New president stresses excellence, integrity, collaboration


To the tune of “Rocket Man,” new University of Illinois President Timothy Killeen, an astrophysicist and head of research for the State University of New York, was introduced to UIC and the media Wednesday morning.

Killeen, who at age 23 completed his Ph.D. in atomic and molecular physics from University College London, has a long list of research credentials that include the National Science Foundation, NASA and the University of Michigan. As president of the Research Foundation of the State University of New York, he oversees about $900 million in annual funding across SUNY’s 29 state-supported research campuses.

But the focus of his job as president of the University of Illinois, he said, will be the students.

“I want to dedicate my presidency to you students, those now present on the three wonderful campuses, and those to come,” he said at the beginning of his remarks in Student Center East. “I would simply add again – this is all for the students, by the faculty,” he said at the end of his comments.

“I was absolutely delighted to hear that,” said Barbara Henley, vice chancellor for student affairs, as Killeen left for his next appearances at the university’s Springfield and Urbana-Champaign campuses. “I am looking forward to working in close partnership with him on behalf of our students.”

“It was an exciting moment to hear Dr. Killeen speak today at the UIC campus. His passion, optimism, and vision for our university are easy to stand behind, and it was great to hear how dedicated he is to the students,” said UIC student trustee Danielle Leibowitz.

Killeen’s appointment must be formally approved by university trustees at their Jan. 15 meeting in Chicago. He would be the university’s 20th president, succeeding Robert Easter, who retires June 30.


‘Circling the University of Illinois’

Killeen, 62, a native of Wales and a U.S. citizen, is married to Roberta M. Johnson, executive director of the National Earth Science Teachers Association and clinical professor of atmospheric and environmental sciences at the State University of New York at Albany. They have three children.



Killeen speaks with Chicago news media after his introduction to UIC. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

He joined SUNY in 2012 after four years as assistant director of geosciences for the National Science Foundation and eight years as director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, one of the world’s premier atmospheric research centers. Before that, he spent more than 20 years at the University of Michigan, where he began as a postdoctoral scholar and ended up as associate vice president for research and professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences.

“In retrospect, I now see my various past career steps as simply being steps toward and circling the University of Illinois,” he said.

Killeen stressed the importance of “human capital,” which he defined as “well-educated people connected with opportunities, with skills that include flair, discernment and critical thinking.”

He emphasized his support for shared governance and collaboration, adding, “collegiality and respectful listening are critical to good decision making.

“I believe that the University of Illinois can define and exemplify what public higher education must become in this century. It can be the best. Not by simple ratings, but by meaningful and substantive contributions,” he said.

“We should act like the heavyweights we are, engaging, shaping and leading agendas with academia, foundations, industry, governmental and international partners.”


‘Excellence and integrity’

Killeen twice mentioned the need for “excellence and integrity, painted through everything we do.”

“We must think of higher education as an ecosystem to be tuned and optimized for impact, not simply as a sector,” he said.

“It is, in fact, a major part of the overall kindergarten through life-long learning public education enterprise in which we must also play a key leadership role — with student diversity, affordability, preparation, accessibility, completion and career success, faculty recruitment and support, and new knowledge generation and dissemination all key components.”


Killeen greets UIC student trustee Danielle Leibowitz. Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

In the eight-month search process for a new president, the university-wide search committee identified 200 candidates, cutting the list to three finalists interviewed by the board, said trustees chair Chris Kennedy.

Killeen was the board’s unanimous choice, Kennedy said.

“We wanted a leader who would garner the respect of the faculty by the sheer force of their own academic record. We wanted a researcher who would have the credibility with the national funders, who could help attract additional economic resources to our state. We wanted someone who believed in our land-grant mission, rooted in educating the people of our state while engaging the industries that keep our communities vibrant,” Kennedy said before introducing the new president.

“I am a genetic optimist,” Killeen told the Illinois Room audience. “I believe that with hard work, shared vision — and there is nothing more powerful than a shared vision — and with excellence and commitment, we can succeed and that success breeds success.”

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