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Remarks, January 21, 2021 Meeting of the Board of Trustees

As prepared for delivery by President Tim Killeen

Thank you for the opportunity to offer remarks, Chair Edwards.

And I want to begin by adding my congratulations on your re-election as chairman. I am grateful for your service, your loyalty and your commitment to the University of Illinois System. You wear your love for our universities on your sleeve, through your alumni pride and your unwavering support for our students, our faculty and staff, and our academic, research and athletic programs. You also show it by always challenging us to do more, to make sure we never stop striving to be the very best in everything we do. My deepest thanks to you for taking on a third term as chair.

A new year always brings new hopes for an even brighter tomorrow.

And that has probably never been truer than it is this year, as our world unites in hope that 2021 will bring an end a global pandemic that has caused so much grief, so much pain and worry, and so much disruption in all of our lives. I am proud of the key role that the University of Illinois System has played in fighting the virus—from our pioneering SHIELD testing protocol and our clinical trials for breakthrough vaccines to the sacrifice and resolve of students, faculty and staff who made our fall semester such a tremendous success.

And as we continue the push to put COVID behind us, I am just as proud that we are beginning this new year by holding firm to one of the very cores of our mission—one that we have carried since our founding more than a century-and-a-half ago. It is a pillar of the Strategic Framework that this board approved five years ago, the roadmap we have followed to turbo-charge a flagship university system that had already carved its place as a true world leader in education and innovation. The framework calls on us to open our doors wide, to make our universities accessible and affordable, and to give every deserving student the opportunity for a world-class education that will unlock the life of their dreams.

Your agenda today includes a recommendation that again reaffirms that bedrock commitment.

Executive Vice President Barb Wilson will outline the proposal in more detail later, but if approved it would freeze base tuition next fall for every incoming freshman and every undergraduate transfer, whether from Illinois, across the nation or around the world. It would add to cost containment efforts over the last seven years that included a five-year freeze for Illinois students that stretched from 2015 through 2019, our longest freeze in a half-century. That means it would bring a freeze in six of the last seven years. Our only increase for in-state students over that period was a sub-inflationary, 1.8 percent increase last fall—an increase that we covered for every Illinois freshman through federal CARES Act funding to help them through the economic hardships that many faced due to the COVID pandemic.

Holding down costs will be just as important next fall, and it is incumbent on us to support our students and maintain the pipeline of next-generation talent that our state needs to move past the economic fallout of the COVID pandemic. Our affordability efforts have helped drive enrollment to record highs every year since the five-year freeze began. Total enrollment is up more than 12 percent since 2015, topping 90,000 students for the very first time last fall. That includes an 8 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment, and nearly 4,100 more undergraduates from Illinois, up 9 ½ percent from the fall of 2015.

Our commitment also carries long-term impact.

Coupled with state law that locks in an entering student’s base tuition for four years, it means in-state freshmen who join us next fall will pay just slightly more for their senior year in 2024 than an in-state freshman did in 2015 … nearly a decade earlier. The change over those nine years is just $97 at UIS, $192 at UIC and $218 in Urbana-Champaign. As you know, our commitment to access and affordability also includes significant increases in institutional financial aid, which has more than doubled to $258 million annually over the last decade.

I hope all of you will join us today to continue building on our commitment, freezing tuition for new undergraduates next fall and helping them maintain their educational journeys during these difficult times.

I also hope you have seen the news about the continued growth of our Discovery Partners Institute and Illinois Innovation Network.

In December, Governor Pritzker released more than $142 million in capital funding approved by the General Assembly to support construction of DPI’s permanent headquarters in downtown Chicago, as well as IIN facilities and other projects on five public university campuses, including UIUC and UIC. The funding for DPI and IIN is the first of $500 million approved by the governor and the legislature to develop the new, statewide education and innovation network that the U of I System is leading. University and private donations are matching the state’s investment in the new enterprise, which is projected to create and support nearly 50,000 new jobs over the next decade and pump $19 billion into the state’s economy.

The state funding will support construction of the world-class DPI headquarters, pictured in a concept here. The state-of-the-art facility will be a centerpiece of The 78, a new South Loop development along the Chicago River. During today’s meeting, you will consider awarding contracts for architectural, engineering and design work to two internationally recognized companies: Jacobs and OMA AMO Architecture PC. The firms were chosen from 35 teams of architecture companies from around the world that sought the contract.

