When Illinois Got Wise
Fabled for starting over again every spring, life broke with tradition this fall and began anew on Homecoming Saturday, Oct. 1, when Phyllis Wise became chancellor of the Urbana campus and vice president of the University of Illinois system. The evening previous, she had ridden in an open car at the head of the University’s traditional Homecoming parade — an amazing welcome, almost as though the beautiful evening and orange-and-blue-intensive crowd had converged especially to cheer her arrival.
And while, consistent with her scientific training and accomplishments, Wise is not one to much indulge such whimsy, she does allow that taking on her new job amid the spirit and splendor of Homecoming Weekend at Illinois has reaffirmed her long-standing belief that sometimes fate steps up and takes over.
“Some of the most wonderful things in my life,” she observes at a late-afternoon talk around the conference table in her Swanlund office, “have happened despite my planning.”
UW PRESIDENT AND ROLE MODEL
And certainly, forces far beyond Homecoming seem to have conspired in enticing Wise back to the Midwest. It’s almost four decades since she completed postdoc work at the University of Michigan and headed for the University of New Mexico. Beyond that first job, a laboratory research position, awaited work at institutions around the nation: on the faculty of the University of Maryland Baltimore; as a department chairman at the University of Kentucky Lexington; then deanship at the University of California Davis. In 2005, somewhat to her own (self-confessed) surprise, she became provost at the University of Washington, one of the world’s premier research universities.
“I went from being the dean of a relatively small college with about 120 faculty to [an institution with more than 3,500 faculty] and a budget that was multiple times over what my [previous] budget was,” she recalls. “That was a big jump.”
Five years and innumerable cups of coffee after Wise arrived in Seattle – “I became addicted to lattes,” she confesses, with characteristic charm and candor – UW’s president departed, and she became his interim replacement. Wise was to lead the institution through a period of severe cuts in state funding; among her achievements was successfully convincing Washington state legislators that UW needed the authority to determine its own tuition increases. She also assumed the status of a role model, as the reportedly first (and, by best reckonings to date, only) Asian-American woman to head a major research university.
Ana Mari Cauce, who worked for Wise as an administrator at UW and is now dean of that university’s College of Arts and Sciences, describes her former boss and colleague as “an extremely caring, generous and thoughtful person, who is also determined, decisive and extremely energetic.
“She always puts people (students, faculty, staff) first,” Cauce noted in an email. “She has little patience for ‘we’ve always done it that way.’”
While interim head of UW, Wise declined to apply for the post herself – declined indeed to seek any other job, including the Illinois chancellorship (that search began in December 2010) – having promised the university’s board to stay until she had shepherded UW into the care of its new permanent leader. That juncture came last April. Approached then – for a second time – about the U of I opening, Wise decided to apply. The rest is history, abetted by fate.
“I honestly didn’t think I would be moving again from Seattle,” she says.
Happy to say, she likes the coffee here, too.
‘THE FULL PACKAGE’
Wise’s arrival at Illinois ended the campus’s own time of interim leadership, under veteran professor and administrator Bob Easter, PHD ’76 ACES. Challenges included the aftermath of a state-appointed panel’s investigation of admissions practices, and a consonant shift in the University’s topmost leadership, as well as ongoing state budget disappointments. Amid epic administrative and budget restructuring, the quest to fill the chancellorship took eight months and attracted candidates drawn “from a very distinguished group” in the view of search committee chairman Doug Beck, a UI physics professor. “It is important to realize how strong the support is for our campus in the broader higher education community,” he says.
Even among such a rarefied coterie, Wise evinced “tremendous experience,” according to Beck. “She has shown leadership in all her activities.” Her appointment, made by President Michael J. Hogan and the UI Board of Trustees based on recommendations from the search committee, was announced on Aug. 3. In his statement, Hogan – himself president of the U of I system for less than a year at the time – described Wise as “the full package.”
“She is a proven scholar, with a deep commitment to public higher education, and has an exceptional reputation as a leader at some of the nation’s top universities,” Hogan said.
Chris Kennedy, chairman of the BOT, observed “that a strong presidency results in strong chancellors, that strong chancellors result in strong deans, that strong deans result in stronger professors, and together they combine to attract stronger students in all respects.
“We now have an exceptionally strong chancellor in Urbana continuing that tradition,” Kennedy concluded in the announcement.
