2021 State of the University
Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021
Chancellor Robert J. Jones
Watch the full speech
Thank you, Provost Cangellaris. And thank you to everyone joining us today – whether here at the Union or watching virtually.
When I delivered this speech last year, in my heart I truly hoped that this 2021 version would begin with some celebratory words about having put COVID-19 behind us. It’s unwelcome news that the Omicron variant may present some new risks. The information on this variant is changing quickly, but as President Biden recently said, it is a “cause for concern not for panic.”
While we are in a far better place today than we were 23 months ago, this pandemic remains a public health crisis. It continues to influence every aspect of our university operations. And COVID-19 remains a disruptive threat to all of us personally and professionally.
Therefore, part of my goal this afternoon is to remind everyone that we are, first and foremost, a university that has refused to be defined, limited or diminished by this virus.
Each year when I prepare for this address, I try to distill my overall sense of the university condition down to a single word. In previous years, the theme has usually coalesced very quickly and clearly in my mind.
Nevertheless, this year, I found myself wrestling with a number of descriptors that seemed to be absolutely accurate and authentic representations of the actions and the spirit I see in our students, faculty, staff and community.
Words such as:
…all of these came to mind.
I have watched every single one of these words assume a uniquely Illinois definition this year.
However, this State of the University address is more than just an assessment of where we are and how we got here. It is my chance to describe and delineate where and how we will continue to move forward. So, that list of words may be appropriate to describe who we have been. But I think the state of our university today is characterized by how we will choose to go about the hard work to rebuild and to recover.
This semester has been a ride on the crests and troughs of variants, vaccinations and testing, as well as intense debates over the most divisive social issues. But from the first day of our fall Welcome Week, I have been struck by a sense of hopefulness and vitality that has found welcome roots at this university. This is particularly telling of our character as we stand here nearly two years into a global health crisis that has given us every good excuse to surrender to distress and sadness.
Instead, today, I see a university that is facing its future with a tangible and growing sense of excitement about its future.
I see a university that is optimistic.
For those of you watching this on live stream, I can tell you that I’m looking around at some of the faces in the audience here. And, while masks are hiding some of the expressions, I saw quite a few eyes narrowing and brows furrowing when I said “optimistic.”
And I know a few of you are probably asking, “Jones, did you accidentally put on your rose-colored glasses this morning?”
Let me just be clear – I am not talking about blind, naïve or wide-eyed optimism.
I am speaking about a well-informed optimism. We are a place that understands the power of evidence. Our decisions and work are always guided by discovery, investigation and knowledge, rather than by fear or apprehension. It is in our DNA as a public research university. And we have seen the very real results of that approach in how we have navigated the unprecedented challenges of the past two years.
What I am seeing and feeling take hold here at Illinois is a thoughtful and cautious and collective recognition of everything we have managed to do together – under the most difficult set of circumstances imaginable. And when you really have the chance to stop, take a breath and assess the full scope and scale of our accomplishments during this dark period, you start to think: “If we have managed to do all this under the weight of a pandemic, what could possibly stand in our way after this is behind us?”
This is clearly the moment when optimism is born.
And I truly believe that is the moment where we stand together today at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Obviously, we can’t discuss the state of the university without talking about the state of the pandemic at this university. Some of this may sound familiar to some of you, but I think it is critically important to remind everyone of the significance and the scale of our university’s response to this crisis.
It has been almost 22 months since the night I sent the message immediately ending in-person instruction for spring 2020. It is a moment in my life I never imagined possible. And it still sometimes seems difficult for me to believe it actually happened.
In the course of about 12 days, we had to rethink almost every operational aspect and programmatic element of this university.
Every decision - EVERY DECISION - we have made and every action we have taken has been guided by one clear and unwavering principle: To maximize the health and safety of our students, our faculty, our staff and members of the community around us.
Our COVID-19 response and the innovations, inventions and advances that have been created by us have allowed our university to move forward safely. They have also saved tens of thousands of lives, expanded the understanding of this horrible virus and provided communities across this state and nation – and around the world – with tools to replicate our model.
I remind you that the innovations started early, when a team of our own researchers and scientists reverse engineered and built the Illinois RapidVent. This is a low-cost, easily produced, portable emergency ventilator that hospitals and emergency providers could use to keep COVID patients alive when the ICUs were being overrun with cases.
