Jan 10, 2010, interview w/ News-Gazette
UI's interim president shares his thoughts on future
By Julie Wurth and Paul Wood
Stanley O. Ikenberry, interim president of the University of Illinois, spoke at length last week with News-Gazette reporters Julie Wurth and Paul Wood about budget cuts in his first weeks of office.
Ikenberry talked candidly about the need for the UI to make painful cuts, his hopes for future revenues and parings of the budget, the likelihood that the state income tax will be increased, his feelings about working with a mostly novice board of trustees, and how his management style may have evolved since his first term of more than 15 years.
News-Gazette: Do you have plans yet for how you're going to spend your furlough days?
Ikenberry: (Laughter) I told Judy I was going to take a furlough day on Sunday. She didn't think it was so funny.
N-G: Is it illegal for people to work on their furlough days, or is it just university policy that you can't?
S.I.: We're conscious of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Our lawyers are advising us on that. If we did everything that our legal advisers would want us to do ... to protect ourselves, immunize ourselves 100 percent, we'd probably tie ourselves in knots. So I've pushed back on a lot of this. But we've tried to make it as clear as possible that a furlough day is a furlough day, and that you should take the day off.
I think we'd get into a lot of trouble very quickly if we tried to dictate when and where and how faculty members are going to take that day. ... We have in fact provided almost complete freedom for faculty members to exercise their good judgment about when they're going to take a furlough day. I'm very comfortable with that. I think the faculty will appreciate that and I'll be more comfortable with that approach.
But at the same time we're trying to comply with the requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act for our academic professional employees, nonfaculty, that will require them to keep records of the actual days that they're off and that they take their furlough, and that needs to be verified by their supervisor. So we're working on what I hope will be a very simple, straightforward, convenient way to do that.
N-G: There have been some layoffs at Facilities and Services.
S.I.: We are a large, complex organization, so from time to time we have either hirings or layoffs, depending upon the immediate circumstances. As budgets have become more strained, it's been less likely that departments, for example, would have been putting in a new bookshelf or painting the walls, or making other improvements. As a result of that, the number of work orders in Facilities and Services operations can decline....
It happens all the time as things ebb and flow. But in the immediate case, my desire would be to see if we could not reach a cordial agreement through the normal negotiating processes that would allow our civil service employees access to the same furlough day policy as is available to everybody else. And that would avoid layoffs, at least insofar as it relates to this immediate situation.
(On Saturday, Ikenberry clarified: "The policy does not apply to civil service unions, and we have no intention of applying it unilaterally to unions. If they want to negotiate furloughs, we would be willing to do that. But we're not initiating it or requiring it.")
N-G: Are you talking about just civil service or other unions, too?
S.I.: All unions that are covered by negotiated contracts.
N-G: Some union leaders said they'd want a guarantee that will mean no layoffs. Can you give them that guarantee?
S.I.: I'm not sure that we would be able to, but we'll certainly bend over backward to try to work with them on this.
I think there's a lot of trust involved here. And so we just ought to let those conversations go forward. I do think that we have a limited amount of time to make these choices. So I think over the next couple of weeks we probably need to decide which direction we're going to go, because the furlough days are going to begin to kick in and be deducted here pretty quickly. ...
For most unionized employees under contract, I would think they would prefer to deal with the prospect of one day a month furlough as opposed to either risking for themselves or for one of their colleagues an actual layoff.
N-G: How likely do you think any further layoffs are in the next couple of months?
S.I.: We hope this series of actions now will put us in a strong position for the balance of the academic year. That assumes that we will indeed get some additional payment from the state. And of course if we should get manna from heaven, a check in the mail for $436 million, we'd backtrack and undo a lot of things.
N-G: Reimburse people for those furlough days?
S.I.: We'd find some way, yes. But the fact is that the state's situation is dire. ... But, yes, assuming we do receive some additional help from the state, we think we've done enough now that will carry us through the balance of this semester.
N-G: But you did warn in your letter that you might not be able to meet the payroll at some point?
S.I.: Well, yeah, eventually, we'd run out of rabbits to pull out of hats.
N-G: Gov. Quinn mentioned that he's borrowing more money this month. Do you have any idea how much you'll get from that?
S.I.: No, we haven't received any report. If we get $100 million or $200 million, that would help a great deal.
N-G: Because of the one-year notice provision for academic professional employees, layoffs in some respect don't work to help this year's budget. Are there some categories of employees you could lay off more quickly?
