State of the University
Thursday, October 27, 2022
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Robert J. Jones, Chancellor
Thank you, Provost Bernhard. And thanks to everyone joining us today – whether in person at the Illini Union or watching virtually.
And I want to extend a very special thank you to the distinguished guests and members of the Illinois family who will be standing at this podium a little later. Welcome to Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, the recently retired – and legendary – president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. And an equally warm welcome to Dr. Ruth Watkins, the former president of the University of Utah and the current president of Strada Impact. President Hrabowski holds two degrees and an honorary doctorate from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. President Watkins spent much of her academic career here first as a faculty member and later serving as a vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.
Both have very important connections to this place and today is, I hope, a happy homecoming for each of them.
But please make no mistake, we’re happy to see them back, but we intend to put them to work for their university today.
Since I joined Illinois in 2016, my State of the University address has become an annual tradition. But this year will be a bit different. This year we are linking my remarks with our university Strategic Plan Summit. And we will be opening the summit with a conversation with President Hrabowski and President Watkins.
So, yes, for those of you who already thinking it, I’ll just say it out loud. I am, in fact, the “opening act” for Freeman Hrabowski and Ruth Watkins. And I promise you, that’s a tour I’d be excited to join at any time in any place. It’s good work if you can get it.
Ruth and Freeman, it is truly my pleasure to have you both joining us to launch the planning of the next phase of our university strategic plan. I look forward to your remarks and I hope my comments help set the framework for the conversation this afternoon.
The future of this university and more specifically – strategically positioning ourselves for that future – was my focus as I started to think about what I’d say today. And the coincidence of good timing that allowed us to combine this event with our Strategic Planning Summit crystallized that approach.
I am extremely proud that even through the frequent and seemingly endless cycles of COVID-19 uncertainty, this university has continued to move forward in every aspect of our mission. But we all know the effort slowed some of the tremendous momentum we had going into 2020.
The pandemic appears to be waning and some of that weight has been lifted from us this year. We have the luxury and capacity to raise our sights a little further afield. And we have the chance to consider how we orient ourselves to provide the solutions our community, our state and our nation will need to rebuild and recover.
The overriding question for me became how I would characterize the way I believe we should position ourselves for that future.
The answer was sitting right in front of me. And it has been there since March of 2020 when I had to send everyone home.
It has been manifest in every action we have taken together.
I have seen it in every difficult decision our students, staff and faculty have made to protect one another.
We are a university that truly believes that when we THINK BIG and ACT BOLDLY, the world changes for the better.
We’ve got 155 years of legendary scholars, graduates and accomplishments to back that up.
Our response to COVID-19 very clearly reminded us that this spirit of innovation and accomplishment that is in our DNA is just as vibrant and just as important today as it was in 1867.
Every time Illinois focuses our collective attention on solving problems everyone else says are “impossible,” they have to rewrite the definition of that word.
So, the state of our university today is one that is BOLDLY shaping our future together!
I do want to clarify something I said just a few minutes ago when I suggested that the pandemic had taken some momentum away. That is not a criticism. It is not any kind of negative reflection on our accomplishments. Rather it is a testament to this university’s commitment to putting the greater good of our community above our own individual goals and agendas.
And instead of using this pandemic as an excuse to stand still or to wait to follow the lead of other institutions, we instead used what we learned in these very hard times to reframe and refocus every aspect of our missions in preparation for what our society will need to rebuild and recover.
So, it may be today’s theme, but we started demonstrating what “Boldly Illinois” really means on March 16, 2020. And we have not looked back or slowed down since that day. In fact, I believe we have reminded ourselves that when the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign talks about solving the grand challenges of our time, that isn’t just a slogan. It is a promise we mean to keep.
Now, let me be perfectly clear. When you start to look at our accomplishments this past year – what we consider “losing some momentum,” most other universities would call a year of historic proportions.
All you have to do is just look at our new undergraduate class to see that an Illinois experience remains in very high demand among students in our state, across the country and around the world. We welcomed our second-largest new class ever. And our total enrollment reached a 155-year high. We have 52 countries around the world represented. And with more than 70 percent coming right here from the state, we are again, by far, the largest provider of undergraduate education in Illinois. And I’m particularly proud to say that the percentage of first-generation college students increased significantly this year – up to 23 percent – our highest number ever.
And thanks to Illinois Commitment – our promise of four years of free tuition and fees to admitted Illinois residents with family incomes of $67,100 or less – access to the best education in the world remains very affordable. As I speak today, there are more than 6,000 students who have found an Illinois education attainable thanks to the Illinois Commitment.
