Read Chancellor Robert Jones’ remarks about our current challenges and ambitious plans for the future of Illinois.
State of the University Address
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Chancellor Robert J. Jones
January 24, 2020
Watch the full speech
Thank you, Provost Cangellaris, for the introduction. And thank you all for joining me for my annual State of the University Address.
As you may recall, we normally hold this event near the end of the fall semester. However scheduling conflicts gave us the opportunity to use it to open our spring semester this year. I think delivering these remarks just a few days shy of the one-year anniversary of the launch of “The Next 150” Strategic Plan is a very good way to celebrate that milestone.
So, before I offer you my assessment on the State of the University today, I want to remind you how I answered that question in the two previous years.
In 2017 I told you I saw a university that was charged with enormous potential. I challenged all of us to use our window of opportunity to transform potential energy into measureable action.
In 2018, I was able to stand at this podium and say that we had accepted that challenge with impressive results. We had converted that ENORMOUS potential into ENORMOUS momentum.
So, where does that leave us this year?
How do I describe the state of the university today?
I see a university that is aggressively, strategically and boldly building for our future.
That is probably obvious to anyone in the physical sense. Cranes, bulldozers and heavy equipment have turned much of our campus into a construction zone.
But when I talk about building for the future today, I mean that in EVERY sense of the word.
Yes, we are rejuvenating and adding new physical spaces.
But at the same time, we are actively building and expanding our capacity to teach, to research and to engage.
We are certainly locked in on EVERY phase of our mission.
“The Next 150” strategic plan establishes an outline for our priorities. It also provides us with the framework to translate our vast potential and momentum into actions and impacts that will span generations. While this may be a five-year plan, the foundation it establishes is going to be recognized and remembered at this university for the next 150 years and beyond. In this past year, we’ve transitioned from planning into systematic and comprehensive efforts to build capacity, to build community and, more importantly, to build trust.
This year has seen us build significant new capacity to learn and to discover.
It started with a bipartisan and on-time state budget that includes the first significant general revenue increase in years. And while the 4.5 percent increase does not restore all of the damage done during the budget crisis, it is a very strong statement from state leaders about the value proposition of investing in this university. We’re very optimistic that this is the first year of an upward trend.
The good state budget news continued with the announcement of our first capital budget in a decade. The bill includes nearly 400 million dollars in new investments. From renovating Altgeld Hall to a new Illini Hall, this is a 400 million dollar vote of confidence in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by our governor and legislature.
We’re also moving forward in planning our most aggressive strategic faculty hiring initiative in history. This will use 50 million dollars of our own funds to leverage a 30 million dollar investment from the President’s Faculty Hiring Program.
We know that recruiting top new faculty is very, very important. But, we also know that the most effective and efficient way to recruit is to reward, support and retain the best and the brightest faculty we already have here at Illinois.
We also know that a great university requires a committed, talented and experienced array of staff members. Last year we faced the challenge of adjusting our staff classifications to comply with new state rules. This process is still ongoing, but one year in, I can say that we haven’t even broken our stride. This is thanks in part to the efforts of our entire Illinois Human Resources team. But it is an equally strong testament to the dedication of the thousands of staff members who remind us each-and-every single day what it means to be an “Illinois Professional.”
We offered a salary program for the third consecutive year. But to be clear, we know that one and two percent raises are necessary. But we also know that we must keep pace with our peers and competitors. Advancing compensation levels of faculty and staff is a critical guiding principle of our budgeting plans. This is one of our highest priorities.
The other priority is continuing to ensure student affordability and access. This fall, we welcomed a record-breaking freshman class. It is the largest in our history. It is the most academically accomplished. And it is the most diverse class on record. This class is evidence of the amazing things that happen when Illinois makes a commitment to the families in our state.
And thanks to the Illinois Commitment program launched last year, about 30 percent of our freshmen and transfer students will have free tuition and fees for the next four years.
Let me repeat that in case you missed it.
Nearly one third of our new class qualified for the Illinois Commitment, which promises four years with free tuition and fees to admitted Illinois residents with family incomes of 61,000 dollars or less. And I hope you heard our announcement last week to expand it to include those with incomes of 67,100 dollars or less – making it available to even more families from Illinois.
This is a game-changer for Illinois families. Instead of believing that THEY CANNOT AFFORD to attend Illinois, students across the state are now saying “I CANNOT afford NOT to apply to Illinois.” We’re also investing in financial aid to support more middle-income Illinois residents through programs like the Aim High initiative and our own scholarships. Our total institutional aid will exceed 100 million dollars this year. And these investments are making an Illinois experience more affordable.
In fact, more than half of our undergraduates leave here with ZERO debt.
