The first day for a university president Timothy Killeen has had lots of on-the-job training since that day in mid-November when he arrived at Chicago's Midway Airport to accept his new position at the University of Illinois.
There to greet him at the bottom of the escalator was his predecessor, current UI President Robert Easter.
The two had never met; Easter was holding a photo of Killeen so he'd be sure not to miss him.
It was the night before the announcement, and Killeen and his wife, Roberta, went to dinner with Bob and Cheryl Easter.
The two presidents hit it off and have worked closely together ever since, on decisions big and small — including a tuition freeze and the creation of a new medical school in Urbana.
The unusual arrangement was designed to provide a smooth transition for Killeen, former vice chancellor for research at the State University of New York, who officially takes over as UI president on Monday.
At first Easter was uncomfortable with the idea: "You're going to name someone and then the old guy's going to hang around for six months?"
Both were in deferential mode for a while, each offering to "sit in the back," Killeen said. "I was very careful that everybody knew who was the president and who was not the president."
Over time, Easter has deferred to Killeen more and more, "because it affects his time, his watch."
In the decision to endorse the new medical school in March, Easter wrote a rough draft of the statement to the board; Killeen added the "absolutely critical" line that the two medical schools would be collaborative by design, Easter said.
"We tend to think about things in a similar way," Easter said. "He's been very respectful of my responsibilities and I've tried to respect his increasing role."
The UI worked out an arrangement for Killeen to reduce his time at SUNY while he gradually took on more responsibilities in Illinois. He was paid $200 an hour for his UI work, or about $47,200 — 12 hours a week in January and February, 16 hours a week in March and April, and 40 hours a week since April 22, according to the UI. He will take on his full $600,000 presidential salary on Monday.
Killeen has already moved some things into the UI President's House and stays there when he's in Urbana. His wife will remain in Albany until their son, Cormac, 17, graduates from high school, then join him here. Killeen will also spend significant time in Chicago, but said, "I'm going to be an Urbana resident. I've met many members of the community already and feel wonderfully welcome there."
Easter will formally hand over the presidential regalia to Killeen at the Springfield commencement, the last of the day.
Whereupon Killeen will face plenty of challenges — from a UI budget under duress to faculty discontent over the Steven Salaita controversy to allegations that arose last week about the UI's football program.
Perhaps the biggest? Sticking to his agenda as crises pop up.
"That's the hardest reality," said former UI President B. Joseph White, who knew Killeen at the University of Michigan.
We asked the UI's past, current and future presidents for their thoughts on what's ahead.
The budget ...
The state budget crisis tops Killeen's to-do list, as the university works through how it might shoulder a potential 31.5 percent state funding cut — or roughly $208 million.
"I'm actually optimistic that it won't be that bad," Killeen said Tuesday, on his way to Springfield for legislative meetings.
The university is not immune from responsibility in solving the state's budget problems, but "I'm making the case wherever I can: This is a very important institution to the state of Illinois," he said. "We're going to make it cogently, we're going to make it with data, we're going to demonstrate the value we bring to the table."
Killeen has visited Springfield with Easter and on his own, meeting with Gov. Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton, as well as their chiefs of staff and committee chairs.
This article appeared in The News-Gazette on May 17, 2015.
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