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Remarks, March 11, 2021 Meeting of the Board of Trustees

As prepared for delivery by President Tim Killeen

One year ago today, a year ago later this evening to be exact, our chancellors and Executive Vice President Barb Wilson joined me in a message to our students, faculty and staff that was one of the most difficult any of us have ever had to send. Less than two weeks later, our classrooms were shuttered. 

The first pandemic in a century was new ground for all of us. We had no idea what lay ahead. Few likely expected it would stretch on for months and now a year, with an end just now growing as a glimmer on the horizon.

But we have made it through a year unlike any other, despite the barrage of challenges thrown our way. In fact, we have made it one of our best ever … with another year of record enrollment, another year of moving up in the rankings and a succession of pioneering contributions to the fight against COVID that have showcased our value and our impact on the public good.

We have done it thanks to the sacrifice, the perseverance, the creativity and the brilliance of our students, our faculty and staff, our leadership, our alumni, our donors and friends, and our partners in government.

We have thanked them often along the way. But we can never thank them enough.

There is a little-used word—paean—that a few of you may know from music, poetry or perhaps studies of ancient Greece, where it originally took root. Paean has many similar definitions, all relating it to a piece of music, writing or any other work that honors its subject, paying tribute and thanksgiving. My favorite is from a leading online dictionary that defines paean as a fervent expression of joy or praise. The paean that you are about to see, reflected in a series of photos from the past year, is my fervent and heartfelt expression of joy and praise, and of admiration, respect and awe, for all of you who have made it such an incredible success.

There are the dedicated employees whose essential duties have kept them on the job day in and day out throughout the pandemic. Employees who provide power. Employees who maintain our grounds and our buildings. Employees who keep our buildings clean and, in the era of COVID, safe and disinfected.

Employees who keep our computers and systems running, expertise that has been our lifeline during a time of remote teaching and learning, emails and texts, instant messaging and Zoom meetings.

There are our public safety teams, who are on the job 24/7 while also coming together to answer the national call for equity and restraint that arose in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. All officers are undergoing both de-escalation and use-of-force training and each campus is also forming a police liaison board made up of faculty, students, staff and community leaders.

There are our communications teams, whose work has been critical to keep our many stakeholders informed throughout this long crisis, from the messaging that guided students through the shift to online classes a year ago to the ins and outs of the breakthrough saliva-based testing that brought them back in the fall. They also found new ways to celebrate our successes, including a series of podcasts showcasing the groundbreaking work of our brilliant faculty during the pandemic.

There are our lifesaving healthcare workers—doctors, nurses and support staff—who have been on the front lines throughout the pandemic, providing care and comfort for both COVID patients and their families.

There are the brilliant faculty who have helped the U of I System lead the fight against COVID, creating an emergency ventilator in a matter of days, providing epidemiological modeling that helped guide the state’s stay-at-home orders, hosting clinical trials for vaccines, and pioneering the saliva-based testing and surveillance protocol that brought students back to our campuses last fall while many of our peers remained online. Their SHIELD program has resulted in more than 1.5 million tests system-wide since fall and has held positivity rates on our campuses low even when the state’s surged into double digits. SHIELD’s success attracted such an overwhelming surge of interest that whole new organizations have grown to share it with universities, schools, communities, businesses and government agencies across Illinois, our nation and beyond. Thanks to Ron Watkins and his SHIELD Illinois team, our homegrown protocol is in use across the state, including a million tests for public universities this spring through $20 million in CARES Act funding approved by Governor Pritzker.

And it has spread even farther through the work of Bill Jackson and his team. Working with a newly created Board of Managers chaired by Board of Trustees Chairman Don Edwards, Shield T3 has shared the homegrown technology with universities, schools, business and units of government across the country and around the world. It has even put our testing on wheels through mobile labs like this one. The game-changing SHIELD protocol will become more widespread with last week’s approval of emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration … the result of months of work by interim Vice President for Economic Development and Innovation Jay Walsh and his team. Untold faculty and staff had a hand in the process, which took root when Chancellor Robert Jones and Provost Andreas Cangellaris had the foresight to charge our faculty with creating our own test. It then became a reality through the unwavering support of Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Susan Martinis and the brilliance of SHIELD Team leaders Paul Hergenrother, Tim Fan, Marty Burke, Becky Smith, Nigel Goldenfeld, Sergei Maslov and Bill Sullivan.

All the while, our world-class faculty have continued the groundbreaking research that has made the U of I System a place where the world turns to solve its greatest challenges. Thanks to their breakthrough scholarship, the system has attracted more than $1 billion in funding this year for sponsored projects … the 15th most among universities nationwide.

And through partnerships with business and industry, such as those at our growing research park in Urbana-Champaign, our research continues to serve the real-world needs of our state and nation and creates new jobs and economic growth through the start-ups that it cultivates.