We aren’t just admitting and enrolling these students. We are continually improving the support services and the academic programs we offer to ensure that they find success and that they walk away from here with a degree in hand. Our six-year graduation rate is 84 percent. That is about 22 percentage points higher than the average for four-year universities in this country.
We also continue to provide new support programs outside of the classroom that are just as critical to their success. We launched a successful and very well-received program for online scheduling of student appointments for counseling services. We have funded seven new permanent staff positions for embedded counselors in units across the campus to put more support in closer proximity. And we have begun hiring the staff members who will lead the creation of a new Basic Needs Center that will act as a virtual and physical hub to support students in accessing essential services that impact health, belonging and improve their overall well-being.
When they graduate – our students continue to find themselves starting their careers with debt far below the national average. More than half of our graduates leave with zero debt. I’m going to say that again because politicians always look at me with great skepticism when I say that the first time. More than half of our graduates leave with no debt. And for those who do have loans – the average amount they owe is right around $23,000. An Illinois education for the equivalent of a new car loan seems like a pretty good long-term investment to me.
And those new graduates continue to find their first post-college destination at a truly astounding pace. Last year 94 percent of our 2021 graduates had secured their first destination within six months of earning their degree. And for those who took full-time jobs, their average starting salary was $69,000.
More access, more affordable, more success, less debt, more opportunities.
In just ten words, I have just made the most compelling and, I think, most powerful case for the value proposition of an Illinois education that frankly I can imagine.
And we know that world-class students are coming here because the word is out that this is the place where you find truly world-class faculty waiting to meet you. I do not know if this year has set a historic record for faculty honors and awards, but it has been the most impressive list of honors since my arrival.
- There was a Guggenheim.
- There were two new members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
- There was one National Endowment for the Arts recipient.
- We had 14 new members join the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.
- There were 15 NSF Career Award recipients on this campus last year.
- This fall, one of our faculty received the Kavli Prize in Nanoscience – an award that regularly precedes a Nobel Prize.
- Three new members were inducted into the National Academy of Engineering.
- There was one new member of the National Academy of Sciences.
- And with last week’s news of a new member of the National Academy of Medicine, we made a sweep of the national academies this year.
Our infrastructure for scholarship and research continued to grow across our entire enterprise. Last year saw $731,000,000 in research expenditures. That was up more than five percent over the previous year, and it was the sixth consecutive year of growth. Yes, that is exactly right. Our research enterprise has grown throughout the pandemic. And this isn’t just about the dollar figures. From better understanding of autism to advancing quantum computing to tracking political coups around the world, the scope of our research and scholarship is what we mean when we are talking about inclusive innovation.
We also continued to demonstrate how our land-grant university mission also comes with the responsibility to step beyond our classrooms, our libraries and our research facilities in order to engage with our communities.
- We collaborated with SHIELD CU and SHIELD Illinois to provide free COVID-19 testing to our local community.
- We formed the Coordinating Council of Public Engagement, designed to effect greater campus-wide strategies to help achieve even more national recognition as a premier land-grant, publicly engaged institution of higher education.
- We utilized our University of Chicago - Illinois partnership to address business diversity, youth entrepreneurship, K-12 education and urban research as a companion initiative to the Chicago Quantum Exchange.
- And this summer, we convened Champaign-Urbana anchor institutions including Carle, Busey, OSF, Christie, and the United Way to provide $300,000 to support the local Victory Over Violence initiative to address gun violence right here in our community.
And if you’re wondering how our community, our alumni and our friends around the world respond when they see their university acting boldly and acting with purpose, that was on full display just two weeks ago.
During one of the biggest celebrations we’ve had on campus during our Homecoming and Foundation Weekend, we also wrapped up the most ambitious philanthropic campaign in our history. When I stepped onto a very big stage in 2017 and announced to the world that our With Illinois Campaign was going to raise $2.25 BILLION in five years, there were a lot of people who told me “Jones, there’s no way a public university can meet that kind of goal.”
Now, I do have to publicly admit that the skeptics got part of it right. We DID NOT raise $2.25 billion in FIVE years. We got there in just FOUR years. And we just kept going until we reached a final figure just short of $2.7 billion. That is 2.7 BILLION – with a capital “B.” And we did this in the middle of the worst global health crisis in living memory.
