Timothy L. Killeen

President, University of Illinois System

Timothy L. Killeen took office as the 20th president of the University of Illinois System in May 2015. In the first months of his presidency, he led the development of an ambitious new Strategic Framework to guide the system and its universities in Chicago, Springfield, and Urbana- Champaign. AKA|Strategy assisted in developing the Framework, which was adopted by the U of I Board of Trustees in May 2016. The system and universities began implementation quickly, many initiatives of which are described below. 

Earlier this year, AKA spoke with President Killeen to reflect on the process through which the U of I System Strategic Framework was created, the changes it led to, and other outcomes in the three years since its release. Subsequent to this conversation, the state of Illinois released its budget with the largest increase in state funding for higher education in nearly three decades.

Why Strategic Planning? 

AKA|STRATEGY: Shortly after you assumed the Presidency nearly four years ago, you led the development of a Strategic Framework for the University of Illinois System. What was your motivation for doing so, and what do you believe were the greatest accomplishments of the process and resulting Framework? 

TIM KILLEEN: As a new president, I obviously did my homework in looking at all the existing documentation and, of course, reviewing the recent history of the institution. Since I had a six-month period in sort of an apprenticeship, working closely with the former president, I had a good sense of where the institution was by the time I actually began.

In my previous jobs I’ve always done strategic plans. I am a big believer in the discipline that the planning process brings. There wasn’t an active University of Illinois System strategic plan at the time, and I felt that we needed one that, in particular, included a vision that would clarify the relationships among the individual constituent parts of the U of I System. I thought that reaching consensus on these would reflect the intrinsic importance and excellence of the institution and raise the aspirational bar for the system. I also believed that as a new president part of my job was to have the deep conversations necessary to establish broad ownership of a very exciting future—one that we could imagine and deliver on. 

The Strategic Planning Process 

As you know from working with us, I’m delighted at the success of our planning process. I’m referring to several things. 

First, we wanted the planning process to meaningfully involve many different stakeholders, internal and external. We designed an open, transparent process that allowed all voices to be heard and made emerging drafts of the plan easily available so its ideas could be widely discussed and refined—with the goal that by the end of the process there would be widespread, pervasive ownership of the plan by everyone who had a stake in it. 

Second, it was important that it would be a framework rather than a detailed plan. I felt, and still feel, that sometimes plans emerge from complicated processes that set up lots of task forces, each detailing, for example, “item” And the result is that they focus too much effort on debating the minutia of their specific areas rather than on creating a plan that provides a directional setting for the institution. I didn’t want to go down that path. I wanted a document that was highly aspirational and had staying power. 

I think we accomplished these. The Strategic Framework was the product of at least a dozen town hall meetings. We posted multiple drafts. There were writing teams. We had a committee structure that provided broad representation of our stakeholders. As a result, I believe—and I’ve said this many times— that this is the authentic institutional voice of the University of Illinois System. And that is important to be able to say publicly. It’s not my concept or a board of trustees’ concept; it’s our authentic institutional voice. 

Because it’s a high-level framework, it provides a context that allows for many elements to be connected. I sometimes think of it, visually, as a coat rack with a lot of hooks. Each university chancellor and each college dean can find a hook in the Framework that they like and elaborate on it. The Framework isn’t written in a command and control voice: “this is what has to happen by the….” Instead, it’s a statement of who we are and what we aspire to be. And it’s also a celebration of our legacy and the U of I System’s future. 

Further, one of our greatest accomplishments is that the Framework is a short read. That’s always hard to achieve because so much material is generated in the planning process. The Framework is only 20 pages—and that’s with many photos and callouts. You can get through it quickly. That’s allowed us to use it extensively and consciously. We’ve left many copies on many tables. 

Our stakeholders have seen the Framework, and they’re excited by it. The first year after its publication, I gave a series of broad presentations in public settings where we described the pillars of the Framework and reported on the actions that had been generated in response. Everybody knew what the Strategic Framework was. We used it as a recruiting tool for the new chancellor of Urbana-Champaign and with others whom we’ve hired. It’s not a document that has gathered any dust, nor is it a document that has raised undue expectations. It set a direction for the system, and we follow that direction. 

