By PHIL BLOOMER
Stan Ikenberry: genteel statesman of higher education
For 60,000 students, 23,700 employees and two major universities 130 miles apart, University of Illinois President Stanley O. Ikenberry is boss. But he also serves more masters than most rational men would suffer. And he's tolerated them longer than most.
In an age when the tenure of a college president grows increasingly fragile, the 54-year-old president of Illinois' flagship university is defying the odds. A genteel statesman of higher education in Illinois and in the nation, Ikenberry is celebrating a decade of service solidly entrenched in the kind of position that usually chews up men in half the time not that he hasn't been bitten along the way.
He is emerging from a controversy over the future of the UI Hospital in Chicago that saw him vilified by the medical community and other opinion leaders in Chicago for abandoning the university's urban mission to serve the poor. State Sen. Margaret Smith (D-12, Chicago) called him a liar at one point in the debate over the now-failed plan to turn the UI Hospital over to the Cook County Board and merge the College of Medicine with the private Michael Reese Hospital.
Such public ridicule is uncharacteristic of the office of the UI presidency. It wasn't that long ago that during appropriations hearings, legislative panels rose to their feet when former UI President David Dodds Henry entered the room.
Ikenberry, with customary optimism, downplays the bitterness over the hospital, as do some of his harshest critics. Trademarks of his public demeanor, even in the most casual settings, are civility and convention, and he rarely displays any anger. At Farm Aid in the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium in Urbana in 1985, rain-soaked multitudes rocked with John Cougar Mellencamp on the field. Ikenberry, dressed in suit and tie, was encountered in a press box and asked where his bib-overalls were. He pointed to his pastel-colored shirt and inquired, "Isn't this casual enough?"
The formality is natural for Ikenberry, whom circumstances indicate was groomed for this position. The son of the president of Shepherdstown College in West Virginia, Ikenberry earned advanced degrees in education at Michigan State University, then quickly moved into administration. At age 44, the UI plucked him from a job as senior vice president for administration at Penn State, and the move made him the youngest UI president on record.
Erstwhile detractors praise him. UI trustee Dr. Gloria Jackson Bacon was among the earliest who wasted no time lining up against the UI administration's hospital plan after being elected to the board last fall. But she holds no grudges. "He thought it ought to be red. I thought it ought to be green," said Dr. Bacon. "But we worked it out, and I think he's outstanding. I told him if I was ever choosing a college president, he'd be it."
Some privately wonder how well the university will weather the bitterness created by the hospital controversey in Chicago. Many say it has been a mark of Ikenberry's leadership that he's been able to "build consensus" for higher education and the University of Illinois. That didn't work with the hospital. In restrospect, Ikenberry acknowledges that the university moved too fast to seal the deal. "We had our own ideas, but they were pursued in the absence of a consensus at the summit level," Ikenberry said in a recent interview. "Ultimately, it is a question the state, the city and the community have to answer. It's really been our philosophy of leadership that once we identify a problem, we'll try to craft our own solutions rather than wring our hands and wait for someone else to solve them. The alternative would have been to let the hospital drift. We do have a solution in the works now. It wasn't what we started with, but we do have $25 million more on the table."
While rejecting the hospital divestment plan, the General Assembly earmarked $25 million to help stabilize the facility, and
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beginning September 1, a new state contract went into effect giving the UI a more favorable Medicaid reimbursement rate from the Department of Public Aid.
Observers note that the hospital controversy was really the first time the UI found itself embroiled in Chicago politics since its Chicago Circle campus was carved from ethnic near west side neighborhoods in the 1960s. In what will surely go down as among the UFs worst public relations disasters, administrators say their motives for the hospital plan were misunderstood and their actions prompted only by a woeful lack of state support and a college that was being weakened in its ability to train doctors.
"After four or five years of knocking on the door, we simply got to the point we could no longer raid from the English department to keep the hospital runing," said Craig Bazzani, the university's comptroller. Patient days had dropped from the 130,000-range in the early 1980s to around 72,000 earlier this year. Seventy-five percent of patients were government sponsored. The UI has now recommitted itself to rebuilding the hospital and is pursuing an affiliation, rather than a merger, with Reese to augment teaching experiences for medical residents.