At the same time, a team of our researchers was coming together to develop new, real-time, sophisticated models of the spread of the virus. These models were integral in decisions by the State of Illinois that flattened the growth curve of the virus in our state.
And, of course, we invented “The Test,” as we like to call it. In the space of less than two months, our SHIELD team organized itself, conceptualized and created the covidSHIELD saliva-based test that was truly a game-changer for us all. This allowed us to build the unmatched COVID-19 management ecosystem that has let us come back together.
We have administered nearly 2.4 million tests since last July. We designed and developed a mobile analytical lab that can be deployed to allow testing in nearly any location.
When the FDA granted Emergency Use Authorization for our test, we worked with the University of Illinois System to establish two units to deploy our testing program in the state and beyond. And with state support, SHIELD Illinois is now providing free COVID-19 testing to more than 1,700 schools and in numerous communities across our state.
The wide availability of free, safe and effective vaccines has added a tremendous new level of protection for our university and community. As of today, 94 percent of our on-campus population is fully vaccinated – a rate that is more than 30 percent above the county, state and national averages. And the recently added availability of booster shots for the vaccinated and vaccines for many children has brought a new peace of mind to many, many students, faculty and staff.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge our partners at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. From the first day of this experience, they have simply been remarkable. They have told us that the high vaccination rates among our students, along with all of the other mitigation steps we have taken together, have continued to be an extremely effective combination in limiting the transmission of the virus.
So, just like last year, when you look at the data in the surrounding county and communities, our campus and our classrooms are some of the places with the lowest transmission of the COVID-19 virus in our entire state, even as we have moved our instructional offerings back to nearly full, in-person delivery.
This past year has shown all of us how suddenly our worlds can be shaken. We have been reminded that there is an urgency to push forward with the kind of innovations and ideas that can reshape lives and rebuild communities.
I want to take a few minutes to remind everyone just how we have continued to move forward and upward even in the middle of one of the most challenging periods in our history.
There really has been legitimate cause to be optimistic.
- From the beginning of the pandemic, our research enterprise never missed a beat. In fact, it has expanded our sponsored research portfolio to more than $750 million. In addition, we returned to the top spot in NSF funding. This is a position we have held for six of the past seven years. From cancer to COVID-19 to computing to social sciences to advances in how we understand the human condition, this is a place where our scholarship leads to impact.
- You will not find a more impressive example of this than the Carle Illinois College of Medicine – the world’s first engineering-based college of medicine. When I started at Illinois, the college had just received university approval to be formed. Among my first appointments was an inaugural, barrier-breaking dean. In the space of just five years, we have recruited four full classes of students. We have earned provisional accreditation. And we moved the college into a new home in a renovated Medical Sciences Building. And this spring, the first class of Carle Illinois-trained physician innovators will graduate and begin their careers as doctors and medical leaders for the 21st century. I challenge you to find another college of medicine in this country that has evolved so quickly from a big idea to world-changing practice.
- Our research enterprise is also leading the way in innovations to help the world address the issues of food insecurity that threaten our global society. How to feed a rapidly growing population with increasingly limited natural resources during a period of global climate change is an existential challenge. With research that is unlocking the genetic code of photosynthesis that can increase food production by more that 25 percent, the epicenter of the fight to feed the world is right here on our South Farms.
- The re-openings of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the Krannert Art Museum and the Spurlock Museum were greeted by the loudest collective sigh of relief I think this community has ever heard. From the return of the ELLNORA to the festival of writers to exhibitions that use art to help us think more consciously about disability and access – we’re all reminded of the cost of COVID-19 to our human spirits. And this comes after a year when these institutions and our College of Fine and Applied Arts were national leaders in finding innovative ways to keep the arts and the performing arts accessible to all of us – even while we were so limited in our physical presence.
- Our recently established Humanities Research Institute was awarded a new $5 million dollar research grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to lead a 16-university consortium exploring the contributions of humanities to high impact, publicly engaged research.
- We made two of the most historic and barrier breaking hires this year. We appointed the first African American and first humanistic scholar as the dean of LAS. And we hired the very first Associate Vice Chancellor for Native Affairs.
- Our University Library – the intellectual heart of this institution – is about to embark on the first phase of a long-needed massive renovation and renewal.
- And last week, we announced the first phase of long-overdue new building for our ethnic and gender and women’s studies programs.
- Our faculty are leading the nation in harnessing the transformational power of quantum sciences and information that will be the defining technology of the 21st century.
