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Jones Remarks, July 23, 2020 Meeting of the Board of Trustees

As prepared for delivery by Chancellor Robert Jones, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Thank you President Killeen. I’d normally extend a warm welcome to our Trustees and all of our colleagues to the Urbana campus. But, as we know, nothing is normal in these days of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, I’ll just simply say that, wherever you may be right now, it is just nice to see your faces, hear your voices and know that you are all well… under the circumstances.

COVID-19 and Testing Update

As is the case with all three of our universities and all of us across the system, our focus here in Urbana remains laser-focused on navigating our way through the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 crisis.

Every single operational aspect of every single mission has come under review and many decisions we’ve made lead to a cascade of new challenges and problems to resolve. 

But I am very proud of the way our entire university community has responded during this pandemic. From the first days of this crisis to this point months into it, as we prepare to open a semester unlike any other in our history, our faculty, staff, students and local community have demonstrated the Power of I … innovation, compassion, patience, creativity and care for one another.  

Together, we have found new and innovative ways to continue our operations in the fall and beyond while maximizing the health and wellness of all who are here. That has been our unwavering priority from the beginning and that commitment guides every decision we are making as we get ready to begin our fall instruction in August. 

And, as President Killeen mentioned, one of our most important tools in continuing to protect the health of our entire community will be the innovative, and uniquely Illinois SHIELD strategy, an integrated testing and exposure notification system developed by Urbana-Champaign’s own faculty and staff. 

In just the space of a few months, our team has developed, tested and deployed a unique, saliva-based COVID-19 test that is rapid, accurate and scalable, and dramatically less expensive than any other test we know of in the world. In June, we received the appropriate clinical certification to begin offering this test to our own students, staff and faculty. And we are working with the FDA to obtain emergency approval for the broader use of the test. 

We currently have six walk-up test sites distributed around the campus that are up and running, and more will be added in the week ahead as we ramp up capacity for our fall semester and the return of students, faculty and staff.

The testing is free and available to anyone with a current and active University ID. 

The results are shared confidentially through an online portal managed by our McKinley Health Center, and we are coordinating all of these operations with our local Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.

This testing, combined with new digital tools also developed by our  faculty to facilitate scheduling and to assist in more rapid exposure notification, offers our university the most unique community health assessment capacity in all of higher education. 

This capacity for frequent and rapid-result testing of every student, faculty or staff member on our campus this fall will give us the real-time ability to monitor any progression of the virus through our community and let us work quickly with Public Health to take any necessary steps to contain any outbreaks if they should occur.

This is a huge asset for our university and the entire University of Illinois System. We worked with President Killeen, chancellors and DPI to make these tools available to UIC and UIS. And we’re working very hard and closely with the System to secure the necessary reviews and approval structures and financial resources to make this test available outside of the university. This is truly a case of an Illinois discovery with potentially global impact. And a prime example of a world-class Research and Land Grant University and University System at its best. 

When this pandemic started, we made clear that all of our decisions would be grounded in three key values: the safety and wellbeing of our university and greater community, the importance of continuing to fulfill our missions and finding innovative solutions to the problem at hand.

In Illinois SHIELD and the Bio-Physic modeling lies the innovative, land-grant mission exemplified in this most important time. 

Call to Action Announcement

But, our land-grant obligations also demand that, even in this crisis, our university must be leading the way in helping our community, state, nation and society resolve the pressing and persistent issues of racism and social injustice. I firmly believe that this is also a threat of pandemic proportion and an existential threat to our democracy.

But that same pandemic has shined a harsh light on another societal crisis that has been amplified by COVID-19. 

The issues of systemic racism and discrimination that have so long plagued our country have been exacerbated by the virus both in terms of its disproportionate health and socio-economic impacts. 

Systemic racism and generationally embedded racial disparity are two of the greatest challenges facing our society. It is time to focus the vast and unmatched intellectual and scholarly talent of this 21st century land-grant university on finding new solutions to these persistent and destructive issues. And we must do so with the same urgency, creativity and purpose we have seen in response to the COVID-19 crisis.  
So, that is the basis for the announcement we are making in the next few days regarding an initiative we have named the “Call to Action.” It will be our framework for this university to address these embedded and persisting disparities at every level with our full and comprehensive transdisciplinary excellence. 

Led by Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Sean Garrick, this Call to Action initiative will lay out a framework for how we make this transformation and establish a series of working groups charged with taking concrete steps forward to dismantle systemic racism and injustice in ways that are both measurable and accountable. 

In the coming days and weeks, we will be introducing a series of actions, investments, programs and policy-reform efforts designed to quickly and permanently transform the way our own university supports, prioritizes and recognizes the research of scholars working on issues of systemic racism in the United States. 

The inaugural program in this “Call-to-Action” will be the Chancellor’s Research Program to Address Racism and Social Injustice.

This new program will be a deep collaboration between the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Equity and Diversity and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation. It will invest significant seed funding annually to support competitively awarded tenure/tenure-track faculty grants, an annual symposium of funded projects and an ongoing lecture series. The first call for research proposals and inaugural awards will be coming early in the fall semester. 

This initiative is just the first step as we seek to transform the way our own university supports, prioritizes and recognizes the research of scholars working on issues of systemic racism in the United States and will support the advancement and success of the policy research center that President Killeen mentioned today.

While there is so much more I could say, with that I’ll end my comments and let the Board get on with the very important business at hand. Again, welcome and thank you for your time attention and support.