February 2022

Transitioning to New Leadership

I think you all know that I don’t do much of that “well, at Michigan, they do X or Y,” so please take this observation in that vein. Michigan limits its deans to two five-year terms. No exceptions. Why? Well, it’s not explained anywhere, but, for me, it’s all about the necessity of change. Change is good. Organizations need changes in leadership to continue to thrive and respond to evolving challenges.

This is the ninth year of my time at the University of Illinois, including my deanship and my time as interim provost, and it is an important time to strategically consider the future of our library. We are navigating an historic global pandemic and adjusting to new and still evolving ways of working and living. We received approval for the first stage of our long-anticipated Library building project, and need to begin the work of securing support for the next phase. And we’re working on our library culture and climate to help us to live up to our highest ideals. Each of these important priorities will require commitment and leadership that extends into the next decade and beyond.

For these reasons and others, I have decided to bring my time as dean to an end and work with the Provost to facilitate a search for a successor. We’ll soon announce a search committee and I have committed to continue in my role as Dean until we conclude the search, with the hope that my successor can start in January 2023.

At the University’s annual Celebration of Diversity a few weeks ago, Sean Garrick spoke about having a sense of possibility in response to challenges. He said that when the pandemic hit, the Chancellor and the Provost threw down the gauntlet and expressed a sense of confidence that we could meet that challenge. That sense of possibility and ability comes from a belief in the organization. That sense that we can accomplish great things needs energy and commitment. When Sean told that story, it reminded me how important it is to think past leadership to organization-wide commitment. Sure, what we accomplished during my nearly nine years depended in part on my leadership. But while leadership is important, it’s also vastly overrated. Ultimately, our success is about you—your commitment and your passion to build a better library and a better future.

While I’m not retiring, I’ve given a lot of thought to the question of timing, and this moment is a great one for a transition for Illinois and for me. In addition to important milestones like the approval of the building project, my son graduates from high school next year, my daughter will graduate from grad school, and I’ll turn 66, also important milestones. Because of the generosity of the University, stepping down will also give me a modest break–something like a sabbatical–with an opportunity to re-engage with issues that are important to me. And I’ll be frank: I’ve heard from many of you about ways that I can improve my leadership, and the transition will give me time to ponder those things and contemplate the future.

We have another year together as a team, but I want to use this opportunity to thank all of you for your partnership in accomplishing great things. It’s been a blast and I look forward to the next year and what we can do together.

John Wilkin
The Juanita J. and Robert E. Simpson Dean of Libraries and University Librarian