Rethinking the “System” 

One of the most strategic outcomes was that we started using the word “system” explicitly to describe ourselves. That was an important decision point—a collective decision that our community wanted to embrace the concept of a system. It means that rather than three “campuses” in a single monolithic “university,” we have three universities in a synergistic system. We had gotten some questioning over the years about the idea that we should act as a system—a response, I guess, to the fear that a central system office would set direction for the individual universities. But I believe that the way we conceived of the University of Illinois System during the planning process translated into a sense of empowerment for the universities.

I am a believer in the principle of subsidiarity—that decision making is usually most effective when it’s close to the action. That led in part to a branding and marketing effort that is now culminating in what we call the “altogether extraordinary” initiative, where the system is “altogether extraordinary.” We’ve trademarked that term. It has several meanings, but importantly each university has its own color, brand, and distinctive attributes. They’ve each appointed chief marketing officers. We are both lifting up the individual universities—making their distinctive assets more visible—and connecting them at the system level, where we’re taking more of a statewide, Midwest-wide advocacy perspective. 

All of this, I believe, has been highly successful. If we were even to suggest going back, there would now be opposition. 

The Results 

I’m regularly asked, “How’s it going?” I say the process has been extremely successful, and the Framework itself still has a lot of shelf life. The process was an inclusive one, and that’s led to a number of helpful things. 

First, we had our biggest philanthropic year ever last year. And we are in another wonderful position for the coming year. Stability of leadership, signs pointing to an aspirational future—these are all important to our external constituencies and help build their trust and confidence. 

It probably helped that we weathered a difficult period, an impasse where the state budget didn’t go down; it went away for two years. And that shared adversity frankly focused our energy and attention on the Strategic Framework and what we really held as our shared values. We are building on these now to create what we call “guiding principles,” derived from the Strategic Framework. 

You may remember that we said in the Framework that we want to develop urban innovation at scale. Building on that, we now have an initiative called the Discovery Partners Institute that I think is the envy of most schools—land donated to us in downtown Chicago, partners from all over the world, and an emphasis on solving the big social-technical challenges that the world needs us to address.

There are some university presidents who’ve asked me personally, “How did you do that? How can we do that in our state?” Because the half a billion dollars that was appropriated to build out the Discovery Partners Institute is, I believe, unprecedented. It’s still in an initial phase, but we have very high-end, very energized international partners, which is again consistent with our Framework. 

Also derived from the Framework, we now have an Illinois Innovation Network that has participation from every public university in Illinois. In fact, as we speak, there is a summit going on with leadership from all of Illinois’ 12 public universities. The Deputy Governor, Jesse Ruiz, is spending time with us there. So we are leading a charge on innovation not just in Chicago but across Illinois—upstate, downstate, rural, and appropriate for the individual regions. There has been strong bipartisan support for this part of our legislative agenda, and it’s faring well. It has allowed us to really take the high ground during the budget impasse. 

All of these are exciting results and, I think, unique opportunities that have come out of the Framework—out of the process of setting direction, of getting everyone to roll in the same general direction but without the level of specificity that undermines enthusiasm. If a vision or a plan is too dogmatic or doctrinaire, people will embrace it for a while, but then their attention will turn elsewhere. 

The Public’s University 

The title has also played really well. We call ourselves “The Public’s University.” It always gets a laugh when I say this might have been a quote from Abraham Lincoln. It isn’t, but he should have said it! 

People know what it means. They know what it means in Chicago, in the business community, in Carbondale, in rural southern Illinois. They know that it’s a commitment. And part of this is our commitment to affordability. We have frozen tuition for five straight years, and with the four-year tuition guarantee this means that—because of the Framework and our commitment—the student who graduates in 2022 will be paying the same tuition as her sister did in 2014. That is a decade of cost containment— something I don’t think you’ll see in many places—and we haven’t raised tuition a dime for in-state residents. 

Based on a strategic enrollment plan that grew out of the Framework, our enrollment has grown. We are at 86,000 students now, and we’re on track to get to 93,000 through growth in targeted ways, in areas where there is demand. 

We learned an important lesson early in the planning process. Right after we circulated some of our earliest drafts, we had a town hall meeting in Springfield, our smallest campus. A young professor stood up, prefaced her comments by describing herself as a millennial, and then called the draft, in her words, “a real snoozer.” She read some of the initial headlines out loud, along with how she’d rewritten them. And hers were better. So we put her on the planning committee. (To her surprise, probably.) 

