In 1971, John E. Corbally became the president of the University of Illinois. He had served in the Navy in World War II and was awarded a Purple Heart. After his military service, he earned a master's degree in education from the University of Washington in 1950 and a doctorate in educational administration and finance at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1955. Corbally was an associate education professor and later vice president of academic affairs and provost at Ohio State University. He served as president and chancellor at Syracuse University in New York before coming to Illinois.
At the beginning of his presidency, the University was ninth largest university in the nation with 60,000 students. Research and construction were growing. To meet demand, Corbally sought outside funding and assisted UIF in launching the first university-wide capital campaign, raising more than $130 million from donors.
He worked to improve programs in agriculture and veterinary medicine, which were facing increased student enrollments, and to expand agricultural research programs. An eight-year, $114 million Food Production Research Program (later known as "Food For Century III") was developed to provide modern teaching and research facilities through new construction, building remodeling and renovation, and land acquisition. Corbally endorsed an FFC III task force ("Committee of Fifty") to mobilize the support of influential agricultural and veterinary medicine alumni throughout Illinois. From this ten-year initiative came support for the $7.9 million Agricultural Engineering Sciences Building and the $22.5 million Veterinary Medicine Basic Sciences Building.
Corbally led the effort to successfully override a veto from the legislature in the 1977 fiscal year, resulting in the restoration of about half the funds for increases in faculty salaries. He accomplished this by enlisting the support of students, parents and alumni to lobby the state legislators to redress the problems of inadequate support.
The board of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago named Dr. Corbally as its first president in 1980, and he resigned from the University of Illinois to accept the appointment.