Jeannette Beck follows the rules...usually



Jeannette Beck
Jeannette Beck
What does it take to be the assistant department head of ECE ILLINOIS? According to Jeannette Beck, it takes both respect for the rules and a dash of rebelliousness; it takes the love of getting things done but not the desire for credit or recognition; it takes attention to detail and also the ability to step back and see the forest rather than the trees; and it takes wiliness and patience.

For the last 14 years, Beck has been the hub of the wheel that is ECE ILLINOIS. She retired from the university on May 31, 2018. Department Head William H Sanders calls her the department’s “corporate memory.”

“From severe budget cuts, to hiring and raise freezes, to the planning and creation of the new ECE building, to the successful hiring of 27 new tenure-track faculty in the last four years, Jeannette has been an important part of every ECE department initiative,” Sanders wrote in announcing Beck’s retirement.

Beck occasionally finds it surprising to find herself in this position, given her own history of bending and even breaking rules. While she calls herself a bureaucrat, she is all about cutting through red tape, not using it.

“If it is a stupid rule, I work to change it,” she says.

Beck came to Champaign-Urbana as a 17-year-old and never left. She started out as a computer science major, became intimidated by the predominately male environment and switched to math and economics. Throughout her life, she had many jobs, ranging from bartender and bank teller to retail sales. Along the way, she developed the reputation for working well with difficult people and laughs remembering taking dictation once in a (female) boss’s bedroom, “with poodles on my lap.” She decided she wanted to be the boss, so she went back to school full-time and earned an MBA in 1994 with a human resources emphasis. 

When Beck first joined the department, in 2004, she did everything from finance to alumni relations. She helped former department head Richard Blahut implement a department level alumni relations, development, and communications group at the urging of the ECE Alumni Board.

“We were the first unit on campus to bring some of that work into the department,” rather than relying on the central administration, she says. It was a big success, and many other departments followed suit. 

That still left her with responsibility for managing the department’s facilities and finances, which currently include an operational budget of $25 million, not including $50 million in research expenditures; overseeing grants and contracts; as well as the department’s endowment, which involves using the income from the donations per the donors’ wishes. Her job involves managing hundreds of separate accounts according to different departmental functions. 

In her role, she saw herself as a conductor, with four direct reports and approximately 50 staff people working in the department to support the faculty and students. She worked to coordinate, rather than micro-manage. 

“I make sure to hire someone good and then get out of their way,” she says.

Beck also likes a good challenge. She often mentions being able to solve complicated and sometimes “icky” problems. And she does that with a mix of high integrity, the ability to stand up for what’s right, and a desire to help when and where she can. One achievement she’s most proud of is The Daily Byte, the coffee shop in the ECE Building. It was a team effort, she says. When the time came to open the new building, the planned coffee shop operator backed out and no other group wanted to run the shop. Thanks to her own background and some coaching from her children who had experience in the food industry, Beck and the facilities team got it done. They arranged for all the necessary steps including scheduling health inspections, hiring a manager, and purchasing a la Marzocco espresso machine on the advice of Professor Maxim Raginsky. The communications team created a contest to name the coffee shop. “Hiring Jane Bailie Norder (as manager) was the best thing I did for the shop. All the rest of the credit for its success goes to her,” says Beck. 

Beck loves getting things done, but prefers being in the background. Still, as she heads off to enjoy retirement with her husband, John Beck, retired executive editor of the News-Gazette, she does hope people remember her fondly.  

“I hope people say I was equitable and fair, that I helped more than hurt.”