Aside from the hospital, Ikenberry has by most measures been an able communicator with a golden touch and a common touch in a field of constituencies as diverse as the university. He reigns over two campuses as distinct in the populations they serve and the missions they perform as they are geographically.
If those missions include public service, as the university's charter dictates, that means pleasing major urban populations as well as downstate interests. If quality is a priority, he must protect the university's reputation for selectivity in admissions while meeting its mandate to provide access.
Among faculty, he must please rocket scientists and poets, makers of microchips and plowers of corn. It doesn't always happen. Insufficient state funding in 1987 and 1988 kicked in the university's internally feared "internal reallocation" process in a big way. That means the philosophy department pays for janitors and desks at places like the UI Hospital and the $50 million Beckman
In a practical sense, Ikenberry is much like the chief executive officer of any major corporation. Figures compiled by the university comptroller's office show that as a business, the University of Illinois would be 289th in the Fortune 500 based on its annual budget. Counting its employees and students, it would be the 5th largest city in the state. Its holdings comprise 25 percent of state-owned property and have a $2.3 billion replacement value.
Legislatively, Ikenberry must walk the line between persuading lawmakers the university is in need of more funding and persuading professors not to leave with the promise that it's going to get better. In short, he has a lot of people to keep happy. Some say he's pretty good at it. Some say he's just a good P.R. man. James Nowlan, a former legislator, UI professor and state government consultant who now teaches and writes at Knox College, observed that Ikenberry appears adept and comfortable in legislative settings. "Some university presidents are stiff and distant. It's hard to get through the academic doublespeak," Nowlan said. "Ikenberry has a really good style for the kind of communications game that needs to be played." For example, some credit his leadership for forging the corporate and legislative alliances necessary to push through the state's new $320 million Science and Technology program in record time. The program grew out of the state's failed efforts to lure the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) to Illinois by providing $550 million in bond support. Less than a month after the U.S. Department of Energy announced last November that the SSC was going to Texas, Gov. James R. Thompson appointed Ikenberry head of the newly formed Illinois Coalition. By March, the coalition of corporate and educational leaders had issued its report calling for more R&D investment, more incentives for federal and corporate research dollars and the rebuilding of academic research laboratories.
The same month, those ideas emerged in the Illinois Board of Higher Education's (IBHE) budget recommendation to the governor, and by July the General Assembly had endorsed them in the form of the largest capital investment in the University of Illinois since the 1960 University Bond Series. The new program, paid for by new cigarette and computer software taxes, will bring the university $32 million in building funds this fiscal year. IBHE Executive Director Richard Wagner called the program and its approval "a mark of effective and confident leadership."
High-technology has been a major thrust of Ikenberry's tenure as president. Nowhere is it more obvious than in the "super-block" rising from the old baseball and track field on the Urbana campus. Well over $100 million in construction testifies to a variety of private, federal and state relationships, its centerpiece being the $50 million monument to California benefactor Arnold Beckman, whom Ikenberry helped persuade to donate $40 million for a research institute bearing his name.
All that powerbroking at state and national levels leaves some people uncomfortable. The signs of Ikenberry's influence are all over. His picture hangs in the anteroom of House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago). A top-flight lobbying staff includes Kirk Hard, a former staffer for Madigan, and David Olien, a former assistant to Lt. Gov. George Ryan. Such connections don't endear him everywhere. "It's like a love-in over there," says long-time UI math professor Paul Weichsel. "He might better serve the university by
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carrying his letter of resignation in his pocket. . . make them uncomfortable once in a while."
Weichsel calls Ikenberry "a keen political observer," but "he's not an educational or intellectual leader." Weichsel, who is a former leader in the faculty senate and former president of the collective bargaining advocates, the Union of Professional Employees, said, "Ikenberry was brought here to exercise a high level of public relations, massage legislators and build bridges with banks and corporations. Whether that runs to the best interests of the university, I have my doubts."
The university's budget history speaks for itself. A $64 million influx of new state operating money this year brings a multiyear slide to an abrupt halt. In his 10 years Ikenberry has seen the state-funded portion of the university budget drop from 49 to 39 percent of its total $1.3 billion. With that decline, students have paid for an increasing share of the operations; tuition has risen 200 percent in the decade.