So THAT is the kind of year we are having as we start to truly recover and rebuild our pre-COVID-19 momentum.
I believe we are truly hitting our stride again. The confidence and faith we found in ourselves these last three years has really given us a new sense of freedom. We have learned that even an institution of our size and scale can turn on a dime. And we understand that we are coming out of a dark tunnel into a world that no longer has the time nor the patience for “the way things used to be done.”
This is the heart and soul of Boldly Illinois. Maybe for the first time in a century, we have an open lane to lay out a new vision and plans for the future of our university. And beginning to set that common and shared foundation is really what the conversation today is all about.
But I also want to challenge you all to fearlessly embrace the idea of thinking big and dreaming boldly as we move forward as a university.
I want us to pursue the coming years with same kind of audacity and courage that led our university to create the first engineering-based college of medicine in the world. Carle Illinois went from an interesting idea to graduating the first class of physician-innovators in less than ten years. In doing so, it is catapulting our university-wide health sciences and innovation ecosystem to even greater heights. We have leveraged our preeminence in basic sciences, engineering and the social sciences. We have created an enterprise of discovery that touches on everything from new drug development to explorations of inequities in care to our transdisciplinary Cancer Center at Illinois. I will tell you again that we are absolutely determined to make the Cancer Center at Illinois the largest and most impactful basic cancer research center in the country. And I’m excited to announce for the first time right here and right now, that effort is going to dramatically accelerate when we start construction on the new, state-of-the-art building in our University Avenue Medical District that will be the physical home for the Cancer Center at Illinois. This will of course be complemented by our Translational Research Facility, which will also be built as part of the state’s investment in DPI.
It is also time for this university to be as bold and imaginative in reshaping research and practice around climate change, clean energy and the environment as we have been in medicine and health care. I believe we have the greatest accumulation of expertise in the world in these fields distributed throughout our university. It is time we assembled those components in a strategic, comprehensive and sustained manner. And just like we learned with health sciences – the whole becomes magnitudes greater than the sum of its parts.
We need to be equally bold and unapologetic when it comes to facing the persistent and continuing pandemic of systemic racism and inequality that is as much a threat to our society as rising temperatures or floods. We have taken significant leaps forward with our Call to Action. The first two years of collaborative research projects and initiatives have built new connections to our communities. They are already creating new avenues and new methods of both scholarly exploration and discourse around some of the most divisive and most difficult issues of our time. We see that kind of bold thinking in the incorporation of DEI issues into our promotion and tenure evaluation. And we see it in our expanding investments in people and programs to put Native peoples truly at the center of our educational, research and engagement missions. But the Call to Action must also be an unrelenting expectation that this university will embed diversity, equity and inclusion into our DNA in the same way we have done with innovation and invention.
We must become equally bold in stepping outside of our traditional university comfort zones if we are to truly deliver on our land-grant missions in the most effective, far-reaching and sustainable ways.
The model for community engagement today is one where universities like ours are present in communities by their invitation and because we have resources to help them address challenges. “We’re the University of Illinois and we’re here to help you” just won’t cut it any longer. So we need to find ways to build relationships and partnerships with the agencies and organizations that are known and trusted in those communities already. Our partnership in East St. Louis with the Jackie Joyner Kersee Foundation is one example. We have enormous resources for education and outreach, but a limited presence and a limited exposure in that community. The JJK Foundation has unlimited trust and support and a deep connection to this region. We are there with them, but it is a relationship that is driven by that community’s priorities and needs.
If you want an example of the payoff of these bold partnerships – I would point to our first year as a founding university partner with HOPE Chicago. HOPE Chicago is a privately funded non-profit that has set out a goal of providing debt-free college education to 30,000 Chicago Public Schools students and their parents within the next decade. This year, we had 139 HOPE-sponsored applicants to our fall class. We extended admissions offers to 54. Thirty of those students accepted our offer and are enrolled today. Our annual yield rates from our traditional admissions recruiting process are somewhere in the 30 or 40 percent range. Through our HOPE Chicago partnership, we saw a nearly 50 percent yield rate with students in one of our most important state school districts.