She was right. We had to listen carefully not just to the usual choir but to the other members of the system. And I haven’t since heard the charge that it’s a boring strategic vision. It’s full of aspiration. 

It’s helped build credibility and momentum that people are seeing our follow on: I already mentioned the Discovery Partners Institute. And faculty recruitment—we’re going after top talent. We put $16 million into a pot to recruit established scholars. We made 16 offers, 14 accepted—from Duke, Harvard, Texas A&M, the Max Planck Institute, and similar places. And they brought $28 million of active research funding with them. So the ROI on our $16 million was, on day one, a factor of two. 

The Framework helps us avoid under-reaching. It has an aspirational, “can-do” tone, a voice of “we’re going to go for it.” I’d rather we be known for over-reaching and sometimes failing than for limiting ourselves by under-reaching. It’s an exciting time for us. Every metric is now positive: demand, enrollment growth, research, philanthropy, collegiality, and stability of our leadership group. And that helps the Board of Trustees be more of an advocate, gets the public’s attention, attracts the interest of legislators, and so forth. 

The View From Outside 

AKA: All that is among your stake-holders. We’re curious about other folks, with less at stake immediately. You mentioned the attention other presidents have paid to all this. What’s caught their attention? What do they think you’ve done well? What do you say when they want to know what the “magic” is? 

TK: Let me give you a little anecdote without mentioning the name of the university president. That president sees what is going on in Illinois and worries aloud, “Well, we couldn’t do this in our state. Our state is so dysfunctional.” Our team laughed— like you’re laughing at this right now, and probably for the same reason—Illinois has been the poster child for dysfunction! So our response was “we surf the dysfunction.” 

The coin has dropped for us. We’re not going to anyone with cap in hand, asking for this and another thing. Instead, we’re driving the agenda. We’re clear about who we are and where we want to go. We can also do so because we’re big. Our budget is about $7 billion annually; that’s a big number. One in every 46 jobs in the state; 2% of the state GDP, etc., etc. We are demonstrating our worth. And we have now a caucus, a bipartisan legislative caucus that is 64 members of about 177 in the state legislature. And with them, we are driving the agenda. 

It was the budget impasse that made us realize it was time for us to lead the way rather than wait for pennies. Other states have seen that. We are leading an effort on infrastructure right now with the University of Iowa and the University of Missouri— roads, bridges, dams, coverts. There are areas like this where our leadership can actually galvanize the whole Midwest to address issues of national importance. We talk about this a lot. We’re not just about Illinois; we want to have impact on this entire region—draw attention to this “flyover” region as a place where people can live well, raise families in affordable houses, and so on. We can have that kind of impact. It’s part of the case we make when we recruit faculty, and I think it’s working. And we’ve just started. I think we’ve gotten attention for the right reasons, instead of for dysfunction. 

We want to be known for substantive momentum, the kind that turns heads, not just eyes. I think we are getting to that point— even the Chicago Tribune is saying “watch what’s going on”—with respect to affordability, access, success, partnering. Just this week we announced a $100 million gift to the College of Engineering. There aren’t so many gifts of that size! People who make those decisions aren’t just generous; they need to know with confidence and trust that this university system is going places. We’ve launched a $3.1 billion campaign. We want to stay Midwest humble but become substantively more aspirational. We’re not trying to brag; we’re trying to show. I think the Framework, and the values we derived from it, helped us with that. 

The Future of the Land-Grant University 

AKA: What does all this lead to in terms of your hopes and aspirations for the system over the next decade? 

TK: We are moving quickly now to reinvent “the land grant university system for the 21st century,” as we put it in the Framework. We are asserting what that will look like. I think it’s open, it’s affordable, it’s engaging, it’s societally committed, it’s both urban and rural, it’s international, it’s participatory, it’s all about public good, it’s about success, beyond just credentials. And, importantly, it has nothing to do with rankings. 

We want to be bold and full of impact. And we want to demonstrate that impact at the scale we command, in a state the size of the Netherlands. We have 390,000 living, voting alumni in the state, and a total of 750,000 around the world. Activating our excellence at that scale is essential for the kind of impact we want to have. 

Shortly after the Framework came out, I developed this hokey expression, “Optimizing Impact.” And people asked, if optimizing impact is what we are about, how do you define that? So I came up with an equation, which I’ve used a lot: I for impact, equals E times S, excellence and scale, respectively, raised to the power of “magic.” 

