The University of Illinois will have a new president come July after an eight month search and years of short-term leadership. The search committee picked State University of New York's Timothy Killeen for his success in research, and his experience dealing with tough fiscal situations.
Killeen's whirlwind day Wednesday began with an early morning introduction on the Chicago campus, slowed briefly at a lunchtime address on the Springfield campus and ended late in the afternoon in Urbana where the 20th U of I president surveyed his new home.
That home will be in a state facing serious financial problems, and Killeen knows he’s entering his presidency at a time of fiscal uncertainty at U of I.
But for now, Killeen didn't want to focus on the University's tough fiscal future.
"That question is a little premature for me," Killeen said regarding how much cost he'd be willing to let the University absorb. " I'm new, I'm excited, I'm coming in and I'm going to do my homework. (I'll tell students to do their homework too.) I'm a quick study so I'll get up all the learning curve that's needed to address those kind of issues."
For the last 2.5 years, Killeen has been the head of the Research Foundation at SUNY. Prior to that, the Wales native and three-time NASA award winner spent time at the National Science Foundation, the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Michigan.
That's where Killeen met B. Joseph White, who went on to become U of I's 16th president, and now Killeen's predecessor.
White says Killeen's enthusiasm was palpable, especially for research that was a little ahead of its time.
"I remember Tim was a guy who was passionate," White said. "Even then, he was passionate about atmospheric science, he didn't feel we were doing enough institutionally at the University of Michigan about it ... passion in a leader is a really good thing."
That passion is what members of the presidential search committee say they were looking for.
U of I trustee Pam Strobel co-chaired the committee.
“We were looking for someone who could become the chief advocate for public higher education in the state and on a national and global level and we found that in Tim Killeen,” she said.
Strobel says though the committee ended up picking a white male, diversity was also a priority for the search team.
"We did our utmost to make sure that we had diverse candidates to consider," she said. "In the end, we thought that Tim Killeen would make the best president for the University of Illinois. But it was never without a recognition of ... yes, indeed, this is a white male."
According to the American Council on Education, roughly 87% of college and university presidents are white, as of 2011. A number that's fallen only 3% since 1990. Killeen will be the U of I’s 20th president, and the 20th white male to hold the position. He says he'll embrace all the initiatives U of I has committed to, including increasing the level of diversity on campus. But some researchers who study diversity in higher education, including James Moore, say diversity must start at the very top.
Moore serves as Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at The Ohio State University and says the only thing standing in the way of increased diversity among university presidents is the will to change. Too often, he says, search committees hide behind the concept of picking the most qualified applicant.
“I don’t think it’s good enough because 'qualified' is one of those very elusive terms," he said. "How are we defining 'qualified?' To me, the most qualified is the totality of all those things, not just one or two variables."
Moore says the University of Illinois, with a diverse group of chancellors and provosts, is among the more progressive systems. The University has struggled in recent years, though, with attracting and keeping minority students, especially from lower-income backgrounds.
Many of those students depend on federal or state aid, which have been cut in recent years. As the state also cuts direct funding to the University, the Board of Trustees has voted to raise tuition in recent years.
Despite the many challenges, Killeen sees opportunities. He says he "loves" the public university mission, and will be on his own mission to highlight the U of I at every turn.
"What I would like to bring is to really embellish the narrative, the exciting value proposition of what the University of Illinois is and brings to the state and does for the state and for the population and for economic welfare," he said.
Former president White says he’s confident Killeen will succeed in the job, but hinted at the scope of the challenges he faces.
"Well, let me be blunt. Illinois is not for the faint of heart," he said. "By which I mean the state of Illinois. This is really the big leagues when it comes to politics, economics and so on."
Though he's subject to Board of Trustees approval, Killleen’s training starts after the holidays. His first day in the big leagues is set for July 1st.