U of Ill. president says troubles hurt ranking

Friday, September 24, 2010

URBANA, Ill. — The University of Illinois' new president said Thursday that stagnant faculty pay, along with last year's admissions scandal, the state's financial mess and the legal troubles of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, have hurt the school's national image.

President Michael Hogan told university trustees that the school needs to become more financially self-sufficient so it doesn't have to wait for state money to help to improve its standing. He noted that the university fell in this year's U.S. News & World Report ranking, from 39th to 47th.

The university's usual public stance is that it doesn't much care about the magazine's closely watched annual report on colleges and universities. But Hogan said high rankings help faculty get research grants and the school attract and keep faculty, as well as provide a measure of how the school performs against its peers.

"This is not a beauty contest, a lot of people think it is," Hogan told trustees at their quarterly meeting on the Urbana-Champaign campus. "There is a grand power attached to (top) status that pays dividends for the university."

Last year's news that some politically connected students were admitted to the Urbana-Champaign campus in spite of lackluster academic credentials led the resignation of Hogan's predecessor, B. Joseph White. That, along with Blagojevich's high-profile criminal case, hurt the university in a portion of the magazine's annual rankings based on the impressions of peer universities, Hogan said.

The school, along with every other public university in Illinois, has grown accustomed to waiting for payments from as state lawmakers struggled with a $13 billion deficit. The University of Illinois is owed $40 million from the fiscal year that ended in June and another $205 million -- and counting -- from the current year.

State money makes up only 17 percent of the university budget, but even that degree of dependence puts the university in "a very tough spot," said Board of Trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy.

"I don't know that we have great confidence that the state is going to resolve that crisis (soon)," Kennedy said.

The university is already looking at ways to get money from other sources, including federal research dollars and alumni, Hogan and trustee Ed McMillan said.

Hogan said the university also needs to look harder for ways to save money, and to make cuts in areas that aren't strictly focused on teaching and research. The school already went through a round of faculty buyouts it said are saving about $1.4 million a month.

The university needs to direct money it saves to better faculty pay, which will improve the school's ranking and the quality of the education it offers, Hogan said. He said a key reason the ranking dropped is stagnant paychecks.

"You'll hear this form faculty and they're absolutely right," Hogan said. "Faculty compensation is absolutely (a) culprit."

Robert Easter, the interim chancellor at the Urbana-Champaign campus, said during the meeting that 25 faculty members left for better-paying jobs elsewhere after the last schools year. They were paid an average $106,000 a year at the University of Illinois but $168,000 in their new positions, which the school couldn't match, he said.

Carl Woese, a highly regarded biology professor, was honored by the university earlier during Thursday's meeting, and he used the occasion to bolster Easter's point.

"There are people thinking of leaving this place who were never thinking of that before," he told the trustees, saying the current "brain drain" and has created a sense of hopelessness among some faculty.

Joyce Tolliver, an associate professor of Spanish and chair of its Faculty Senate executive committee, said she was encouraged to hear administrators talk about improving faculty pay. But she noted that faculty pay has been essentially flat for three years.

"Where's the money going to come from?" she asked outside the meeting.