What do I mean by “magic”? Magic is interdisciplinary, i t ’s aspiration, it’s teamwork, it ’s partnering—all the intangibles that make a great university— it’s celebrating advances, being present, creating legislative solutions rather than whining about legislative problems. And if that magic exponent gets to two or three, then watch out. Because we’ve already got the excellence; we’ve already got the scale. 

The smaller private schools that are highly ranked have the excellence, undisputedly, but they don’t have the scale. We have to maintain our excellence and our scale, and then we’ve got to grow this exponent. I believe that’s something we can do in an unbelievable way in the next five to ten years. Take our innovation agenda as an example. It’s five times bigger than the Cornell-Technion initiative that Bloomberg got started in New York. We are talking about open innovation, on the river in downtown Chicago, with billions of dollars going toward innovation that will lift the surrounding communities as well. 

Importantly, in terms of impact, we don’t only want to create wealth and IPOs, which has been the past. We want to create social equity. That’s directly out of the Framework. We have a chance to demonstrate that one can create social good, and social welfare, and human prosperity—and, yes, wealth, too—and, with the heft the system brings to the table, connect with partners in other states and regions to solve the nation’s and the world’s problems. 

Challenges of the National Higher Education Scene 

AKA: Let’s move from Illinois to higher education more broadly. What do you believe are the most pressing issues for higher education in this country at the moment? 

TK: Public confidence and trust in higher education have significantly eroded and are continuing to erode. We need to regain public confidence and trust in the whole enterprise. A lot of that is in the financial domain, because families are concerned about how much college costs. The value proposition has got to be there. We are working on this in Illinois by being transparent, by not trying to hide our warts, and so forth. 

Additionally, we’ve got to make sure that all our students feel truly welcome. So building an inclusive and welcoming campus culture is another important problem in higher education. The challenges that come with this have been exacerbated by social media, which higher education has not anticipated and reacted to quickly enough. At a time when news spreads almost instantaneously on social media, I think higher education needs to be much more assertive about its messaging, marketing, celebrating, demonstrating, and explaining. 

We also have to diversify our funding streams without going down a path that is antithetical to our values. A shared set of values needs to guide us in everything we do. We need to state our values upfront— even if they’re motherhood and apple pie, they’ve got to be on our masthead. And if we want people to believe in them, we’ve got to make reference to them when we make difficult decisions, demonstrate we’re committed to them. We can’t just be a set of policies—you know, “Here’s what happens when you infringe on something”—from which people try to guess what we stand for. We need to demonstrate that the policies we put in place and the decisions we make are guided by a set of well-understood and shared values. 

Coming back to public confidence in higher education, I don’t think that we currently have the constellation of leaders and leadership structures that we need to propel public understanding about higher education. Unfortunately, this country is increasingly going down a hyper-partisan track, which makes it more difficult to have reasoned public discourse about the role of higher education and why institutions like the University of Illinois System are more important than ever. I’m now on the board of the American Council on Education. I hope I can influence it and similar organizations to be more concerned about the leadership role we need to play and explore ways to address it. 

Leadership and Stability 

AKA: What haven’t we asked you that we should have? 

TK: Well, I’m conscious that I might come across as: “Everything is just so fantastic here!” And we have made massive progress from where the system was—I think that’s objectively demonstrated. However, we were probably in a bit of a hole, due in part to leadership churn. This is critically important—I think stability is underestimated. Leadership turmoil can set institutions back years. I learned that in spades. 

And conversely, the stability you create by building a principled, collegial leadership team radiates throughout the organization and reassures people. I think presidencies at large universities and university systems should probably be ten years if one really wants to stabilize the ship, set a clear vision, and make real progress toward it. Setting the direction and living with it is really important. 

In a few weeks, I’ll have been president for four years. I was told yesterday that I have now been president longer than the average of recent presidents at the U of I—which I think is amazing because I feel like I’ve just arrived. From what I understand, the leadership transitions at the system and the universities were chaotic in the four, five, six years before I came on board, so just being here this length of time has helped us. 

I joke sometimes that my job now is just to breathe in and breathe out. We’ve got the Framework; that’s where we’re going. I just have to breathe in and breathe out, and I’m contributing. Which, in light of all we’re doing, is a strange thing to say, right?

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