S.I.: Yes, the terms of conditions of employment tend to differ with different classes of personnel. ... The period of required notice for academic professional personnel is so long that in a way in this kind of a circumstance, it may disadvantage both the employee and the university. But it is what it is. So we will honor that. The only way we can then survive is to very likely issue more notices of termination than we expect we will absolutely require. And obviously these are valued employees. We need the help. So under the most optimistic circumstances, none of those would have to actually be exercised.
But on the other hand, as we look ahead to 2011, it is even more ominous and threatening than 2010, because this financial crisis facing the state escalates every day that passes without a long-term solution. We're digging a hole that just gets deeper and deeper.
N-G: You're not going to get stimulus money probably in the future.
S.I.: Right. In 2011, under current law, all the stimulus money goes away. Here again, some believe there might be some chance that federal stimulus monies will be continued. But given the federal budget deficit and a number of other factors, I think that's very unlikely. So we have a double whammy of the stimulus money going away next year, and compounded on that is a deficit that's larger than ever.
N-G: When do you realistically expect something to be resolved in Springfield? Do you think it'll wait until November because of the elections, as far as the long-term picture?
S.I.: Well, I'm the eternal optimist. I think there's an opportunity to take some steps yet this spring, so I think that would be both the most prudent and the most desirable course. ...
Remember that nothing is likely going to happen between the November election and January of 2011. So if we're waiting until after the general election, that means we're waiting for a whole year from now.
N-G: You said (at a press conference last week) that one of the solutions has to be a revenue increase of some kind. Is that realistic given the primary and election schedule?
S.I.: If I were a voter, I think I would look for a candidate who was in touch with reality. And being in touch with reality, it seems to me requires, at least two elements, and I would add a third.
The first element is, we have to stop kidding ourselves and recognize that state government in Illinois is now and has for some time been spending and living beyond its means. So there's no question that state spending needs to be trimmed back.
Secondly, there's absolutely no question that there needs to be revenue increases in the state of Illinois. And that anybody who believes that you can solve our current problem with one or the other of these solutions isn't in touch with reality.
The only third point I'd add, that I mentioned yesterday, I think in doing all of that, we have to remember where the future of this state lies. It lies in our young people, it lies in the vitality of our communities, it lies in the ability to attract and grow jobs in Illinois. And all of that is built on the foundation of strong education, particularly the University of Illinois but going right on down into our elementary and secondary schools. ...
I don't think the general outline of a solution to Illinois' financial crisis is all that difficult to envision. What's difficult is building consensus for action.
N-G: Would you like to see an income tax increase?
S.I.: I think before this is resolved there will be an income tax increase. ... When we talk about revenue increases, I don't think we're talking about riverboat gambling or another penny on a package of cigarettes. So I think that, yes, it's probably going to be some combination of income tax, sales tax or other revenue adjustments that are going to help fill the gap.
N-G: Some union leaders were saying they were happy with the furlough policy as it was laid out in terms of the tiered nature of it – that people like you should take more furlough days. ...
S.I.: Yeah, I thought that would be a hit (laughter).
N-G: But they were saying also that they'd like to see efforts to shift funding away from administrative units to academic units as you look at budget cuts. Have you been doing that?
S.I.: I agree with that. I don't have a problem with that. That's what this work group is all about, that Craig Bazzani and (Vice President) Avijit Ghosh are leading, to look at ways in which we can consolidate administrative services and overhead.
The only postscript I would add to that is we have to remember that administrative and support services distribute themselves throughout the entire hierarchy of the university. So there are central costs at the campus level and the universitywide level that need to be trimmed. But also embedded in each department, each college, each research institute, there are budget officers, there are communication specialists, there are fundraisers and so forth. We need to look at all of these costs, regardless of where they're located.
The fact, though, that we want to give our first priority to teaching and research and service, in the land-grant tradition, I think is precisely on target.
N-G: Could you see any services being contracted – eliminate a campus, eliminate a unit?
S.I.: The first thing you look for rather than elimination is consolidation. We do have academic units on campus that offer very similar programs. You may have a roughly comparable program offered in two or three colleges. So it raises the question, could there be an opportunity for consolidation there that would at the same time save resources and strengthen quality?
