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The Sunday Sitdown: Outgoing U of I President Robert Easter talks about his time at the helm

University of Illinois President Robert Easter talked to the Sun-Times last week about his legacy after three years of trying to stabilize a school that has had five different presidents in the last seven years. Easter, who’s been with the school for nearly four decades in faculty and leadership roles, was charged with righting the ship in the wake of several controversies, including an admissions scandal under former president Joseph White, and a relationship with faculty that soured beyond repair under Easter’s predecessor, Michael Hogan.

As president, Easter, 68, oversees three campuses and a university hospital and health system with expenditures exceeding $5 billion. In June he will pass the keys to the University to space scientist Tim Killeen.

Is the admissions scandal in which politicians used clout to gain entry for preferred students still something that comes up often?

“There was a year or two there where it was a regular topic of most conversations … now people don’t bring that subject up,” said Easter, citing safeguards since put in place.

What has your biggest impact been on student life?

“In this role you really don’t interact with students that much. I hope the impact that I’ve had relates to the quality of the reputation of the institution — that individuals, when they’re 20, 30 years down the road, will say ‘Where’d you graduate from?’, and they’ll say ‘University of Illinois’ with pride, and it will engender respect, and I hope I’ve been part of that.”

Was that futuristic scenario in jeopardy before you took this job?

“I think the admissions scandal, if we call it that, precipitated a period of uncertainty and a lack of trust, if you will. It’s unfortunate. There were good people that were doing things they thought they should do that were harmed by this, and there’s no need to go into that . . . and then the turmoil around my predecessor’s role, who frankly had good ideas in many instances, but the process for getting it done just didn’t work out, and I think that created a degree of a sense of maybe we lost our direction, maybe we’re not what we once were, and I think we’re past that. At least, I hope we are.”

Do you feel like you accomplished what you set out to?

“I think one of the mandates was to stabilize, if we can use that word, and restore credibility to the leadership, and I think we’ve managed to do that.”

What is the downside of the job?

“When I met with Chris Kennedy (former head of the university’s board of directors) over at the Merchandise Mart in his private office to talk about this [job], I said, ‘Chris, I’m an old man, I’ll give you six days a week, but I’ve got to have a day every week to take off and rest,’ and his response was ‘Bob, suck it up.’ I didn’t really appreciate what that really meant. It’s a seven-day-a-week job and in many senses 24 hours . . . you’re just never away from it, and that’s been a bit of a surprise, in my previous areas of responsibility — I’ve been in leadership roles now for almost 20 years — there’s always been a few days that you could just kick back and not worry about, but that’s not the case in this role.

Do you lose sleep because of this job?

“I guess I’m at that point in life that I really don’t. And it’s not that I don’t worry about things, it’s not that I don’t have concerns about individuals and the impacts that our decisions have. But it’s just simply the realization that somehow we’ll figure it out — and go to bed, get a good night sleep, get up the next morning and deal with it.”

Do you have plans to teach again?

“To be clear, I won’t be working, I won’t expect compensation, but my life has been the university and there are things that I have thoroughly enjoyed doing and teaching is one of them, and I hope to continue doing that. I don’t expect I’ll have a full-time course, I’ll be lecturing in other individuals’ courses.”

What was your last conversation like with Chris Kennedy before he stepped down as board chair earlier this month?

“My conversation was, ‘Thank you’ for what he’s done. Earlier this week, I sat down and wrote a letter to Chris just expressing my personal respect for an individual who had really no responsibility to take on the role that he did, and he did it and really devoted an enormous amount of time to the University of Illinois, and in the process I think came to understand us and perhaps, more broadly, public education.”

Do you plan to keep an open line to your successor?

“I want to be available when he calls. I think its important for someone such as myself when you leave the office to not be, in a sense, visible, but be on the sidelines and available, but not be in a position where some might expect you to criticize the new leader or make opinions about decisions. I don’t want to be in that position. What I’ve said to him is ‘We’re staying in the community, I’ll be available, but you’ll have to call me. I won’t be knocking on your door.’”

On Governor Bruce Rauner and his focus to revive the state’s economy, and interacting with the new regime in Springfield:

“The expectation will be that we fulfill our responsibility to contribute to the work force and be a source of innovation. . . . It’s a learning process at this point. They’re learning about us and what we can contribute and what we need to do that, and we’re learning how to interact with that group.”

Has there been a jump in the number of in-state applications since freezing tuition earlier this month?

“I think it’s probably too early to know that. . . . What I think it will have is an impact on the number of in-state students who accept our offer.”

Do you ever yearn for a the simpler times when you worked with animals? (Easter’s background is in animal science; he is an expert in swine nutrition.)

“Absolutely.”

Any movement on University of Illinois at Chicago’s bid to host the Obama Presidential Library?

“To the best of my knowledge, no. I’ve been pleased that we’ve made it to this point in the competition. I think we have a very good proposal on the table. One of the challenges is, we have limited resources.”

What are your fondest memories?

“Getting to know people. . . . The people who come to work every day and do their jobs. . . . The custodian in Urbana, he greets me every day when I come in and we stop and have a chat. I enjoy that.”

What are you looking forward to planting this season in your garden near the Champaign/Urbana campus?

“I grew up in the South, in Texas, and I’m fond of okra, so I grow my own.”

What can be learned from the faculty employment flaps with James Kilgore (a part-time instructor previously involved with the Symbionese Liberation Army) and Steven Salaita (whose job offer was rescinded after he made anti-Israel comments)?

“The board is not and we are not opposed to hiring individuals who have either some criminal record in their history or who have done things that are controversial. In fact, sometimes you really want those kinds of individuals in the academy to provoke discussion and consideration of all sides of an issue. The challenge was to put in place a process so that when one of those individuals was being considered, there was an appropriate review. And we’re drafting a policy, a human resource policy, that does that.”

University of Illinois President Robert Easter is leaving that post in June. He'll stay in the community, though, he says. |  Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times

University of Illinois President Robert Easter is leaving that post in June. He’ll stay in the community, though, he says. | Brian Jackson/ Sun-Times

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of Robert Easter’s predecessor, Michael Hogan.