easter recalls. “And I said, ‘What’s graduate school?’” Under Tanksley’s guidance, Easter pursued a master’s degree in animal nutrition. The professor also introduced Easter to the UI’s David Baker; the influential monogastric nutritionist invited Easter to attend Illinois and pursue a doctorate. For Easter, Baker was to prove “a mentor, a true friend in times of adversity and a constant advocate and supporter.”

While still at Texas A&M, Easter also would encounter the person who was to become more central in his life than any other—Cheryl Williams, a science teacher from California, Mo., who was at Texas A&M studying biology on an NSF grant. They got married and, soon after, packed up a U-Haul, settled their firstborn into the car and headed to where Alma Mater stands with open arms amid some of the world’s richest farmlands.

Gaining a global awareness
Throughout his career at the University of Illinois, Easter has been thoughtful, collaborative and prodigiously dedicated. Moving from graduate student to lecturer (thanks to a timely opening on the College of ACES faculty), he advanced to a professorship and appointment as department head, then to dean. He ran a lab, and he taught and mentored students. An officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, he traveled to Washington, D.C., for weekend and summer assignments. “I spent a lot of time trying to understand what was going on in different parts of the world,” Easter says. “And that helped give me a global awareness.”

As an esteemed authority on swine nutrition, he has traversed Illinois, the nation and the world to show farmers and researchers how to use vitamins and soybeans to better and more economically feed swine. His travels have taken him throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia, especially China.

“I started going to China in 1988, and I was over there practically every year for two or three weeks for the next 20-some years,” Easter says. “I was often in very remote places where I didn’t speak the language, and I had absolutely no ability to hurry things up, slow things down or anything.

“So I developed this ability not to be overly anxious about things—to just relax and realize that sooner or later, we’ll get through this.”

Committed to leadership that is team-based and outcome-oriented, he summarizes his philosophy this way: “There are not going to be any great winners or any great losers. We’re just going to figure out how to get it done.”

Steadfast commitment
Though Easter tends to deflect discussion of his style and achievements with his signature humor (and modesty), others are more forthcoming.

“What always struck me about Bob when we were working together as department heads was how very quiet and introspective he was,” says Robert Hauser, who became ACES dean in 2009 when Easter was tapped for provost. “He didn’t talk very much in meetings—but when he did, people listened.”

Hauser saw this understated approach pay off in enormous results when Easter became dean.

“Bob created a vision for the college around the idea of global pre-eminence and local relevance. And he was really able to instill that in the administration and faculty,” Hauser says.

“The College of ACES is what it is today largely because of him.”

Easter, more broadly, “knows the University, and particularly our campus, more than anyone else that I know,” observes Chancellor Wise. “He has worked tirelessly to promote the visibility and impact of the University to our external stakeholders.”

Easter’s record is similarly eloquent. As interim chancellor, he steered the Urbana campus through the worst of the recession—a brutal time of budget cuts, furloughs and elimination of programs and positions. As president, he has championed state and federal funding for the U of I. Addressing the Illinois Legislature last spring in response to a proposed 20 percent reduction in state appropriations for the University, Easter said, “It took 150 years to build up the reputation for excellence that the University of Illinois enjoys. It could take one legislative decision to imperil what we see as true progress in all of our missions.”

Budget woes have flooded over into concerns about funding shortfalls in the state’s retirement systems and how these could affect faculty and staff pensions in the future. In response to calls for capping cost-of-living allowances for retirees, the Easter administration has proposed an alternative model for funding pensions that includes contributions from the University.

Major initiatives on his watch include:
• The genesis of UI Labs in Chicago, led by Vice President for Research Larry Schook. The organization is now up and humming with grant funding for technology that promises to bring a fresh wave of jobs and prosperity to the city.
• An ambitious campaign to recruit 500 outstanding new faculty to the Urbana campus as part of a visionary Strategic Plan led by Urbana Chancellor Wise.
• A new administrative structure that brings together the storied medical and health sciences resources of the University of Illinois Chicago—including seven colleges, a hospital and a dozen clinics.
• Plans for a first-ever Student Union at the University of Illinois Springfield, with groundbreaking to take place in spring 2015.
UI Board of Trustees member Ed McMillan ’69 ACES is a longtime colleague and friend. He observes that Easter “could have taken the job as president and simply acted as a caretaker until a successor was chosen. Instead, he responded with the same kind of commitment as if he were going to be president for 20 years. And that was very important for the University.”

Reading, road trips and research
When Easter retires this summer, he’ll not lack for things to do. Six acres and 40 fruit trees await tending at his Mahomet, Ill., home. He’ll have time to read more books—he’s especially fond of historical fiction. He’ll stay on with such initiatives as the Africa-focused World Initiative for Soy and Human Health, and the Archer Daniels Midland Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss (efforts he became involved with through ACES). He and Cheryl will attend services at Stratford Park Bible Church in Champaign, Ill. And he’ll continue to go places.

“I’ve always wanted to get in my Jeep and drive across the Canadian provinces. Just drive up to Ontario and go west,” Easter says. “It’s a fascinating region agriculturally. And I’ve got colleagues along the way that I can stop and pester.”

Most important of all, Easter gets to return to his Urbana campus office in the National Soybean Research Laboratory and his research on swine nutrition.

“Work is so deeply ingrained in my personality that I don’t know how not to work,” he says. “Literally, when I was growing up, we worked from 7 in the morning till dark. Sunday was a day off. I feel uneasy if I’m not doing something productive.”

Concludes colleague Matt Wheeler: “Bob has stayed involved in agriculture all along, being the professor, being the scholar, being the Extension representative, as well as being the president of the University of Illinois. If you were going to look for a president for an
institution with a land-grant mission, you couldn’t pick anybody better than Bob Easter.

“And we’ll be very glad to have him back.”

So, Bob Easter, welcome to your next retirement.

Maybe this time it will take?