New U. of I. President Tim Killeen vows not to change tuition freeze this year

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The new president of the University of Illinois, Tim Killeen, describes himself as an optimist. So optimistic, in fact, he believes the university can find enough of its own spending cuts and funding resources to avoid a proposed “significantly damaging” 31.5 percent state budget cut while still keeping intact a freshmen tuition freeze.

“We are committed to not changing the tuition freeze for this year,” Killeen said in a meeting with the Sun-Times editorial board to introduce his leadership team on his second day on the job.

Incoming Illinois freshmen at the University of Illinois in Fall 2015 will get a break — the school’s first tuition freeze since the 1993-94 school year.

The tuition freeze has already attracted 1,100 more potential freshmen at the Urbana and Chicago campuses combined — 600 in Urbana and 500 in Chicago — for the Fall 2015 than in Fall 2014, Killeen said. Those numbers are not final, since some students, though admitted, will decide to attend another university or do something else.

The university remains committed to increasing revenue from tuition, Killeen said, noting the university is working to increase enrollment at its graduate and professional studies programs.

Under Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget proposal, presented Feb. 18, state funding for higher education would drop by 31.5 percent. That would mean slashing $209 million in state appropriations to the University of Illinois — a public land-grant institution that Killeen described as a $5.6 billion enterprise that provides jobs, innovation, health care, opportunities for new technologies and diplomas for about 20,000 students who are graduated each year.

Killeen conceded there is “no low-hanging fruit” left in which to make quick, easy budget cuts. He said he and his leadership team are fashioning a new strategic plan for the university and looking for spending reductions in academic programs, central administrative services and pension regulatory relief, and will seek new money from philanthropic and research sources.

“We’re going to make the case as cogently as we can that public investment in [the University of Illinois] is something to preserve and build,” he said. “That growth is going to involve a knowledge-based economy.”

“We’re not going to trade off excellence in order to lower our costs.”

Killeen said he was heartened by the goodwill he experienced during his 45-minute meeting with Rauner, as well as in meetings with state legislators, alumni and donors in the six months since the university’s board of trustees hired him.

Killeen is spending his first three days meeting with journalists and holding town hall meetings with students, faculty and the public at the university’s campuses in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield.

Asked about the proposed budget cuts later in the day by a retired teacher at the UIC town hall forum, Killeen said, “I don’t think it’s going to happen to that degree of severity. It was the beginning of a political process that will be unfolding over the next few weeks.”

Killeen said the university is joining with others to work toward a budget process that wouldn’t lurch from crisis to crisis.

Two students who identified themselves as undocumented immigrants asked Killeen whether he would change existing policies that prohibit them from obtaining financial aid and from serving as a student representative on the university’s board of trustees.

Killeen said he supports “incorporating fully” students who are here illegally, including supporting changes that need to be made in state and federal laws.

“They belong; we embrace them,” he said. “I admire the passion you bring to the table.”

Killeen also is facing a new crisis during his first 36 hours in the job: The university’s women’s basketball coach and associate coach are being accused of mistreating players, forcing them to play with injuries, failing to handle injuries in a timely manner and using racist language. The allegations come in the wake of allegations that the football coach has mistreated players.

Asked whether the university’s athletics program needed a complete overhaul, Killeen said, “If we uncover things that are serious and require remediation, we will act.”

“The right steps have been taken to find out what’s happened, why it is happening,” he said. “If there are questions, we’ll look into that too.”

“It’s a reputational risk, certainly, but we hold as a central value the health and well being of our students,” he said. “We take that kind of thing extremely seriously.”

The university may also see new courses of study at its campuses to take advantage of growth trends in the work force and the economy.

Killeen said he favors opening a proposed new engineering-based medical school at the Urbana-Champaign campus, which would be separate from UIC’s College of Medicine.

“To have two medical schools — one new, one venerated, is a fantastic opportunity,” he said. “We’re talking trillions of dollars in health care.”

“We have to take advantage of our assets,” said Killeen, who noted his former employer, the State University of New York, has four medical schools.

UIC’s new chancellor, Michael D. Amiridis, didn’t rule out adding a law school or a journalism school at the Chicago campus.

“Not having a public [university] law school in Chicago is missing an opportunity,” said Amiridis, who was named UIC chancellor in December. But he noted any discussion about a law school is “purely hypothetical.”

“Demand is at an all-time low [for lawyers],” he said.

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