We must also be bold when it comes to our willingness to recognize that our land-grant educational responsibilities to a 21st century society means rethinking some long-held traditional practices at our university. Now, I do NOT see a future for us where we ever stop offering world-class residential, undergraduate and graduate degrees. But, we must recognize that we have an obligation to provide education and training to a new and less-traditional cohort of learners who will need access to education that is more flexible. It is a cohort that will also need more direct upskilling and reskilling opportunities throughout their lives. The million-dollar questions are: How do we create certificate and credential programs for nontraditional students? How do we ladder or stack those in ways that allow for eventual degree attainment in nontraditional timeframes through a combination of on-campus, online and hybrid delivery models? In essence, how do we go back to many of the workforce and skill development services we offered to our community in 1867, while still providing our traditional residential graduate and undergraduate programs at scale and with excellence?
And we need to be bold in our geography. We must have a comprehensive international and global perspective informing every one of the goals we set out – even those that seem to be locally oriented. It is time for us to fully embrace the fact that the responsibilities of being a land-grant university of the 21st century require us to be geographically anchored in the community around us but operating on a global scale. When we approach from that perspective, we can seamlessly integrate and embed this global vision and prioritization within our institutional academic, educational and research DNA. Our land-grant mission has always been to serve our community. We just need to find ways to redefine the boundaries of what we consider our “community.”
And finally, we must be bold and unwavering when it comes to the investments we make in the people and the programs that ultimately define our university. The new strategic faculty hiring initiative we announced last month is a good example of what I mean. This is, at minimum, a $50 million plan to aggressively and very publicly accelerate our efforts to recruit and hire the best and brightest faculty on the planet. Now I know that number raised some eyebrows when we put it out there. We also had a lot of discussion about what we should call the program. I’ll tell you right now what I call it: I call it “a good start.” Because that’s just what it is – the first step.
We must be just as aggressive in compensating and retaining the talent we have now as the talent we recruit. We know that we need to be making equally significant investments in retaining our current faculty. And we know that compensation, support and continuing professional growth and development of our staff must be addressed with equal urgency.
We are fully committed to making those investments. In fact, if you start adding up new investments like the hiring program with those we already have underway or have built into our plans, we’re going to be committing at least $1.3 billion to our operational, academic and research infrastructure in the next four years. Now let me be clear – I’m not saying this is all new money. I’m talking about strategically and intentionally looking at all our funding sources – from gifts to capital funds – and investing more than a billion dollars directly into our people and our programs.
That is a massive commitment of resources. But it is one that I can explain and justify without hesitation and without qualification.
Because I know what the people of this university can and will do with this level of investment. I know it because I have been seen it every day since I arrived here.
You will do the impossible.
You will change the world.
As we stand here today, for the first time in several frantic, frightening and unpredictable years, it feels to me like we have found a welcome and much-needed calm harbor. This is our opportunity to regroup, reimagine and recommit to our land-grant missions of learning, discovery and engagement in service to those in our communities who need us the most.
I feel like we – institutionally and personally – have the rare opportunity to breathe.
I use that word with purpose and with a full awareness of its weight. I’ve talked often and openly since 2020 about the twin pandemics facing our society: COVID-19 and systemic racism and inequity.
And as we all know, whether you are replaying the final pleas from George Floyd or the devastating images of so many COVID-19 victims passing alone, hooked up to ventilators – the simple act of breathing is something none of us will ever again take for granted.
COVID-19 is not behind us, but thankfully it seems to be receding. And every day seems to bring better vaccines, new treatments and earlier detection methods.
Racism, inequality and the correlated individual and community damage they bring are certainly not vanished. But I believe we have seen the dawn of a newer, deeper and broader societal commitment to face these issues more honestly and hopefully more effectively.
So, in this rare moment and bubble of relative quiet and safety, I hope we all take a long, deep, collective breath to remember what we have come through together. And also to finally and fully grieve for those who we have lost in these very hard times.
I realize I’ve talked a great deal today about moving forward and thinking boldly. So, it may seem a little out of place to be ending my remarks this way.
But I think it is important to understand that being “bold” doesn’t mean being “loud.” It certainly doesn’t mean “boisterous.”
It takes tremendous courage and conviction to look honestly at where we have been and to understand what we have come through and the costs of that journey.
A truly bold university is one that is determined to use its momentum to move fearlessly forward. But a bold university is also unafraid to critically and honestly examine its past in order to shape a more strategic and more equitable future for everyone.
Here at Illinois, we always let our actions, our discoveries, our ideas and our values speak for themselves.
And as the events of the past three years have reminded us, when this university stands up, steps forward and applies its collective will to the grandest challenges – lives are saved, communities grow stronger and the world becomes just a little better for us all.
That is the Bold Illinois that I see.
It is my great honor and privilege to serve as your chancellor.
Thank you all for joining me today.