From our role at the core of the 200 million-dollar Chicago Quantum Exchange facility to our new 200-million-dollar IBM-Illinois Discovery Accelerator Institute, pushing the edges of AI and hybrid cloud computing, this university is planting a very large flag on this landscape. We are announcing that our state will be the physical and intellectual center of this century’s quantum sciences revolution.
I cannot overstate the importance of our leadership in quantum science and technology. Our world is on the verge of a leap forward that will be at least as significant as the digital revolution of the 20th century. And just as we were then, our university is right on the front edge of this quantum and hybrid cloud-computing century. There is an intense national and international competition going on as we speak. It is critical that we hold our place at the front to ensure that the quantum future is shaped in a way that leads to equitable social transformation even as it fosters a new scientific revolution.
The Chicago Quantum Exchange project I mentioned is a prime example what I am talking about. This is a partnership with the University of Chicago and our national labs to advance the science and engineering of quantum information, to train the quantum workforce of tomorrow, and to drive the local and national quantum economy. To my knowledge, this is the only such project in the country to integrate scientific and technological advances with the health and growth of the community in which it is centered. A core component of this partnership is the Inclusive Innovation Initiative to ensure a quantum “community impact” that contributes to the economic growth of the entire region. It will leverage both federal and state investments in quantum innovation and directly invest in the Southside community where the Chicago Quantum Exchange facility will reside.
We have a chance to be the architects of a quantum future that doesn’t just bring economic vitality and wonderful advancements to how we live. We can learn from past leaps forward to construct a system that offers these tremendous benefits without the bias and inequality that left so many individuals and communities behind.
- Since coming to the university, an integral pillar of my agenda has been to ensure that we stand out as a preeminent, research-intensive, publicly engaged, land-grant, anchor institution for the 21st century. I was determined to reimagine and reinvest in public engagement and to rebuild it in the wake of the 2016 budget impasse. I hired Executive Associate Chancellor Wanda Ward in 2018 to lead the development of a campus-wide Public Engagement enterprise. She has led the development of an increasingly robust presence on campus, in the broader Champaign-Urbana community and in Chicago.
We’ve built STEM Illinois, an intergenerational K-12 STEM education program offered virtually and in local recreation centers. Part of STEM Illinois is the inaugural NSF-funded Nobel Project. This brought the students together with two different Nobel Prize winners and offered them training in skills like coding, entrepreneurship and innovation, wealth creation, healthcare, and engineering design and development.
In collaboration with several campus units we have established “We CU,” a unique program that empowers our students to make a positive impact in the community while building their resume and enriching their university experience.
We are engaged in the ongoing development of an evidence-based Minority-Serving Institutions Alliance that will provide a clear pathway – from undergraduate through post-doctoral opportunities – for students and create faculty exchange opportunities for between our university and these institutions.
And our Public Engagement enterprise is steering the Inclusive Innovation Initiative I already mentioned a few moments ago as part of the Chicago Quantum Exchange.
We are truly taking the bold steps to redefine public engagement for the 21st century for this university and for the State of Illinois.
And, speaking of impressive numbers, last spring, we reached and surpassed the 2.25-billion-dollar goal of our “With Illinois” fundraising campaign. This was the most ambitious fundraising goal in our history. We reached it more than a year ahead of schedule. And we did so during the worst global health crisis in living memory.
In fact, this fall has brought us one of the most impressive and sustained series of celebrations of amazing new donor-supported facilities and programs that I have ever seen in all my years in higher education. There were a few days this fall when it felt like we are running frantically from one ribbon-cutting to the next – while carrying 2-foot-long scissors. It may have been an elementary school teacher’s nightmare, but it was a chancellor’s dream!
- It started with the dedication of Demirjian Park as the new home to our track and soccer programs.
- We cut the ribbon on the rejuvenated Medical Sciences Building as the new home of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine.
- Applied Health Sciences dedicated the revolutionary new McKechnie Family LIFE Home research facility to develop the next generation of homes for healthier living for people of all ages.
- We dedicated the renovated and renewed Sidney Lu Mechanical Engineering Building.
- We formally opened the state-of-the-art Campus Instructional Facility, and I’m happy to report that it’s already in use by 36 different departments.
- Last month, we welcomed Tom and Stacey Siebel back to campus to celebrate the dedication of the Siebel Center for Design.
