Categories:  University

Easter starts job as UI president

President Bob Easter

Robert Easter, who officially became the University of Illinois’ 19th president Sunday, speaks with journalists and staff Monday. “I truly look forward to the time before us,” he says. Photo: L. Brian Stauffer

“I can’t tell you the privilege I feel serving in this role,” Bob Easter told journalists and staff members Monday as he began his first official workday as 19th president of the University of Illinois.

“I’ve had so many people come to me during this transition and express their support,” Easter said to the group gathered in the lobby of the Henry Administration Building office on the Urbana-Champaign campus.

“I truly look forward to the time before us.”

Easter, former dean of the Urbana College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, served as president-designate for three months after the March 22 resignation of President Michael Hogan.

Easter said he spent some of that time becoming more familiar with the issues facing the university and each of the three campuses.

“(The Urbana campus) has been my only professional home,” he said. “It’s been great getting to meet the faculty and staff members (from the other campuses).”

Each campus has its own “unique role” in improving the lives of the state’s residents, he said, and it will take the hard work of staff and faculty members at all three campuses to “expand our rich legacy.”

Easter has been lobbying on the university’s behalf before the Illinois Legislature, which has targeted state employees’ pension and health benefits to reduce costs and a burgeoning state deficit. He also spoke with lawmakers about a host of other university-related issues.

“Those legislators are truly critical (to the university’s mission),” he said.

Despite fiscal challenges and the high number of employees retiring, Easter said the university is still competitive compared to other universities and remains “an attractive place to work.”

A top priority is finalizing next fiscal year’s budget, which will reflect a 6 percent reduction in state funding, he said.

The change in leadership has not diminished the problems facing the university, which include student tuition and access issues, the new president said.

Easter said he will challenge the university to rediscover its roots, formulated in the 1862 Morrill Act, and “focus on engaging the ordinary people, not the elite” in sharing the “transformative power of education.”

“It’s being tested now as never before in our history,” he said of that mission. “We can allow ourselves to drift into mediocrity, or we can define a future that is consistent with our history and our core values.”

He said the new era includes a period of introspection as leaders consider which programs and offerings support the university’s core mission and which do not.

“Our challenge is to understand what counts,” he said. “And we need to do all this with an eye toward economic growth.

“I sense a desire to make the tough decisions.”