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Tim Killeen

Tim Killeen

President | UI system

Before setting forth on a distinguished career in higher ed, the 20th president of the University of Illinois system worked a brief stint as a night-shift porter at St. David’s Hospital in his native Wales.

The job exposed a 17-year-old Tim Killeen to a little bit of everything that happens away from the spotlight at a medical center. He moved patients, sterilized equipment and cringed through the part that sealed his future in any other line of work — being a mortuary attendant.

“The experience gently led me away from my mother’s medical profession — unlike two of my siblings, who became MDs like her,” Killeen says.

He’d go on to earn his Ph.D. instead — in atomic and molecular physics, from University College London — before embarking on a career that included stops at the University of Michigan (20-plus years on the faculty), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (director/senior scientist), the University of Colorado (Lyall Research Professor), the National Science Foundation (assistant director for geosciences), the State University of New York (vice chancellor for research) and, for the past seven years and two months, Illinois.

The guitar-strumming father of three took time out to answer questions from Editor Jeff D’Alessio in Beyond the Boardroom, his weekly speed read spotlighting leaders of organizations big and small.

— My philosophy on meetings is ... having agendas that are specific and limited, respecting participants’ valuable time, but usually leaving time for ‘roundtables’ so that every person is heard.

I sometimes ask each person present to verbally summarize their opinion with a single sentence — up to three commas, no semicolons and just one period.

I model a sentence to kick off and we often have fun with counting commas — and it certainly demonstrates a team consensus if one is to be had.

— The hardest thing about being a leader is ... building both: 1) an appropriate and compelling shared vision through deep and recursive communication. There’s never too much communication — only too little; and 2) nurturing the institutional trust and buy-in to implement that vision.

Hard decisions can be made and accepted when there has been honest consultation and clear adherence to accepted guiding principles.

— My favorite moments in this job involve ... commencements, commencements, commencements.

Did I say commencements?

— I’m frugal in that ... I cut my own hair or go for No. 6 at Great Cuts. Off-the-shelf suits and clothing. I do like Ecco shoes.

— I can’t live without my ... classic guitar, and fountain pen.

— Three adjectives I hope my staff would use to describe me are ... supportive, friendly and normal.

— On my office walls, you’ll find ... a yellowing, homemade — framed but sincerely presented — certificate of appreciation for team-teaching leadership signed by six wonderful, hardworking colleagues from a university to the north not to be named.

— My business role models are ... many. One that comes to mind now is Rafael Rangel Sostmann, the long-term, now-retired, amazing rector (president) of Tec de Monterrey in Mexico.

He worked on student success in ways that were pioneering — and are simply inspiring.

— I’m up and at ’em every day by ... 5 a.m. Coffee first, then Wordle.

— My exercise routine consists of ... 3-mile jogs in the Arboretum three to four times a week. Actually, I refer to them as “shambles” — that’s more descriptive.

— If I could trade places for a week with anyone else in town, I wouldn’t mind switching with ... any professor — perhaps in the humanities?

— My one unbreakable rule of the workplace is ... respect all colleagues and staff, never belittle.

— I wind down after work by ... (enjoying) family life, reading and fretting over guitar pieces that I used to be able to play.

— When it comes to the last luxury in which I indulged ... we bought an RV during the pandemic to be able to visit our far-flung kids safely while Zooming as needed.

State parks are just great.

— As far as the most beneficial college class I took goes ... well, pretty boring here: Astronomy 101. Amazing what humans have been able to infer and understand through careful scientific observation of nature.

I later taught many different types of classes and learned so much about all kinds of things through the preparation and delivery. There’s nothing as joyful as being a college professor.

— On a 1-to-10 scale, the impact of the pandemic has been a ... 10. We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg of mental health issues.

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