In my own prior life as a professor, this just in the last few months, the Department of Educational Policy Studies, Human Resources and Education, and Educational Organization and Leadership, those three departments are in the process of combining. So there will be, as they've called it, synergies or savings that will come out of that that will make the administration of those three departments more efficient, but will enrich and strengthen the faculty base of those units considerably....
If it were possible for relatively small academic units to consolidate and share administrative support services – so that everybody doesn't have to have a communications officer, everybody doesn't have to have a separate budget officer, but you can consolidate operations – that single consolidated unit could serve two or three departments or institutes and centers simultaneously.
Now it's going to take us a long time to sort our way through that. But Chancellor (Robert) Easter, (Provost) Dick Wheeler, the deans, institute directors, the faculty leaders, I think all of us are committed to take a hard run at this. In doing that, I think the key thing is to take the long view. We've done what I hope we will need to do immediately to deal with our cash-flow crisis. But there is a Phase 2 to this, and that has probably got a two- or three-year tail on it.
So we need to be patient to make some decisions now that may not actually yield dividends for two or three years. But if we can make decisions now that will make us stronger, better, more stable, three, four years from now, that's terrific. If we want that benefit, we've got to take some action now.
N-G: Have there been some things already being done along these lines, because of the actions you asked for last fall?
S.I.: I think we're still in the early days. The work group will make its report to the board (on Jan. 21) – it'll be a very preliminary report, an oral report. ... But we'll be at least surfacing more detail about how they're going about their work and the possibilities.
They're focusing on the areas of purchasing. We're a large university, three campuses. We could probably leverage more effectively our purchasing power than we do, and achieve savings for academic departments and colleges.
We spend an awful lot on technology, so some consolidation, rationalization of that area. And being open to wholly new approaches to delivering that support service is certainly one specific thing that we could do.
And then the consolidation of administrative support services.
Those are the three areas that the task force has circled at this point as targets of opportunity.
N-G: Have the budget issues and other fallout affected the search for a president so far?
S.I.: I think the search is moving along splendidly. And given the fact that our budget problems are not unique, or at least we're not the only public university around the country that is grappling with these kinds of issues, I do not think that our budget crisis will have material impact on the search. We're all in the same boat.
I think that the board will be looking for outstanding leadership, the search committee will be looking for outstanding leadership, and the potential candidates will be looking for an outstanding university. And if you didn't have any problems, you wouldn't need a president. And we'd all be out of a job. Presidents welcome challenges, problems. That's kind of red meat to their profession. We're developing a robust pool of candidates. The committee is just exceptionally strong. (Professor) May Berenbaum and (Trustee) Pam Strobel, our vice chair and chair, both are just excellent. So I'm very optimistic on that front.
And I have a personal vested interest in the outcome (laughter).
N-G: You're not a candidate, are you?
S.I.: No, but I want it to get done well, and get done soon.
N-G: Do you have a favorite candidate?
S.I.: No, way too early. And I don't think I should have a favorite candidate even at the end.
N-G: You will not be making a recommendation personally?
S.I.: No. Oh no. I think that would be improper. But I'm going to help the search in any way I can.
N-G: Have you regretted taking this job at all, the interim job?
S.I.: No, I'm having fun. Shouldn't admit that, but... I'm happy to help. I am comforted by the fact that I'm not going to do this for another 16 years. It's a little easier for me to put things in perspective.
I do find that it's unfortunately somewhat easier to exercise my First Amendment rights now than it might have been 20 years ago, so I'll have to be careful on that score. ... I'll probably get myself in more trouble.
N-G: What's it like working with a pretty new board?
S.I.: It is 'died and gone to heaven.' It's a great board. I think the new board will be a material factor in the recruitment of a new president. This is really a fine board, and it has the potential to be an absolutely great board as it gains experience over the next two or three years.
The nice thing about it, it's a brand-new board in the process of recruiting a brand-new president, so there'll be some bonding there that will take place that I think will be just wonderful to see.
Going through this most recent financial crisis, our board was absolutely, fully 100 percent supportive. And yet, there was not a single trustee who grabbed for the steering wheel to alter our course in any way. And that is very comforting to a president, as you're steering through choppy waters, you'd like to believe there's only one captain at the helm at one time. And this board delegated complete authority and responsibility to the administration to do what we felt needed to be done, and at the same time, were totally informed, totally engaged in providing the accountability and the oversight that a board of trustees needs to provide.
So that's the kind of solid governance that I think bodes well for our long-term future.
N-G: Could you contrast that with what it would have been like under the previous board or past boards?
