Mike Adams is Uni’s financial officer, and possibly the most important faculty member you’ve never heard of. He’s responsible for much of the day-to-day functions of Uni that keep it going and which we, the students, rarely hear about. The Gargoyle sat down with Mike Adams one morning to talk about him, his role, and what exactly is happening in that little corner of the main office.
Gargoyle: Can you tell me about your personal background? Are you local?
Mike: I’m from around here, I’m from Pesotum, a small town south of here. I went to Unity High School, and then I joined the Marine Corps right out of high school. I spent six years in the Marine Corps, and then I worked for a software company in town, and I came to the U of I after that. My first job with the U of I was with facilities and services, and then I went to purchasing, and then I came here to Uni.
G: How would you describe your role at Uni in three words?
M: Exciting. Interesting. Evolving.
G: Can you give me a day in the life?
M: The first thing I do everyday is I go through my email and I try to stay current. I get between fifty and one hundred emails a day, and I can quickly get behind schedule. So the very first thing I do is go through my email, and then a lot of time there’ll be requests through the emails that direct the rest of my day. So somebody might need to buy something, or I might to follow up on something, and a lot of times that will drive the rest of my day. And then I have outstanding items I’m constantly following up on.
G: What are your responsibilities?
M: I’m responsible for the finances and the facilities, our human resources, and I’m directly responsible for the front office here.
G: How did you come to work at Uni?
M: I was working in purchasing at the time, and I had worked with Uni on some purchases that they were trying to do, and as I helped them I developed a relationship with the department, and when the person who was here before me left, I saw the position was advertised and it sounded exciting so I applied, and I was here.
G: What year was that?
M: This is my fifth year. So it was 2013.
G: What can you tell me about Uni’s financial situation, and how that impacts your job?
M: That’s the major part of my job. It’s my number one responsibility. Our financial situation is better than a lot of people think, but still something that needs to be carefully managed. When I first started, we didn’t have a clear idea of where we stood financially, and there was the discovery of a significant debt to the university, and so what we’ve been working on is developing financial models that will make us sustainable for the future, as well as coming up with different financial models that might help us work with the university to either pay off or work down that debt in one way or another.
G: How are the recent grants and donations impacting the situation?
M: The donations that we get are the only reason we’re able to keep our doors open, honestly. We get grants from the state, like any other high school. This year we got about 1.8 million dollars from the state of Illinois, and one hundred percent of that goes towards faculty salaries. And the formula that they use to determine how much each school gets is something the politicians have been playing with for the last couple of years and they still don’t have it down. So we don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future, and that’s an area of concern. But without that grant, we would really be in some financial troubles. The donations are basically what help us keep the school running on a day-to-day basis. They help us with building issues like broken windows that need replacing, or broken air conditioners, or things like that. They really play an important part in helping us maintain this hundred-year-old building.
G: Has there been an uptick in large donations recently?
M: There has been. The larger donations that we’ve been getting have been restricted for a very specific purpose. A couple years ago, it was announced that we received a one and a quarter million dollar donation over five years, and that was specifically for a couple of things, but primarily for innovative classrooms and innovative teaching tools and things like that. So the donor wanted it to be specific for those purposes. Some of the other donations have been specific for personal development for our teachers, so they can learn new concepts and bring new things into the classroom, and stuff like that.
G: As Uni students, we mostly only know the school from the student prospective. Can you describe it a little bit from the perspective of an administrator?
M: First of all, I think Uni’s very unique. That uniqueness brings its own challenges. I don’t know if I’ll explain this well- so, for me, my focus is primarily on the operational area of the school, so that’s how I kind of look at it- operationally. That all goes back to us being a department of the university as opposed to a standalone high school, or our own high school district, and that’s where all of the challenges come for me. The University of Illinois was not created with a high school in mind, so we’re always trying to figure out how to fit into the university’s rules and procedures. So that’s kind of my focus and my view on the school. It’s really an operational view, which is probably different from the students and the faculty.
G: Will the implementation of the governing board have an impact on your work?
M: I hope it will. My hope is that the governing board will help us work with the university and come up with long-term — not next year or the year after, but long-term, five to ten years out, strategic plan for- the part I’m focusing on is the operational and specifically financial support of the school, so how are we going to manage ourselves to be financially stable in the long term. I’m hoping that the board can bring resources to help us come with a very clear-cut plan to do that.
G: Have you met with anybody from the board?
