2020 State of the University Address
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Chancellor Robert J. Jones
November 19, 2020
Thanks to all of you for taking the time to join us today.
While it may seem somewhat counter-intuitive, I want to open my State of University address with someone else’s words. Although they were first spoken more than 152 years ago, there may not have been a time during that period where they were more relevant.
It was on March 16 this past spring when I sent the difficult message announcing the end of face-to-face instruction and asking our students to return home if possible. Never in my career would I have imagined myself sending such a note. Nor would I have ever imagined the landscape that we have had to navigate since then.
In a year that has been so hard, so challenging and often feels like it just one layer of darkness placed on top of another, I find inspiration in these words of John Milton Gregory, the first leader of our university:
“It is no ordinary work which we are set to do, and it comes to us under no ordinary circumstances. We are not here to reproduce, in this new locality, some old and well-known style of college or university. The hungry eyes of toiling millions are turned, with mingled hope and fear, upon us, to see what new and better solution we can possibly offer of the great problems on which their well-being and destiny depend.”
Those were words he spoke during the inauguration of this university. And coincidentally, they were delivered on March 11, 1868 – almost exactly 152 years to the day of my COVID-19 decision last spring.
This has become my favorite quote, and I’ve used it several times during my tenure as Chancellor. The first time was at the celebration launching our University Sesquicentennial. And you have probably seen it on the inside covers of our strategic plan, the Next 150.
But it is has never resonated as loudly and clearly as today.
I believe there is no time when we were in more need of Gregory’s hope and vision. And there cannot be many times when the circumstances of our society have ever called out louder to us for help.
These are most certainly days of “mingled hope and fear,” and we are certainly confronted with the greatest problem of our generation.
These are the days when no ordinary work will be enough.
These are the days when new and better solutions are critically needed.
These are the days for which our university was created.
And I am so very proud that throughout these months of unprecedented difficulties and constant uncertainty, our students, faculty and staff have displayed leadership and compassion that is only matched by their innovation of spirit and their strength of character.
The only word that does justice to the state of the university I see around us today is “Resilient.”
And for the first time in my tenure here, I am going to overstep my authority as chancellor to say that I believe that resilience is, in fact, the hallmark of our entire community this year. I must use this opportunity to express my profound gratitude for the leadership, collaboration and determination we have seen in action across this county since January, even before the COVID crisis had really reached us.
We have worked together as partners in name and in true practice every step of the way. This is no accident. It is the dividend of many years of building honest and open relationships between the university and our community. We have used that foundation to create what I describe as a community ecosystem of reliance and trust. And that is why Champaign County is a national model for how truly engaged universities and communities strengthen each other – even in difficult times.
No one in living memory has ever operated a university through a global pandemic.
There are no guidebooks for what we are doing.
The world changed virtually overnight in March for this university and for every person connected to it.
The easy way out would have been to put our heads down, wait it out and hope for the best on the other side of the storm.
Instead, the members of this university and our community chose to boldly show leadership in a crisis where, to be brutally honest, that kind of leadership has been very rare in supply.
In the course of about 12 days we had to re-think almost every operational and programmatic element of this University. We’ve reinvented the educational experience here. We’ve expanded access without sacrificing quality. And we’ve laid foundations for new approaches to improve the university even after the pandemic is behind us.
We retooled, reorganized and restarted one of the most massive university research enterprises in the nation.
We invented and implemented an unmatched COVID-19 mitigation ecosystem that integrates innovative epidemiological modeling and saliva-based testing with an App-based notification system and digital contact tracing. All of this was designed with a single purpose: To keep our university and our community as safe as possible.
We began the semester with in-person, residential experiences that brought more than 35,000 additional people into the community while dropping our local positivity rate nearly by a factor of five.
We opened the year with record enrollment of 52,302 students – despite the challenges globally. And we are celebrating the most diverse undergraduate class in our history.
