Board Chair Chuck Lillis shares what keeps him up at night

To listen to the chair of the UO’s Board of Trustees, you might wonder if Chuck Lillis gets any sleep at all.

On Nov. 19, Lillis addressed the University Senate for the first time since volunteering to lead the UO’s new governance board a year ago. He told the standing-room-only crowd the top 10 things that keep him up at night as he and the other trustees work to improve the university.

Before going through his top-10 list, Lillis, a UO alumnus and one of its top donors, challenged the Senate to improve its relationship with university administration. He said he is a supporter of shared governance when it is done well.

“I believe it is dysfunctional when it’s based on confrontation and it is very effective when it’s based on a shared commitment to improving the university in a collegial, respectful, professional way,” Lillis said. “I think we can do that.”

Lillis mentioned that he hears from people engaged in higher education around the country that the university has a national reputation for having a faculty and administration that don’t always get along, which he called “embarrassing.”

Lillis said he believes the UO is a good university, but that it could be a great university if it tackles some key issues. Among Lillis’s top issues:

  • The university’s financial strength — The UO is outspent 2 to 1 compared to its peers on total per-student spending. Lillis said closing the gap would better allow the university to invest in its most successful programs and new, innovative programs.
  • Not enough tenure-track faculty — “A university is only as good as its faculty,” Lillis said.  He applauded campaign goals to invest in additional top-notch faculty to help reduce student-to-faculty ratios.
  • Student quality should be higher — Lillis said the UO needs to focus on recruiting the best and brightest in Oregon, in part by providing more scholarships.
  • Poor public perception — Lillis said many people in Oregon simply don’t understand the value of the university, so “it is no wonder there has been a disinvestment.”
  • The process of approving new academic programs is “ridiculously long”— he said too many people are checking things, perhaps rooted in distrust, but that people have to get past that.
  • Lack of urgency — Lillis said the university community generally moves too slowly on initiatives and must act now to capitalize on momentum, especially in a day and age where everything moves more swiftly.
  • Small endowment — currently at $700 million, the endowment needs to grow, Lillis said, which it will in part with a successful capital campaign. But he said still more will have to be done.
  • Too much presidential turnover — Lillis called out the “disastrous churn at the presidency.” He called such turnover expensive in a number of ways.
  • Need for a major new science facility — He said the UO needs to invest in expanded infrastructure to house new science faculty and research.  The UO needs to focus more on the sciences, Lillis said, without abandoning the comprehensive nature of the university.
  • The need for an updated IT infrastructure — Lillis said the university needs to update its information technology backbone and provide the upgrades and infrastructure necessary for its work going forward.

Of his top priorities, or “worries,” Lillis said increasing the endowment to be able to improve the university was a driving force for why he agreed to be on the board.

“I have a passion for us to improve our academic quality,” he said. “We can be better. We have to be better.”

Lillis then asked the Senate what it is doing to address these big problems. He encouraged everyone in the room to work in a civilized, collegial, respective manner and said, “Let’s work together.”

Several students and faculty members thanked Lillis for coming to the Senate and noted that kind of communication had not happened under the Oregon University System. Several students asked or talked about the GTFF negotiations, but Lillis said that was something for the administration to address.

Earlier in the meeting, interim President Scott Coltrane updated the Senate on strategic planning, the UO’s work to secure federal research and student aid funding and efforts to address sexual assault.

He said the administration remains hopeful and committed to reaching a contract agreement with the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation.

Also at the meeting, the Senate passed a resolution accusing the administration of “diluting academic standards” as the university prepares for the possibility of a strike of the GTFF. Administrators said their contingency plans are designed to give faculty tools and resources in the event of a strike, and they said it is not designed to take away any control of how they teach or administer their classes.

—By Jennifer Winters, Public Affairs Communications