For those who DO leave with loans, on average they will owe less than 23 thousand dollars. That is less than the average cost of a new car last year, and it is 20 percent lower than the national average debt incurred by college graduates in this country. And let me remind you, an Illinois degree APPRECIATES the moment you walk off the stage with it.
And our new graduates continue to find career and educational opportunities at incredible rates. The latest results of our Illini Success survey shows that 91 percent of our new graduates reported finding their first full-time post-graduate destination within SIX months. And for those who started jobs, the average salary was about twenty percent above the national average.
So I hope you see that we ARE making this university more accessible and affordable for more students. At the same time, we are taking strong steps to ensure they find a community that welcomes and supports them when they arrive.
Historic strides in enrollment, access and affordability and graduation rates are only part of our story. Our Student Success Initiative launched this fall is a cornerstone of our commitment to ensure that we are providing our students with a transformational experience from the moment they arrive to the day they graduate.
The Student Success Initiative challenges us to rethink and re-examine every aspect of our programs.
How will we shrink the gap in graduation rates between the overall campus average and that of students from underrepresented populations?
How do we create new support models and create more resources for mental health and wellness?
How do we scale up internship and work experience programs like those we have in the Research Park or the City Scholars in Chicago?
We know we bring in amazingly talented new students. We need to make sure we are providing them the opportunities to be even more successful and more accomplished when they leave here. And we need to make sure those opportunities are the same for everyone who enrolls at this university.
Our capacity-building is also creating a stronger, more diverse, more resilient and more compassionate community.
We were extremely pleased to welcome Sean Garrick as our inaugural Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
We are expanding staffing and programmatic support across our diversity and inclusion enterprise.
The rejuvenated and reimagined Bruce Nesbitt African American Cultural Center officially re-opened its doors to our community.
The historic La Casa Murals that were removed in 2013 have been fully restored and will be making their public return in just a few days.
The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation is hiring the first coordinator for campus activities under the Native American Graves Protection and Re-patriation Act. This is a federal law that requires institutions like ours to take culturally affiliated human remains, sacred objects and other pieces of cultural importance and return them to Native American tribes and their descendants.
In the spring we held a work session with more than 100 civic leaders to identify shared challenges and priorities for our entire community. One of the priorities identified by those who joined us was related to K-12 educational opportunities and access for underrepresented students in Urbana-Champaign. As a result of this, in partnership with community educators, we have established “STEM-Illinois.” This pilot program will offer more local students the skills and knowledge they need to prepare themselves for college and the careers of the 21st century.
And just as we’re building capacity for a stronger community here, we’re also building new bridges and connections across geographies and across disciplines.
The Research Park has made the full transition to governance by our university. This was the first step in our plans to expand the Research Park – both in scope and in mission.
Our engagement with the Discovery Partners Institute in downtown Chicago and the University of Chicago partnership in Hyde Park continue to narrow the geographic distance between our communities. As a public land-grant university, we must have a strategic and high-impact presence in the region that is home to nearly FOUR out of EVERY FIVE residents in our state.
And while we’re building these bridges and networks, we’re also taking some dynamic, public and very bold steps to make sure everyone knows the impact this university has in Illinois, across the country and around the world.
On January 2nd, our Office of Strategic Marketing and Branding, under the leadership of our Chief Marketing Officer, Eric Minor, launched the largest public marketing, branding and reputation-building campaign in our history.
This is a national campaign with a very heavy presence in Chicago. Whether you’re driving in the Loop, taking the El, walking into an elevator, listening to the radio, on social media or just walking out of a train station, you are going to see a lot more orange and blue. And you are going to learn what we mean when we talk about “The Power of I.”
We’re finished being quiet about the impact and about the power of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
And I’m not talking about bragging here.
I’m simply talking about making sure the faculty, staff, students and alums of this great university get the credit they deserve for the amazing things they contribute to the world.
There is no doubt that we are building for a very bright future at Illinois today. But some of the same challenges we have seen in past years continue to undermine our progress and to limit our potential.
The three most critical challenges as I see them are these:
Issues related to campus climate and free speech, and;
The persistence of Chief Illiniwek.
Chief Illiniwek and our history with Native American Imagery continues to be a point of division and contention across our entire university and alumni network.
Last year, I charged a Commission on Native Imagery to offer recommendations on a path forward. The commission delivered its final report to me in June.
I have charged my senior leadership team and others with exploring the necessary next steps in vetting and implementing the Commission suggestions.
I believe a critical first step is to document the full history of Chief Illiniwek at this university. Chief Illiniwek is a part of our institutional history that we must acknowledge and document. We cannot ignore the role it played here for nearly eight decades. Nor can we ignore the role our university played in perpetuating it.
It is critical for any institution or community to understand the human meaning of its past. So, we are consulting with members of our faculty to identify a respected and established historian to create a comprehensive history that will be impartial and honest. It will focus on both the intent and on the impact of that history here at Illinois.