- And we broke ground on the new Doris Kelley Christopher Illinois Extension Center, which will be the new, permanent home for Extension in the State of Illinois.
This “growth spurt” is a result of our philanthropic support – matched by a reinvigorated capital development program from our state. I cannot over-exaggerate the generational impacts Governor Pritzker’s Build Illinois capital program will have on this university. This was the first capital program in a decade, and it has already obligated more than 400 million dollars in new construction and deferred maintenance funding to us.
All of these recent milestones add up to new, transformational experiences for generations of students to come. And they are all very striking reminders of the confidence and faith our friends, alumni and donors have in the power of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to change the world for the better.
There is one specific aspect of our collective, institutional character that has become abundantly clear to me during my time as chancellor here. Every crisis we face becomes the catalyst for new ideas, new initiatives and new approaches that help our local community, our state, our nation and the world heal and recover more quickly. I have never seen an institution that is more inspired or more driven to use crisis as catalyst for rebirth, reinvention and rebuilding.
There is no doubt that our response to the COVID-19 pandemic has had a measurable impact locally, regionally and internationally. But at the same time, we have also been establishing ourselves as a leader in higher education. Our response to the parallel crisis of injustice, inequity and systemic racism has brought that into clear focus during COVID-19. This virus didn’t just expose us to an insidious infection, it exposed deep and wide societal differences in everything from access to healthcare and the meaning of freedom of speech and expression – to political ideology and questions of when individual rights should give way to the common good.
As a public university, we have a responsibility to leverage our enormous intellectual resources to help find new and better ways to heal those divides and create pathways where inclusion and respect guide the solutions. This was the foundation of our Call to Action to Address Racism and Social Injustice. The Call to Action Research program funded 22 projects in its first year. And just weeks ago, we announced the call for proposals for the second year of funding. We’ve embarked on this effort to leverage the intellectual and scholarly power of this university to address these challenges that hold so many in our society back.
I am not aware of any other program of this scale and scope at any other university in the country. And if you go look at the range and scope of the first projects to come forward, you are going to have a very clear idea of just how quickly and how significantly our university community can -and will- lead the way to real, measurable change.
Nothing amplifies disparities in our community more than lack of access to economic opportunity that is both equitable and just. We know economic development must be as focused on inclusive participation as it is on bottom lines.
When it comes to leveling the field for economic prosperity, “inclusive education,” “inclusive innovation” and “inclusive entrepreneurship” are all essential for success. This is why, in addition to leading a state-wide partnership in the preparation of the most diverse and adaptable workforce, we must expand the reach and impact of our innovation and entrepreneurship. And our efforts must start right here in Champaign-Urbana.
Our Research Park continues to serve as the third largest employer in the area. And we are committed to expanding its size and impact. We’re going to be bringing more private partnerships and investments from globally recognized companies to our community. And we are excited to see a number of those who are already in the Park expanding their footprint. Our partners in the Park now employ more than 800 students - more than any other park in the nation. This provides our graduates with a tremendous career advantage. At the same time, these companies benefit from one of the most talented and best prepared workforces in the world. This is exactly the kind of workforce that leads them to invest in – and to remain in – our local community. And with our plan to develop residential housing in the Park, it becomes an even better place to live, work and play.
Last year saw a record level of revenue generated from entrepreneurial activities across our university enterprise. And we are re-investing those funds to establish a stronger cross campus culture of entrepreneurship that will move our innovations and discoveries even more quickly into impact in our society.
When it comes to talking about advances in inclusive innovation in the agricultural and life sciences, there is no more important place to be than right here in Central Illinois. In the past year, we have organized our ag tech infrastructure for real impact. This includes the building of a state-of-the-art RIPE project greenhouse in the Research Park with funds from the Gates Foundation. It also includes building an impressive modern feed technology center on the South Farms. We were also awarded state funds to build Lab Works, a facility that provides turn-key lab spaces for early stage agricultural and life sciences companies. And in partnership with our community, we launched the Ag accelerator which is already attracting teams across the nation to Champaign-Urbana.
But we aren’t just driving inclusive innovation, entrepreneurship and equitable growth right here in Champaign-Urbana. We have our sights set on doing the same for Chicago.
As the largest university in the state of Illinois and as the flagship research and land grant university, we must remain firmly anchored in Urbana-Champaign while thinking about how we best serve every geographical region of state. There is no geographic location where our presence is needed more and more requested than in the Chicago Metropolitan area. I believe that our excellence in decades to come will depend, in part, on having a strategic and high-impact presence in a region that is home to nearly FOUR out of EVERY FIVE residents of our state.
