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Remarks, November 12, 2020 Meeting of the Board of Trustees

As prepared for delivery by President Tim Killeen

We are nearing the end of a semester that has been unlike any in our history, a semester where the University of Illinois System has shined brighter than ever thanks to the commitment, creativity and resolve of our leadership, our faculty and staff and our students. The COVID-19 pandemic handed universities everywhere an epic challenge this fall–how to do what we do safely, while navigating the dangers of a novel virus that science is still struggling to fully understand. The scope of that challenge has been reflected in the headlines over the last few months. Some colleges opted early to just stay online this fall. Others returned and wrestled with outbreaks, some severe enough that classes had to go virtual again.

Through it all, our three universities have been a model for the nation.

A saliva-based testing and surveillance program pioneered by our brilliant Urbana faculty,coupled with the selfless, caring spirit of students and employees who have stayed in lockstep with the protocol, have kept our campuses safe and open to serve the needs of students and society. The SHIELD program has truly been a game-changer, enabling widespread, cost-effective testing to keep COVID in check. We have conducted more than 820,000 tests to date system-wide, and have seen no large outbreaks and no evidence of spread into classrooms or into the communities we call home.

Through most of the semester, positivity rates on our campuses have generally held steady around 1 percent or less. Even as statewide positivity rates have surged into double digits recently, our 7-day rates have remained low, about 2 ½ percent at UIC, about 1 ½  percent at UIS, and still just 0.6 percent in Urbana-Champaign, home of our largest student body and most aggressive testing regimen. Rates are in check because SHIELD is our canary in the coal mine, allowing us to spot issues early and react quickly. It sent up another early flare to avert problems this week, prompting a brief shift to virtual learning at UIS. Urbana urged everyone to limit non-essential activities after SHIELD spotted a rise in faculty-staff cases, cases that have been coming into campus from the community rather than the other way around. Though SHIELD has kept positivity rates low at UIC, rising rates in the city and an abundance of caution will shift classes online through the end of the semester, beginning later this week.

I can’t express just how proud I am of our SHIELD program, and of the cooperation and sacrifice by our students, faculty and staff that has been absolutely critical to its success.

Now, as the end of this historic semester nears, it is imperative that we all keep our guard up. We need to lead the way again to help fight back COVID’s second wave and keep our campuses and communities safe as work continues toward vaccines, including our leading-edge Moderna trial at UIC.

I am also proud of our efforts to expand SHIELD’s reach, and meet a surge of demand that has continued to grow since the testing and surveillance program was launched. Last week, our Shield T3 team announced an agreement that will take testing to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which will ramp up to 10,000 tests a day next spring. Many more are in the works across our state and beyond, through the efforts of both Shield T3 and SHIELD Illinois. We are currently in talks with well over 30 universities; dozens of K-12 schools, corporations, units of government and non-profits; and recently made presentations to interested groups from right here in Illinois to the United Kingdom. And, last week, Urbana’s Grainger College of Engineering completed the prototype of a lab on wheels, called mobileSHIELD, that will allow us to take testing to exactly where it’s needed.

All of those initiatives reflect the land-grant commitment that we have carried since our founding—to help create the future, steer through challenges that stand in the way and lead the way to progress.

The efforts that have supported us through this historic semester have come at a cost. But I am happy to report that preliminary figures show that we ended fiscal 2020 with a net positive financial position of about $230 million, despite $180 million in unanticipated expenses and lost revenues due to the pandemic. It is a credit to our thoughtful stewardship, creativity and shared sacrifice, and I am grateful to everyone who has helped us hold tight to our course amid the choppiest waters of our lifetimes.

Needless to say, considerable uncertainty still lies ahead in fiscal 2021 due to COVID. We estimate that additional costs for testing and other mitigation efforts will be in the range of $130 million for the year, with a similar impact from revenue losses. But by keeping the same careful eye on our finances, I am optimistic that we can again finish the year in the black, while fulfilling our bedrock commitment to the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff, and to the excellence of our teaching and research. And I am hopeful that the state will continue to support us moving forward, by approving the fiscal 2022 appropriations and capital requests that the board will consider during today’s meeting.

Today, we are also announcing the latest cohort of the President’s Distinguished Faculty Recruitment Program, and a news release will go out later this morning. Ten new world-class faculty are being appointed to positions across our three universities, bringing our total to 24 since the initiative was launched in 2018 to keep building on the already world-class faculty that has cemented our global standing as a leader in education and innovation. The new cohort brings more than $21 million in current research support and activities, along with leading-edge expertise in fields such as engineering, business, chemistry, physics, history, sociology, psychology and pharmacology. I hope you will join me in welcoming them, and thanking Executive Vice President Barb Wilson, our chancellors and provosts, and their campus leadership for the efforts that brought them here.

We also have kicked off the second round of an initiative I launched two years ago to celebrate the arts and humanities and the central role they play in everything we do across the U of I System. We are seeking proposals for $2 million in grants that will fund faculty projects showcasing the arts and humanities and the first round showed they enrich people’s lives across the state. It attracted more than 50 proposals and 14 were chosen to share $2 million. Among other projects, the initiative funded a mobile hip-hop studio, a statewide writer’s festival and use of virtual reality to teach performance. This round seeks projects that reflect the importance of the arts and humanities at this time of multiple stressors in our lives, and I can’t wait to see the creative new ideas that it generates.

Finally, I hope you saw the news late last month that the U of I System and the University of Toronto signed a memorandum of understanding to co-chair a new consortium created to lead a renaissance across the Great Lakes region. The binational consortium was created by the Council of the Great Lakes Region to address socioeconomic and environmental issues that are undermining the area’s potential. The consortium will capitalize on a network of world-class teaching and research universities that are a strength of the region. Together, they will facilitate cross-border collaborations and work with companies and government to promote sustainability, create a pipeline of talent and innovation, and ensure the region’s long-term competitiveness. It is an honor to co-chair the new consortium with the University of Toronto, an institution strikingly similar to ours in size, impact and international regard. U of T holds spots, as we do, in the latest rankings of the world’s top universities by U.S. News & World Report, Times Higher Education and in the QS World University rankings. And, when we bring together other leading universities to explore the region’s distinctive challenges and opportunities, we can create a pipeline of talent and innovation that will pave the way to progress, sustainability and economic growth for generations to come.

Thank you again, Chair Edwards, and my thanks to the board for your leadership and support.