In the midst of a global pandemic and the economic downturn that followed, enrollment also continued to grow, thanks to the hard work and creativity of our admissions teams. Expertly crafted virtual tours replaced our traditional campus walkthroughs with prospective students and parents at UIC, in Urbana-Champaign, and Springfield. Our admissions teams also helped open our doors wide to students by sharing the significant increases in institutional financial aid that the system is providing for our undergraduates, aid that has more than doubled to $258 million annually over the last decade. Across our three universities, enrollment topped 90,000 students for the first time ever last fall. It was a record for the eighth straight year and also brought continued growth among undergraduates from underrepresented groups, who now account for nearly a third of undergraduates system-wide. It was a record for the eighth straight year and also brought continued growth among undergraduates from underrepresented groups, who now account for nearly a third of undergraduates system-wide.

Every one of them deserves our deepest thanks for their sacrifices during this academic year unlike any other and for the cooperation with testing protocols that have made our campuses a model for the nation.There have been extra sacrifices by many of our international students, whose trips home have been interrupted by COVID, and I am grateful for their patience and understanding, and for the efforts of the faculty and staff who support them. Our support network runs deep and there are so many to thank, from the residence hall staff who welcome students and serve their needs to the staff in our dining halls, in student accounts, in student unions, in student organizations and countless other groups that support our students, our faculty and our missions of service to the people of Illinois.

Every employee has been forced to adapt and innovate during the pandemic, even when it comes to our most time-honored traditions. That includes videos for the first graduating class in our history to have its commencement put on hold. Their creativity has been remarkable and made for an experience that was the next-best thing to being there. Certainly, we also owe a deep debt of thanks to our extraordinary faculty, who have adapted their teaching both online and in the classroom to deliver the world-class education that is synonymous with University of Illinois. They are the heart of our standing as a leader in education and innovation, and their invaluable contributions are reflected in the latest rankings.

U.S. News & World Report ranked Urbana-Champaign as the 15th-best public university in the nation, and UIC jumped eight spots to 52nd, putting two of the nation’s very best publics under the umbrella of the U of I System. UIS again ranked as the best regional public university in Illinois, and among the best in all of the Midwest. UIUC and UIC both ranked among the Midwest’s top 10 publics in the latest Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education rankings.

Our dedicated and creative faculty and staff also have made sure that the arts and humanities continue to flourish despite the limitations cause by COVID. They even found time to support new initiatives, including one where they created new, original songs to entertain and provide hope during some of the darkest days of the pandemic.

Thanks to our leadership and staff, we also continue to move forward judiciously with the 10-year capital program that the Board of Trustees approved to ensure that our facilities match the excellence of our faculty and programs. That includes work toward facilities for our Discovery Partners Institute and Illinois Innovation Network, work supported by $142 million in state funding for the projects that Governor Pritzker released late last year.

I am also grateful for the work of our Extension offices, which have continued taking our know-how to every corner of the state throughout the pandemic and to a global audience that brings more than five million views every year via its website.

Our experts in policy and science also haven’t missed a beat in serving the needs of the state. Our Institute of Government and Public Affairs has authored a series of reports focusing on the COVID pandemic, providing leading edge analysis on a broad spectrum of topics, from helping families in crisis to guiding economic recovery statewide. Work has also never wavered at our Prairie Research Institute, home to five important scientific surveys that return nearly $4 in competitive grants and contracts for every dollar they receive in state funding.

The creativity of our people also has helped us reach out in unique new ways, such as repurposing our idled UI Shuttle buses to provide Wifi for K-12 students sent home to study due to the pandemic.

Creativity and persistence also put our athletes safely back on courts and fields despite the pandemic. It required some new accessories to our traditional uniforms. And, in the end, we even found a way to bring fans’ faces to our arenas to show their support.

Our partners also never missed a step. Our alumni associations continued to maintain and strengthen ties with a growing network of graduates that is poised to top 800,000 worldwide, including more than 450,000 right here in Illinois.
And our Foundation set new fundraising records in the midst of the pandemic, thanks to the commitment and generosity of our donors and the hard work of the Foundation’s advancement staff. 

Our government relations teams maintained crucial ties in Springfield, Washington and the communities around the state that we call home. And with the help of our growing grassroots network of Illinois Connection advocates, they helped champion federal COVID relief, state appropriations and capital funding, and our legislative agendas in the both the Statehouse and in Congress.

I am also grateful for the guidance and invaluable insights of our partners in shared governance—to the Senates on every campus, their committees and the collective perspective they bring to efforts of our United Senates Conference. 

And I am thankful for the expertise and passion of this remarkable Board of Trustees, and of our chancellors, provosts and their dedicated teams. Your leadership and the incredible work of our faculty and staff, our students and alumni, and our donor and friends has written one of the most amazing, impactful chapters in our long, storied history. 

Again, I can’t thank you enough, and I am so proud to be associated with each and every one of you.