Board of Trustees dismisses tenured Engineering professor

By MaryCate Most

SPRINGFIELD — The University Board of Trustees voted to dismiss Engineering professor Louis Wozniak at its meeting Thursday in Springfield.  

“This has been a long and deliberative process governed by the University statutes,” University President Robert Easter said. “The goal throughout has been to give due process to the professor, and we have now arrived at a decision.”

Wozniak’s tenure has now officially been revoked, though he had already been suspended for actions including sending inappropriate messages to students, disregarding student privacy and creating a hostile environment in his class, according to a Board of Trustees report. 

“This is a unique experience in the history of the University,” Easter said. “It has been very difficult for us having to make a decision.”

The termination process will now be invoked, and the campus will work with Wozniak on his transition out of the University, said University spokesman Tom Hardy. 

Easter said this is the first time in the history of the University that a professor has been dismissed by the board.

“There have been other instances in which faculty have opted to leave the University after dismissal proceedings,” he said.

Easter defended the decision, stressing the necessity to remove Wozniak for student safety.

“We have clear obligations relative to our students and to the families they come from to protect a great number of their rights,” Easter said. “The concern rose to a level that we felt this action was necessary.”

Wozniak’s pension, however, will not be revoked. 

Wozniak began working at the University as a professor in 1966, and his teaching privileges have been suspended twice, totaling 10 years of suspension. His professorship in the department of industrial and enterprise systems engineering had been on hold since 2010, when he taught his last class. 

Also at the meeting, trustees discussed how the University will work around financial barriers that it has been dealing with recently.

The University is still facing significant difficulty when it comes to budgetary issues and debt, said Comptroller Walter Knorr during a presentation from the board’s Audit, Budget, Finance and Facilities Committee.

“On the quantitative features, we are positive on everything but the state relationship and the state rating,” he said. 

Knorr said, in terms of debt capacity, the University is still hoping to maintain an AAA rating on the Moody’s Corporation credit rating scale. This rating puts the University ahead of Ohio State University and University of Michigan, but behind all other Big Ten universities. University debt is currently sitting at more than $1 billion, Knorr said.

Administrators have also been concerned regarding the Medicaid trust fund running short at the University, Knorr said.

“We were made aware in October that we were going to have some difficulty getting a reimbursement of our Medicaid charges for FY13,” Knorr said. “This was also going to potentially effect our FY14 receipts.”

The University is working with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services in order to deal with the Medicaid charges, Knorr said, though some issues with the state remain.

Knorr said the Institute of Government and Public Affairs released a report a couple of weeks ago regarding the condition of the state.

“It was a rather dismal outlook for the state, even dealing with pension and with the increased tax surcharge — still, the state had a lot of problems,” Knorr said.

He also noted that the Illinois did have a better year in FY13 than in years past. This past year the state’s debt has decreased by $6.1 billion,  which includes its debt to the University. Knorr said this is an improvement of approximately $2 billion, but the state of Illinois still owes the University $289 million.

In the coming year, the University will have to put unfunded pension obligations on its balance sheet as well, he said.

“We (need to) get over this pension crisis,” Knorr said. “We are going to be walking on egg shells until we get this pension thing dealt with.”

During the presentation of the Governance Personnel and Ethics Committee, trustees discussed other sources of funding for the University in the future that will be needed in order to rebound from these economic issues. Tom Farrell, president of the University of Illinois Foundation, spoke on behalf of the committee, emphasizing a need to invest in more communication with alumni around the world in order to increase donor funding. 

“We want to improve our communications and branding activities so that we can get our message out to the community and to the world that we are great,” Farrell said. “It is imperative from an investment point of view.”

Student Trustee of the Chicago campus Danielle Leibowitz said that she believes that “students will want to give back,” but she also inquired where the money was coming from to fund the investments that Farrell addressed.

Knorr said there have been a number of budget meetings with the campuses about how to “round up and finish off the support” to find the resources needed to increase investment and eventually return on those investments.

The University of Illinois Alumni Association has been working to expand their network, both to contribute more funding from donors to the University, and to increase their political influence.

Illinois Connection, a University networking group within the Alumni Association, is working on an initiative to “cultivate key contacts” within their group of grassroots workers, said Illinois Connection Director Amy Eichhorst. The group will begin searching for notable alumni who have connections to key legislators, in order to have a greater influence over legislation, which will ultimately benefit the University.

Illinois Connection plans to start building a broader network this year and hopes to be fully functional by December 2015.

“We know that we have a very strong grassroots network, and we will continue to grow that,” Eichhorst said. “We will actually ask (alumni) to be the key contact for (their) legislator so that more and more legislators in the state are hearing about higher education and the University.”

By identifying these “legislative targets,” Eichhorst said she hopes the University will expand its sphere of interest.

The group will also start to focus in on specific issues, working together to achieve particular goals on behalf of the University.

“The key issues that we are advocating for need to be clear and specific so that we are all on the same page,” Eichhorst said. “We are really getting sophisticated with this and making sure that we know what our alumni are going to ask for.”

In the past, the group has advocated for certain issues by encouraging student letter writing campaigns, meetings with legislators and other advocacy, Eichhorst said. This push for more influential alumni to become involved is expected to go one step beyond these students’ actions, she added.

As the Illinois Connection network expands, Eichhorst has seen an increasing number of participants from a younger demographic. This year, the group has about 5,000 activists between the ages of 21 and 30.

“We also started to reach out as students graduate,” she said. “These are alumni that may not have the financial means to get involved, but they will give us their time and their activism and hopefully someday … they will be able to give to us financially as well.”

Illinois Connection has also started seeing alumni involvement occurring on a global scale; the association now has representatives in 41 countries, Eichhorst said.

The Board of Trustees will reconvene at its next meeting, which is scheduled to be held in Chicago on Jan. 23. 

MaryCate can be reached at [email protected]