Since arriving on campus, Wise has expressed her determination to work with Illinois state legislators in boosting support for the University, as she did in Washington. She has asked her predecessor, Easter, to take a new interim role as vice chancellor for research. And she has set out on what she calls a “listening and learning tour.” Her intent? “To meet with groups of faculty, staff and students, and external stakeholders, alumni, businesses in our community to try and learn as much as I possibly can what people are passionate about,” Wise says. (A similar project, which she carried out at UW, yielded new information about the institution’s diverse strengths in environment-related disciplines, which led to establishing the College of the Environment.)
“Comprehensive research universities like this one or the University of Washington are a matter of trying to bring out the best in each unit and bring out the synergies that make the sum greater than the parts,” Wise says. “The beauty of academic leadership at this level, whether it’s as a provost, or a vice-provost, or a president, or a chancellor, is that they get to see how that tapestry is formed.”
RESEARCH AND RECOGNITION
While for Wise the allure of scientific research has gradually given way to the fascination of leadership, this transition in no way belies her decades of achievement as an endocrinologist. Her most celebrated work focuses on female hormones and brain function, investigating how estrogens regulate the reproductive cycle and how they interact with the brain during aging, particularly their influence on memory and recovery from stroke.
Such contributions “put her at the very forefront of neuroscience,” says her colleague Bruce S. McEwan, an award-winning researcher in neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University, who describes Wise as “an outstanding ‘diplomat and ambassador of science.’”
Her lab has garnered tens of millions in funding from the National Institutes of Health, including two prestigious MERIT awards for continuation of ongoing research. Recognition has flowed liberally, from membership in the National Academy of Sciences to an honorary doctorate from her undergraduate alma mater, Swarthmore College, to a range of other awards, distinctions, honors and prizes, recognizing her teaching and leadership as well as her research. Author and co-author of hundreds of journal articles, Wise is well-known for her mentorship. Her postdoctoral students have landed at institutions ranging from the University of Chicago to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to pharmaceutical giants Eli Lilly and Pfizer.
“It’s telling that she’s named her dog ‘Maestro,’ which means ‘teacher,’” notes her UW colleague Cauce. “She has a deep understanding of the unique kind of teaching and learning that can take place at a student-centered research university.”
“She is a proven scholar, with a deep commitment to public higher education, and has an exceptional reputation as a leader at some of the nation’s top universities.”
— Michael J. Hogan, President, University of Illinois
As well as balancing her academic work against increasingly demanding administrative posts, Wise has also embraced the cares and joys of motherhood. With her two children now grown, she remains fond nonetheless of describing her life as a series of experiments: as cooking (“short-term”), research (“mid-term”) and her children (“my long-term experiments”).
She herself is the American-born daughter of Chinese parents; they came to the U.S. when her father received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to pursue a doctorate at Northwestern. With return to China planned for Dec. 12, 1941, fate intervened in their lives – and Wise’s, still to come – when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. The couple settled in the U.S.; her father became a neurologist at Columbia University’s medical school (among other distinctions, he was hired by NASA in the 1960s to address the problem of motion sickness in astronauts), and her mother taught at Cornell and advocated for the then-emergent profession of nurse-practitioner.
Wise still remembers visiting her father’s neurology lab at Columbia on Saturdays. (“How do you NOT do biology after that?” she inquired in a local interview with The News-Gazette.) Inspired by his example, she was to become the first woman in the graduate program in zoology at Michigan and would go on to weather such setbacks as rejection by a prospective mentor because she had a young child at the time. Encouraged by more generous colleagues, Wise expanded her interests into educational administration, even as she zealously pursued her research. “In some ways I was given more opportunities because I was a woman and Asian-American, and there were not many of us around,” she says. Like her father, Wise now holds a medical school appointment – with the UIC College of Medicine – as well as a tenured faculty position in cell and developmental biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Illinois.
WINDING DOWN AND STARTING ANEW
With signature frankness and practicality, Wise says of her scientific work: “I am putting down my funded research. I hope I can continue to do research in a different way, but my NIH grant will be done on July 31, 2012.
“I have to say I loved doing research,” she adds. “When you plan an experiment, you usually know whether the experiment worked or not within a year or two. And you go on from there. You don’t repeat the same experiment. You do the next experiment. When you’re in administration, there are steps. You don’t get the immediate return on suggestions you make. You don’t have the control that you used to have, but I think the impact is broader.”
“I really believe a chancellor should be an enabler,” she concludes. “I hope that I can work to make sure that this University becomes even better than it is now.
“And when the University is already excellent, it’s hard.”
But it helps when life starts anew – and fate seems to be on your side – and the coffee tastes as good as ever