S.I.: I could, but I won't.
N-G: How often do you speak with Chris Kennedy?
S.I.: Frequently. I talk with Chris probably three or four times a week. Talked with him yesterday.
He's very engaged, and very bright, very decisive. I think the nice thing about all members of our board, but particularly Chris Kennedy, is he brings a fresh perspective. And I think that's just great.
N-G: How would you compare this go-round as president to your actual term? Obviously it's shorter, different circumstances, but is the job different?
S.I.: I would say fundamentally the job has not changed. But the biggest change that I see is in communication patterns.
During my last presidency the internet had not yet been invented by Al Gore. And so I did not have a computer in my office. I think my secretary had a computer, and if there was anything I needed to know from her she would come in and tell me. Other than that, all my communication ... my preferred modes of communication were first, walk down the hall and talk face to face. No. 2, call somebody on the telephone. No. 3, hold a meeting. Last resort, write a letter. Now, the pattern of communication is quite different – a constant flow of e-mails, almost 24/7. I get 200, 300 e-mails a day.
And so keeping up with that traffic and being sure that the efficiency of the electronic age does not interfere with the quality and humanity of an earlier age.
The decisions haven't changed. And the people fundamentally haven't changed. And so making sure that you get quality decisions and you get quality communication and that you don't let the electronic chitchat displace more thoughtful, sometimes compassionate exchange. That's the main difference.
The players are somewhat different, but it's remarkable too how stable some of the players are (laughter). I've been gone for a decade and a half, and come back, and it's almost like I just came back to the second act of a two-act play.
N-G: Did you have any personal perceptions or epiphanies between your two terms that changed the way you lead the university now?
S.I.: That's interesting. I think one thing you learn through experience ... it becomes perhaps somewhat easier to place issues in perspective. And to focus on, work on, act on, big things, big issues, critical issues, and not let day-to-day frustrations and minor things bother you all that much. I think when you're younger or newer you haven't yet been around, it's a bigger challenge to sort the wheat from the chaff. In this job it's important to be able to do that, and to keep your sense of humor and keep your energy level up, and your enthusiasm up, even while you may be working 12-hour days, and more than five of them a week. That was part of the job before, but I think it's a little easier for me now.
N-G: Will you be replacing any staff during your time as interim?
S.I.: As part of the administrative work group, one of their charges is to look at administrative streamlining and reorganization. We will be looking not so much at individuals as we will be looking at structure and the opportunities for consolidation. We will also be looking at the smoothing of the interface between my office and the chancellor's office – not the two human beings, but the chancellor/vice chancellor level and the president/vice president level.
N-G: What do you have in mind?
S.I.: Oh, I just thought I'd take over everything (laughter.) No, I don't have any preconceived notions at all. And a lot of the rumors that were out earlier, we were just working our way through the ambiguities of the moment.
N-G: There were rumors that you were going to eliminate the chancellors. That's not going to happen?
S.I.: I don't think so, no. But we are going to take a look at how we can consolidate and smooth and streamline.
N-G: Would that involve fewer vice chancellors and vice presidents?
S.I.: Yes, we ought to have a long-term goal of streamlining and consolidating, and that probably translates into fewer.
These are important jobs, but frankly I've found that sometimes a smaller team is a better team. Maybe better isn't the right word. A smaller team can be easier for a leader to work with. At least I've found a smaller, very high-skilled, very talented team was easier for me to work with than a larger group of people. (It) simplifies the lines of communication.
N-G: Do you have anything in the works for early retirement packages ... for faculty and academic professionals?
S.I.: Yes, there is a study under way right now on the Urbana campus for, I wouldn't call it an early reitrement package, because we've used that term earlier in terms of a whole big state program. We're not talking about that kind of thing. But if during this window of both necessity and opportunity, if we can provide incentives for faculty members and staff members also to make retirement decisions we think this is probably a good time for both them and us to be able to do that. ...
I have reviewed with Chancellor Easter some preliminary plans on that. I think it's fairly certain the campus will go forward with such a program in the near future. How near that is I don't know. But we're talking weeks, not months. I think that will be coming along.
Whether the other two campuses will adopt that program or not remains to be seen. I think some of the issues faced by the Urbana campus are somewhat different from those at Springfield and Chicago. And I'm very comfortable with this program going forth in Urbana, and a different approach on retirements being taken in Springfield and Chicago.