Monday, July 6, 2020

‘This is how I can help’ / UIS interim chancellor takes reigns amid pandemic

University of Illinois Springfield interim Chancellor Karen Whitney was clear-eyed when she accepted the yearlong appointment earlier this year.

Among the challenges staring her down: an unprecedented public health crisis that has significantly altered the delivery of academic services, great social upheaval as institutions across the country confront uncomfortable truths on race and ensuring that other major university initiatives, such as the construction of the Springfield Innovation Center, don’t get lost in the shuffle.

These circumstances are exactly what attracted Whitney to the job.

“This is how I can help,” Whitney said in an interview with The State Journal-Register last week. “I’m not in science or public health. If I could, I’d go to a lab and I would make the vaccine that would keep us safe. I can’t do those things, but I know how to run a university and work with a lot of people and that’s how I’m going to help.”

She takes over for Chancellor Emeritus Susan Koch, whose retirement became official last week after nine years leading the Springfield campus.

Whitney laid out her list of goals and priorities she hopes to accomplish during her limited tenure in Springfield. At the top of this list is meeting the moment the country currently finds itself in, she said.

“So the goal is to work with the university, the faculty, the staff and students to ensure the university continues to provide high quality teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Whitney said. “That’s job one. Job two is to embrace this incredible moment we’re in and to continue the university’s work around anti-racism and social justice.”

Though the plan now is to welcome students back to campus this fall, Whitney acknowledged that it can change on a dime.

Whitney said the response to the pandemic and social unrest in the country are top priorities. But, this won’t distract her from the other important work to be done, she said.

Whitney said she plans to work with the university’s enrollment team to improve recruitment efforts of both graduate and undergraduate students. This includes implementing the Common Application, an admission application that allow students to apply for hundreds of schools at once verses applying for each individually.

Whitney said she would work to continue implementing the university’s strategic plan, secure a new collective bargaining agreement with university faculty and reach out to the Springfield community as Koch did.

She will also continue the push for the development of the Springfield Innovation Center, which will be the first hub of the Illinois Innovation Network.

Yet even on borrowed time, Whitney said don’t expect her to be a caretaker chancellor.

“This year is going to be a very busy year, it’s going to be one with unprecedented existential threats that we will respond to,” Whitney said. “And it’s a year though, because of that, to take stock, and to advance on what we do really well, and to be clear that we always need to innovate, create and improve. So I would say, hang on, it’s gonna be a busy year.”

This article appeared in The State Journal-Register on July 5, 2020.