These are the things I’m thinking about when I tell you we are a university demonstrating the power of resilience.
But while we can take pride in that resilience, we must always balance it with compassion and empathy.
The human impact of this persisting crisis on our students, our staff and our faculty must be acknowledged and addressed.
This seemingly endless cycle of uncertainty and anxiety, compounded by isolation and loss of human connections, really grinds and weighs on all of us.
We worry about those who cannot be with us.
We’re concerned for the health of our families.
We see the devastating and lasting economic impacts on those in our community.
These are the metrics by which we are measuring the human costs of COVID-19. Mental health and self-care must be priorities for each of us individually. And they must also be institutional points of emphasis and investment throughout the duration of the pandemic.
To be clear, we must stay laser focused on preserving the excellence of our university, but as my colleague Provost Andreas Cangellaris says, “The pursuit of quality without an equal commitment to compassion will never be acceptable here at Illinois.”
I know this is hard. I know we are all tired. In part because it’s hard to see when this will end.
But we must continue to take care of one another.
We must find ways to put our hands out to help lift up our friends, family and community members when we see them in need. And we cannot be ashamed to reach out for help when we need it ourselves.
We want to move forward. But we cannot move forward while leaving others behind.
Unfortunately, we must have some frank and open conversations about the financial implications of the pandemic and economic conditions likely to come.
The impacts of two years of COVID will last for decades at least. So, we’re thinking about how we need to begin positioning ourselves now to face the world and environment that will be waiting on the other side of this pandemic.
From day one of this crisis, our priority has been to maximize the safety of everyone in our community. I am so very proud to say the choices we have made during the pandemic have been guided by science, evidence and advice from state and local public health experts – not by the cost of taking those actions.
But, this pandemic has been – and will continue to be – extremely costly. Establishing and operating our testing program this semester alone has cost us about $16 million dollars.
Right now, we are estimating the financial impact from March through the end of this calendar year to exceed $191 million dollars. And we have to assume we are going to see costs and losses continue into the spring.
So far, our state budget has remained stable. But the economic impact on our state is going to be massive as well. So, while we are pleased that our governor and state legislature have voiced their support for us, we have to make contingency plans that include a significant reduction in state funding in the coming years.
Let me be clear. We are not panicking. The 2016-2017 state budget crisis taught us a lot of valuable lessons about navigating difficult financial times. We’re not panicking, but we are making some strategic reductions right now. And we’re working with colleges and units to identify a combination of revenue growth opportunities concurrent with spending cuts that will let us protect our core missions.
This is going to be a multi-year challenge – but we’re laying the groundwork right now to address it with a multi-year strategic approach.
This is clearly the year of COVID-19, and that crisis dominates our collective attention and most of our energy.
But I would also suggest that this pandemic has also directed a new light on a persistent and insidious twin crisis of systemic racism and generationally embedded racial disparity afflicting our society.
The list of lost lives and senseless deaths like those we saw this summer in Minnesota and Kentucky seems to grow by the day.
The COVID-19 pandemic has starkly exposed the huge racial disparities in health and wellness.
Skin color continues to be a major determinant of someone’s educational and economic mobility.
These issues of embedded injustice and inequality have been intensified and actually accelerated by the pandemic.
But unlike the virus, they will not be resolved with the relative convenience and ease of a vaccine. And the ensuing rebuilding and recovery will be hollow, transient and insufficient if it is constructed on the same foundation that is so decayed and compromised by embedded social injustice, inequality, religious intolerance and by the alarming loss of respect for human dignity in our nation’s political discourse.
Our society deserves a better foundation.
That is the goal of our Call to Action to End Racism and Social Injustice announced this summer. It is time to focus the vast and unmatched intellectual and scholarly talent of this 21st century land-grant university on finding effective and innovative solutions to these persistent and destructive issues.