We’re also expanding our partnerships with Native Nations to better attract, retain and support Native students. We want to become the higher educational destination of choice for Native students at both the undergraduate and the graduate level. So I am very excited to announce a major step forward in that effort here today.
Beginning this fall, any admitted student who is an enrolled member of a federally recognized Native Nation will pay the same tuition and fees as an Illinois resident no matter the state in which they live. To those whose ancestors may have been the first residents OF this land, we hope this is seen as an invitation to return home to Illinois.
A third focus area is working to establish new traditions that build school spirit and bring us together. We need to find common ground where our students, alumni, faculty, staff and fans can all take pride in their connections with this university.
We must move beyond the frustration, the anger and the division generated by Chief Illiniwek more than a decade after its retirement.
Among the other challenges we face, one of the most pressing is the issue of sexual misconduct and discrimination. It undermines every single mission of this university. We are committed to taking actions that ensure our practices live up to our values.
In October we released the report we commissioned from the Committee on Faculty Sexual Misconduct. This was a COMPREHENSIVE review that came with a COMPREHENSIVE set of recommendations. We’ve already put some of these into action.
We’ve increased staffing in the Office of Access and Equity. We’ve increased financial and administrative support for the Women’s Resource Center. And we began working immediately with the Academic Senate and campus stakeholders to follow the appropriate processes and procedures to strengthen our policies.
These proposals are designed to increase the transparency of our processes. And they will also allow us to respond to sexual misconduct more quickly and more decisively.
Our end-goal is very clear. It is to build a campus climate that is intolerant of sexual harassment and that empowers every member of our university community in the pursuit of their careers, lives and educations. And I believe we have taken some important steps forward in delivering on that obligation this year.
And the final major challenge I see is creating a campus climate of tolerance, dialogue and open expression.
We must always be a place where the free expression of ideas, speech and perspectives are fostered and protected. But we must always stand up and respond when our fundamental values are attacked.
We are making great progress in enhancing diversity by every definition. We’ve hired our first vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion. We’re increasing staffing in key areas. We’re adding new training and educational programs for students, staff and faculty. And this fall we welcomed the most diverse new undergraduate class in our history.
But, make no mistake about it, our work IS NOT FINISHED.
This record-breaking year at Illinois has brought us a noose, swastikas and racist outbursts shouted from cars on our busiest campus street. These are issues that cause concern for safety. They undermine the collaborative spirit of our university. And they are leading more members of our community than ever before to seek out mental health and support resources.
And as we move further into an intensive and heated election year, we must be prepared for discourse and debates that will challenge our community’s unity.
I think you will all agree that elections are competitions between differing points of view. Even in the best of times, that competition can be fierce and it can be divisive. But we must be prepared to come together as a community in these months ahead.
We have an opportunity and a responsibility to model how people from different walks of life, with different perspectives, can — and must — come together to learn, to work and to live.
Our similarities unite us. But so do our differences.
No matter where you come from.
No matter your sexual orientation, your gender or your race.
No matter what…
You will be respected here at Illinois.
And you will always have a voice in our university and in our community.
When you make the choice to come here to Illinois, you will always be welcome here.
But at Illinois, you will also be expected to BE welcoming to others.
Now, by welcoming, I don’t mean we always have to agree with one another. I don’t even really mean we have to like one another. By “welcome” I simply mean that everyone who joins this community will have a place. I just ask that we each give others the space and freedom to find their own place.
These are our deepest values.
This is a year when we need those values to stand up front-and-center.
And this a year when we need to demonstrate those values by our actions.
I’ve said it in mass e-mails. I’ve said it in newspaper interviews. I’ve said it from podiums in rooms all across this campus and across the country. And I’m going to say it again, RIGHT HERE and RIGHT NOW:
We will not tolerate racism here at Illinois.
We will not tolerate bigotry here at Illinois.
We will not tolerate discrimination here at Illinois.
And we will never, ever tolerate violence here at Illinois.
And I promise you, those who do not agree with those values are going to find their time here to be very uncomfortable. And I hope they find their visit to be VERY, VERY SHORT.
Whether considered individually or collectively, these three issues represent existential threats to all of our missions. But for the first time in years, our biggest challenges are all within our own power to resolve as a community. And as we see time and time again, we are at our best at this university when we take control of our own destiny.
“Building” has been the central theme of this speech.
But the most valuable thing we can build as a university is TRUST.
The trust of our graduates.
The trust of those who come here to study.
The trust of those who come here for careers.
And the trust of the society we serve.
In recognizing these challenges and in finding collaborative and honest ways to address them, we are building that trust.
In the past, I’ve used this speech to talk about some of the “Big Ideas” that we’re undertaking.
This year, we have moved forward in significant ways on those initiatives.