Our universities also received funding in this round of state funding, including the Altgeld Hall-Illini Hall project at UIUC, the new Computer Design Research and Learning Center at UIC and the expansion of UIC’s Innovation Center.The Innovation Center and Illini Hall are part of the IIN network, and the state funding released last month will also support IIN hubs at Eastern Illinois University, Chicago State University and Governors State University. All together, six of the 15 IIN hubs received funding in this first round.

State capital funding is just part of recent big news for DPI.

The Pritzker Foundation announced last month that it is donating $10 million over five years to launch the Pritzker Tech Talent Labs.  The family foundation is led by former U.S. commerce secretary Penny Pritzker, Tom Pritzker, Nick Pritzker and Gigi Pritzker Pucker. The new research and training center will be home to inclusive training programs for high school students and current workers, with a special focus on helping more women and people of color land tech jobs. By 2029, the talent lab hopes to help 7,000 people secure tech jobs, including 3,000 women and people of color.

Omowale Casselle has joined DPI as the inaugural director of the talent lab. He earned his bachelor’s degree at UIUC, a masters from the University of Michigan-Dearborn and an MBA from Harvard, and most recently was co-founder and CEO of Digital Adventures Inc., which also focuses on technology education. He is viewing today’s meeting, and I hope you will join me in welcoming him.

DPI Executive Director Bill Jackson is also viewing the meeting, and I hope you will join me in thanking him for his leadership in DPI’s continued growth. 

Like DPI, the SHIELD testing protocol pioneered by our brilliant UIUC researchers also continues to grab headlines, as well as interest from around the world as others seek to duplicate the safety it has brought to our campuses. As the virus has surged in Illinois and across the nation, at times pushing positivity rates into double digits, ours have been a fraction of the world around us. SHIELD’s easy and cost-effective saliva-based testing has allowed us to cast a wide net—more than 1.1 million tests to date system wide. Rapid results allow for quick quarantines and isolation. Coupled with SHIELD’s surveillance technology and, of course, the cooperation and support of our students, faculty and staff, our rates have held in the low single digits, and often under 1 percent on our largest campus in Urbana, which is home to the most aggressive testing.

Jay Walsh and his team are working as hard and fast as they can to obtain federal approval for our testing, which carries benefits such as liability protection and will allow us to share it more broadly.

But several clients are already using SHIELD by establishing their own CLIA-certified labs, including Notre Dame, Loyola and Indiana University, and Bloom Energy, a green energy company in Silicon Valley. Work is also underway to roll it out for national use in New Zealand and the Philippines.

The state is also providing $20 million in federal CARES Act funding to provide a million tests across the state’s 12 public universities, including our three campuses, pending FDA emergency use authorization.

SHIELD, as you well know, is one of our many crucial contributions to the fight against COVID, which also include clinical testing at UIC for vaccines that are now rolling out to protect our citizens against the virus and restore the way of life we now appreciate more than ever. And, in case you missed it, Dr. Marina Del Rios, an emergency room doctor at University of Illinois Hospital, was the first person in Chicago to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and received her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine three weeks later.

I know you are as proud as I am of everything we’ve done and the safe environment we have created for our students, who return next week for the second semester of an academic year that will be remembered as one of our greatest triumphs.

And many, many more successes are in the works.

There are the next-generation breakthroughs ahead through UIUC’s pioneering research in quantum physics and its leadership in the Chicago Quantum Exchange.

There are the advances in discovery and education ahead through the 10 new, world-class faculty joining our universities in the latest cohort of the President’s Distinguished Faculty Recruitment Program.

There are the breakthroughs in the arts and humanities that will grow from the second round of an initiative I launched that celebrates the importance of the arts and humanities and will provide another $2 million in grant funding this year.

And there are the lives that will be forever impacted through our ongoing efforts to open our doors wider and wider. Those efforts led to record enrollment of underrepresented undergraduates this year at each of our universities and system-wide. Across the system, underrepresented students now account for 32 percent of undergraduates, nearly a third of total undergraduate enrollment.

In closing, I want to note another important item on your agenda today: to extend the appointment of UIS interim Chancellor Karen Whitney by another year, through June 2022. I could not be more pleased with her thoughtful and steady guidance, her unwavering pursuit of excellence and the stability she has brought to our capital-city campus, even through one of the most challenging periods of our history. I am deeply grateful that she has agreed to stay on and share her talents during a national search for a permanent chancellor, which will begin late this summer or early in the fall.

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