M: I did meet with the board once, and we talked about the current financial situation.The thing I’ll say about the board that I was really surprised about is that they’ve done their homework on Uni, and that was so exciting for me, to talk to somebody that wasn’t hearing about it for the first time. They had researched Uni and they know about Uni and they asked great questions and it was a very positive environment.
G: There’s a lot of debate about whether Uni is a prep school or a lab school. Does that impact your work at all, if it goes one way or the other, and do you have an opinion?
M: I don’t have a strong opinion. I’m kind of hoping that maybe that’s something the governing board can help us decide. It will have a tremendous impact on my position, because our financial resources will change greatly depending on what our actual focus is. But I don’t have a strong opinion on what I think it should be. But I hope that we can come up with a good, solid plan that will help drive our future needs.
G: Where would you like to see Uni in five years?
M: Again, I think operationally. So I would like to see us with a very clear, long-term strategic plan, which includes infrastructure- building, modifications or updates of some kind. We have outgrown this space, and it needs to be addressed. I mean, look at the floor. [He gestures towards the cracked floor.] This kind of stuff needs to be addressed, and that’s just a small piece of the pie. Our electrical capabilities are way outdated, we have window air conditioning unit, we have windows that are a hundred years old that are single-pane glass and simply don’t provide any insulation whatsoever. I could go on and on. We need to make a significant investment in our building, whether that’s an upgrade to this building, an addition to this building, a new building, whatever the case may be. That’s where I’d like to see us have a plan sometime within the next five years.
G: How has Uni changed in the time you’ve been here?
M: I feel that we’ve gotten a little more organized. One of the things I focused on is trying to address some of the smaller things that we can with the facilities, trying to kind of get a little better understanding of our financial situation, and put a little better process in for how we manage that on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis. So I think we’ve gotten a little more organized.
G: What are the biggest issues facing Uni?
M: Finances. And I think that covers so much, but if you take that away, I think it’s the building, the facilities. That’s probably ahead of finances, actually, because if we had up-to-date and modern facilities, I’m not sure we’d have a financial issue at all. So I’d take that back and say it’s really our building and our infrastructure.
G: Why would an updated building fix our financial issues?
M: I haven’t done that analysis, but just thinking on the spot I think that if we had even a five or ten year old building that was off sufficient size or with a little bit more modern classrooms, it wouldn’t take near as many resources to run the building, and I think that would help our financial outlook a lot. I think having the debt hanging over our head is an issue, our infrastructure, and then there’s still a financial component to that, but I don’t think it’s on the top.
G: How’s the debt doing? Decreasing, increasing?
M: It’s sitting there comfortably [laughs].
G: How do you think working at Uni differs from working in other schools?
M: I think about it a lot. Everybody has their own individual challenges, and you always think somebody else has it easier, and I don’t want to give that impression, but I do think that us being a department of the university creates some very unique challenges for everything. Just to give you one example: every high school in the state, when they have a basketball tournament, and the officials show up, there’s a person that just writes a check and gives it to the official. Well, we have a six-week process to get that done. The officials want their check the day that they do the work, and then a lot of times there’ll be a last minute change where the official gets sick and somebody subs for him and now we don’t have a check for him, and we have to tell him it’s going to be six weeks before we get you a check, and here’s a bunch of paperwork you have to fill out. It’s just insane at times. So that’s an example of what I think we have to deal with that other high schools don’t.
G: Are there any other schools you work with?
M: No, I haven’t. That’s something I’d like to do. There’s another lab school in the area, in Bloomington, and we actually had something set up a few months ago where they gonna come visit us and I was gonna go visit them and that got canceled. I’m not sure exactly why they canceled. That’s something I’d be interested in doing. And I’ve also thought it would be interesting to go to some of the local high schools and see how they handle some of the situations that we have too- attendance and things like that. Just to see if there’s best practices that we could share with each other that would help our operation. But I haven’t pursued it.
G: How do you interact with the student body?
M: I don’t a lot. But something like this- this is fun. There’s a student that’s doing their senior project on some of the financial things for Uni, so I’m helping them and giving them things they can work with and work on their senior project. We used to have a lot more interaction with the different clubs, when we had food sales every day, and things like that. And so I had a little more interaction then. But it’s pretty much just seeing them in the hallways and throughout the day.
G: Is there anything else you think students should know about Uni’s finance or operations?
M: We’re here for the students. If it wasn’t for the students, we wouldn’t need to be here. So everything we do, we try to do in order to help make this a more pleasant experience for the students. And that’s what it all focuses around, so whether it’s a facilities issue we’re trying to get resolved, we’re trying to do that because we want students to have a good environment to learn, and that’s really what it comes down to.