Last year I talked about our unique opportunities to advance our excellence and leadership in the arts, the humanities and the social sciences. These disciplines will be the source of the most creative and most needed ideas and solutions of this human-centered, human-driven century of progress.
In November, the Academic Senate formally approved establishing the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities as a permanent institute. This spring, under the leadership of Professor Antoinette Burton, IPRH will formally become The Humanities Research Institute and take its long-deserved place as our 9th institute.
Coincidentally, the Senate vote came just a couple of days after the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced that IPRH had won a new two-million-dollar grant to support interdisciplinary graduate education. This latest award brings our total Mellon funding over the past decade to nearly 26 million dollars. This is exactly what I’m talking about when I say this university doesn’t have to fight for the position as the center of gravity for human-centered scholarship. WE ALREADY HOLD THAT GREAT DISTINCTION.
The revolution in the biomedical sciences that led to the creation of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine and the Cancer Center at Illinois continues. We’ll welcome our third class of medical innovators to Carle Illinois this summer. And we continue to move towards an NIH designation as at the first new cancer center established at the basic science level in more than 30 years.
We also saw progress in building our data sciences and analytics leadership. June’s announcement of the state capital budget included 100 million dollars to catalyze our Altgeld Hall renovation and the construction of a new Illini Hall to be the home of our new Data Sciences Institute.
That bill also included another 100 million-dollar-appropriation to the Illinois Quantum Sciences and Technology Center to be used to build a new research facility in partnership with the University of Chicago.
Quantum sciences and quantum computing represent the next major leap forward in global technology. We are on the leading edge of a revolution that will be every bit as transformative as the digital revolution of the 70s and 80s. This university was the catalyst then. And now the foundations for the quantum century are being laid by our faculty, staff and students.
And our prominence in agricultural innovation and sustainability also continues.
Whether it is the multidisciplinary Center for Digital Agriculture, Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation, or the Gates-funded work to “hack” photosynthesis — when people talk about how we will feed the world, they are looking squarely at Illinois for an answer.
Whether you’re talking about feeding the world, feeding the human mind and spirit, healing the body or harnessing the unimaginable power of data and information, this university continues to advance the kind of big ideas that make the world redefine the meaning of “impossible.”
I know there are some people out there who hear me talking about these grand challenges and these very big ideas who respond with a bit of skepticism.
Some of you might be thinking, “Does he really believe we are going to cure cancer?”
And others are probably asking, “How is something we create going to feed a global population of 10 billion people in just a few decades?”
I’ll be honest with you. These problems that we’re discussing may be too complex, too distributed and just too big to “cure” or to “solve.”
In thirty years, will there still be food insecurity?
Will cancer still take the lives of loved ones?
Will our world still wrestle to find a balance between what we CAN do with what we SHOULD do?
At some level, the answer to those questions will be “yes.”
But we can never forget that success in meeting even the grandest challenges is measured one life at a time.
Maybe we won’t cure cancer. But what if one of the discoveries from our Cancer Center leads to a new class of treatments? What if that leads to five more years you can spend with your partner, your mom or your dad or a grandparent or your child?
We live in a world where information has become the most valuable commodity. How do you protect and maintain a society when our technological advances outpace our ability to discern fact from fiction? To distinguish “right” from “wrong?”
What if our progress in quantum and data sciences leads to more rapid, more accurate and more detailed modeling of severe storm systems? Would that have saved five lives lost in the Houston storms last fall? Or would the enormous loss of human life in the Bahamas have been an order of magnitude lower?
What if our research in collaboration with individuals living on the margins of our society to understand the genetic and generational trauma caused by stress, poverty and racial disparity leads to new policies that REALLY CHANGE outcomes? How does a family’s trajectory change if they find relief from the physical and emotional burdens of living with the threat of gun violence where they live?
Yes. We imagine solutions to global challenges here at Illinois.
But the results of our work will always be measured in the impact on individual lives.
I sincerely hope that we also remember that even the smallest step forward can lead to some pretty amazing things in a person’s life…
More time with someone you love.
Access to a college education that leads to unimagined careers and opportunities.
Parents who get to unlock another piece of an autistic child’s secret language.
A day or a week free from worrying about where and when your family will find the next meal.
These are the very human and very tangible results when a university like ours sets out to solve the grandest and hardest challenges of our times.
I’ve talked a lot today about all of these things we’re building.
We’re building capacity to learn and discover.
We’re building stronger, more resilient and more compassionate communities.
We’re building new bridges and connections across geographies and disciplines.
And we’re building trust with those who come to work and study with us.
But, ultimately, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has really always been focused on building just one thing.
WE. BUILD. HOPE.
We’ve been doing so for 152 years now.
And right here, right now, we are a university building hope and trust together for a better future.
So, that is the state of our university today.