- Associated Press - Friday, December 19, 2014

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - Incoming University of Illinois President Timothy L. Killeen says he wants to build the school into a stronger economic asset to the state.

Killeen takes over in July, when President Robert Easter retires, and says it’s too soon to announce any big plans. But the university and its three campuses can help build a better state economy, Killeen said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press looking ahead to his initial plans.

Killeen is a native of Wales but has lived in the United States for decades. Until next year he is vice chancellor for research at The State University of New York, a system of 64 campuses and more than 400,000 students. Illinois has three main campuses and 78,000 students.

His background is in space sciences - Elton John’s “Rocket Man” played before his introduction in Chicago last month. He spent years at the University of Michigan and talks often about how honored he is to lead a major Midwestern university.

“I’m just thrilled to be part of it. I have all my orange garb ready to go,” he said.

But Killeen faces a long list of issues: State support has dwindled. Tuition costs have risen. And hiring controversies have angered some faculty.

Here are edited excerpts of what Killeen sees ahead:


Q. How do you believe the university can be a greater economic asset?

A. “I think (that is) the role of a large public research university in a state where the citizenry really needs opportunities and those opportunities could be converted to economic prosperity. What I really want to do is reinforce the position of the University of Illinois as a major contributor the economic health of Illinois, and the world. …

“A large number of the total jobs in the United States in one way or another have grown out of higher education. The kind of economy, the knowledge economy that we have, the kind of skill sets that students need to have, are developed in higher education.”


Q. Rising tuition has lowered the number of in-state students choosing to enroll. Is the current pace of tuition increases sustainable?

A. “We’ve got three college-age kids and, or soon to be. … I think there are some unsustainable tracks that higher education is on. …

“Cost containment (of university expenses) is something that’s going to be clearly important. I think the role of philanthropy and foundation support and alumni connections are also important. I think there are many facets to this equation. Maybe eight months from now I can give you a check list.”


Q. Any thoughts on the rescinded job offer for Steve Salaita over his anti-Israel Twitter messages or the uproar over the rehiring of felon and former 1970s radical James Kilgore? Board of Trustees Chairman Christopher Kennedy believes both issues could be history by the time you start your job.

A. “It’s not something I’m going to step into in any sort of decisive or decisional role. I can’t get specific. … I would hope that Chairman Kennedy is right.”


Q. Two of the past three University of Illinois presidents have resigned under pressure, one in part over criticism of leadership style. How does that influence what you do?

A. “I’m not concerned, I’m not fazed. … The shared vision of the University of Illinois is something that I want to get engaged in. There could be things that take quite some time to evolve, but it has to be driven, I think, by a shared vision, not an imposed vision.”


Q. I understand sports have been a big pastime for you.

A. “I played rugby when I was growing up in Wales. … I played a little soccer until my wife thought I was hurting too much all the time. In my late 30s, I think it was. I really enjoyed it. But I didn’t know what I couldn’t do as you get older. That’s when you get in trouble - when you think you can do something and, lo and behold, you cannot.”

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