We are going to act in ways that will be comprehensive, measurable, strategic, thoughtful, transparent and rapid. And we must do so with the same sense of urgency, creativity and purpose we have seen in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Navigating the duration of the pandemic…
Helping our community, our state and world rebuild from it…
Addressing the systemic racism that has been generationally embedded in our society…
I don’t believe anyone would ever accuse our university of setting low goals and expectations.
But we are not starting from the beginning here. We have a strong foundation. We have a clear and focused path forward to work with in our strategic plan, The Next 150.
Practicalities of circumstances may slow some of the initiatives we outlined. But circumstances will not change, derail or destroy the ambitious and important strategic goals we have laid out.
If anything, these twin crises have brought the relevance of our plans into crystal clear focus and high resolution. I challenge you to read The Next 150 and find a single goal, value or priority that has not been on prominent display in our actions during this COVID-19 year.
From health and wellness to innovation and discovery to addressing disparities and inequities of access to education to finding new opportunities to steward our resources, this year has demonstrated the relevance and importance of our plan in the most dramatic manner imaginable.
And, given the likely generational impacts of COVID-19 on our state, even the time horizon suggested by the name of the plan – The Next 150 – seems to be suddenly more accurate and appropriate.
I realize my comments today are not as exuberant or joyful as they have been in previous iterations of this address. But above all, this is a place known for honesty and where we tell things as they really are.
But I do not want you to leave this conversation with the impression that these challenges we face are insurmountable.
Nor do I want anyone to mistakenly believe that even a global pandemic can overshadow the spirit of innovation, the creativity and the power of discovery that have been our hallmarks for a century-and-a-half and counting.
Even in the midst of this crisis, we have moved forward at Illinois.
- This fall, we saw one of the most academically talented, most diverse and most accomplished freshman classes in our history join us.
- Overall, we saw our enrollment actually grow to a record high in a year when many predicted college attendance would plummet.
- The Humanities Research Institute was awarded a new $5 million dollar research grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Once again, we see this university recognized as the leading light in scholarship in the humanities.
- The Grainger College of Engineering was named a leading partner in two of the five Department of Energy Quantum Information Science Research Centers established this year.
- Two out of seven new federal research institutes in artificial intelligence will be centered here at Illinois.
- We returned to the top spot in NSF funding. No other university in the nation was awarded more funding than Illinois last year.
- Our friends and alumni continue to demonstrate their confidence in us with their gifts to our “With Illinois” philanthropic campaign. Today, we are more than 95% of the way toward our goal of raising $2.25 billion dollars. This was the largest campaign in our history. We are going to get there ahead of schedule, and we are going to do so in one of the most challenging years in living memory.
- And this week we got the news that three members of our distinguished faculty were listed among the most influential researchers in the world this past year.
- And, if you need any more evidence that you cannot keep Illinois down even during a pandemic, I give you this: Illinois graduate and astronaut Mike Hopkins made his return to space Sunday night. As I speak he is orbiting aboard the International Space Station. A lot of universities like to tell their graduates “The sky is the limit.” Mike Hopkins is living proof that, here at Illinois, that’s not aiming nearly high enough.
Last year in this speech, I suggested the single most important contribution this university offers our society is very simply, and very powerfully, a cause for hope.
Hope for things like a simple, quick test that can keep families and communities safer from a frightening and deadly virus.
Hope for a path forward to put to rest – finally and forever – the inequities and injustices that continue to break spirits and hold too many of us down.
Hope for transformational educational opportunities that cannot not be disrupted even by a global pandemic.
We are in the business of giving people hope when it might seem like there is none to be found.
I have described the state of our university today as resilient.
It is from that resilience that those who need us most in the world today draw hope that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will lead them to the new and better solutions to the great problems on which their well-being and destiny depend.
I truly believe that the work we all do together will change lives, that it will improve the world around us and that it will help everyone re-imagine the possibilities for a better future.
I am humbled and grateful to lead this great university today.
And that is the State of the University as I see it on November 19, 2020.