Even before COVID, I set out a goal for us to have a more visible presence in Chicago and that started with me. For the past two years, I’ve spent several days a month – virtually and physically – in the Chicago area working to field new partners, establish new connections and deepen our existing ones. Our status as the anchor in the University of Illinois System-led Discovery Partners Institute provides us with a tremendous Chicago foothold. And it significantly raises our profile in terms of creating public-private partnerships that accelerate the translation of research to real life impact.
The future economic and social health and growth of our entire state – and the entire Midwest – hinge on Chicagoland’s success in rebuilding from COVID-19. It must reinvent itself as a leader in the technology, information, transportation, energy, manufacturing and health sciences industries that will be the primary drivers for the rest of the 21st century.
If you are looking for a place that is designed to be the launching platform for inclusive innovation and inclusive entrepreneurship, there is no population center in the country that is better positioned than Chicago is with the diversity and human capacity to foster these.
And no university in the country better develops human capacity at excellence and scale than us.
This coming year, we are going to dramatically and rapidly expand our Chicago connection efforts in a coordinated, strategic, university-wide engagement and partnership building campaign. We are going to create a wave of Illinois influence that is laser-focused on helping the city build out a regional ecosystem for entrepreneurship. This will serve as a magnet for the same kind of highly educated, highly trained and highly paid workforce that catalyzed Silicon Valley in the 20th century.
It is time for the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to step up and embrace the responsibility of becoming the catalyst and the enabler of Chicago’s reinvention as the national center for the transformative potential of inclusive entrepreneurship.
Chicago is a critical strategic priority for us, but we must also invest in our own capacity for innovation right here in Urbana-Champaign. Provost Cangellaris likes to say that the 20th century was marked by a digital revolution, but this one will be defined by advances in technology that empower individuals and communities to live in healthier, safer and more sustainable ways.
We are standing at the early stages of a convergence of virtually every one of our academic disciplines around health, wellness, diagnostics, and medicine. This convergence offers the possibility of the largest leap forward in the human condition in our history. We are going to harness and guide this convergence here at Illinois in ways that are simply not possible at any other university in the country.
We have a vision emerging for a new integrated, technology-driven academic health ecosystem here that will foster a continuum of research ranging from basic biomedical sciences to clinical studies and practice to applied technologies to the social sciences. We are visionary leaders in every disciplinary aspect that contributes to human health and wellness – from genomics to sensors and imaging to socio-economic impacts to human nutrition to sustainability to digital agriculture to aging, cognition and lifelong learning.
In the next year, we are going to embark on a singular effort to design and begin constructing a cohesive and coordinated infrastructure to truly bring them together in an integrated way that generates even more innovation without creating administrative and disciplinary barriers.
We are unencumbered by the long-established disciplinary and scholarly walls and obstacles that limit the academic health research centers of so many other universities. We have a wide-open and unrestricted lane to do so in a way that no one else in the world ever imagined. This is exactly the path that brought us the Carle Illinois College of Medicine.
I hope I’ve given you all a few reasons to support my assertion that we are university community fueled by an honest and realistic optimism for the future.
But I believe our greatest points of pride are not to be found by talking about WHAT we have done at Illinois.
They are to be found in the ways our students, faculty, staff and members of our community have shown – when it matters the most – WHO we are at Illinois.
At every turn and at every crisis point since we began this long journey, as a university community, we have responded with compassion, collaboration and commitment to do whatever was necessary to protect those around us.
These qualities have always been the hallmarks of this university. But to me, they have never been more important, more visible nor shined more brightly than these past two years.
That is exactly why I stand here and tell you that optimistic IS the state of the university as I see it today.
As some of you know, I officially began my sixth year as chancellor of this great university at the end of September.
I never expected to have to lead this institution through a global health crisis. But I could not be prouder of the accomplishments, achievements and leadership of each and every one of you, even in the very darkest of times.
I am even more excited about where we will go together and the impact we will have on the world than I was on my first day here on September 26, 2016.
And there is no doubt that the world waiting on the other side of this global crisis will be in greater need than ever before of the kind of bold actions and audacious innovations that are the hallmarks of this university.
Thank you for your time. And thank you for giving me so many reasons to be optimistic about our future.