The new state money, though labeled as a temporary tax increase, is being treated as a permanent, recurring part of the university budget. "We have no alternative," Ikenberry said. Roughly half the new income is going to faculty and staff salary increases to stem the tide of faculty departures that in the last two years totaled 130 professors accepting outside offers. Before the income tax hike, university data showed faculty compensation was last in the Big Ten.
Despite the uproar created by the UI Hospital plan, Ikenberry rates it below state funding in ranking the most troublesome problems he's encountered in his 10 years. Ikenberry said that last spring in Springfield was "far and away the most difficult legislative session" he has faced. For him and for higher education, legislative approval of the new revenues from tax increases was the culmination of three years of statewide campaigning.
Ikenberry's stamina, his length of service and his relationships in Springfield are credited by many as playing a key role in raising support for education funding. "He is resilient. He loses and keeps on going," said Kenneth Andersen, a UI speech professor, former president of the American Association of University Professors and now faculty liaison to the campus administration.
Unlike Illinois State University President Lloyd Watkins, who quit in disgust as state funding declined, Ikenberry says he didn't want to give up without a victory for education. "Before, I didn't want to quit because the fight wasn't over. Now that the fight's over, I don't want to quit because I want to enjoy it," Ikenberry said.
Even if he quit now, he'd have beaten the averages. According to the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education (ACE), the average length of presidential tenure at major American colleges and universities is five years. "We don't have comparison figures, but I can tell you that's a significant drop from 10, 20 years ago," said ACE's David Merkowitz. "It's a high-risk, high-stress job, and it's become infinitely more complex."
No longer are university constituencies content with a tweedy product of the faculty who occasionally teaches a class, writes books and serves as the benign paternal figure for the academy. "The external demands have grown enormously. Alumni, legislators, athletic problems, fundraising activities are all a big part of the job these days," Merkowitz said.
Ikenberry said pressures haven't forced him to look for another job, but he doesn't expect to die here either. Perhaps few would blame Ikenberry if he'd left years ago. He assumed the job as the University of Illinois' 14th president amid controversy, and it's remained alive since. At the time, the university was in the beginnings of a highly volatile plan to merge the UI-Chicago's Medical Center under the same administration as its Chicago Circle Campus. Then in 1981, the university faced the Robert Parker scandal in which the former UI Foundation official embezzled $630,000. That was followed by the beginning of the decade's series of sports scandals when quarterback Dave Wilson was allowed to play more than the Big Ten thought he should have. Three times in the 1980s the university football program was placed on probation over alleged student ineligibility and recruitment violations. Then came, and went, former athletic director Neale Stoner under a cloud of mistrust.
While not directly under the president's control, those episodes have changed the role of the presidency and put Ikenberry under the spotlight more than he might have wished. But through budget battles, sports scandals, apartheid demonstrations, the hospital animosities and other daily troubles, Ikenberry's stature has grown. "It would have been easy for the president of a distinguished university like Illinois to lose focus and get discouraged in the last decade," said IBHE's Wagner. "Stan's been able to maintain a steady course."
Nationally, he's a recognized floor leader. He was the chairman of the board last year for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He's also immediate past chairman of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. He's on the executive board of the Association of American Universities. In January he will be named chairman of the American Council on Education. He's also the longest-serving president in the Big Ten.
Financially, he's grown as well. He sits on the corporate boards of Pfizer, Harris Bank Corp. and Franklin Life Insurance. His university salary started at $71,500 in 1979 and is now $148,000.
While his reputation has grown, so have the pressures. To cope, he and his wife Judy listen to classical music. They occasionally ride bikes and swim. He frequently walks through campus to work. And one weekend a month they try to get away to their home in Pentwater, Mich., where he sails his 33-foot sloop, First Lady.
For now he seems pleased with the institution's standing, and he ticks off ideas for the future more minority recruitment plans, bringing University of Illinois expertise to bear on redesigning the state school aid formula, reaching out to schools, to the public. Will he still be the boss in another decade? "I can't see that far," he said. "But frankly I can't imagine my being here in 10 years. "□
Phil Bloomer is a reporter for the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette, who covered the University of Illinois for over five years and now covers city government.
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