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Remarks, March 15 meeting of the Board of Trustees

Delivered by U of I President Tim Killeen

It has been nearly a year since I concluded a series of presentations to the board detailing our efforts to achieve the vision of the Strategic Framework that you authorized and approved to guide our future. So I wanted to take just a few minutes today to briefly update you on our march since then toward the Framework’s overarching goal--to make the U of I System the very definition of higher education that best serves the rapidly changing needs of students and the public good in the 21st century. You already know about several of our latest achievements, but good news bears repeating.

  • Enrollment is up to more than 83,000 students system-wide, setting a record for the fifth straight year and keeping us on track to hit our target of more than 93,000 by 2021.
  • Student costs are down, thanks to an in-state tuition freeze that you have extended to a fourth straight year for incoming freshmen next fall, the longest freeze since the 1970s.
  • System-wide student retention and graduation rates continue to run ahead of national norms. Our students graduate with less debt than national averages, and workplace demand for our alumni is high.
  • The U of I System also has been a pacesetter in addressing the current challenges facing campuses across the country, through a new set of guiding principles that codify our values on free speech, immigration and globalization, and civic engagement.


We are leading the way to secure our financial future, proposing a groundbreaking new partnership with the state that would provide the funding and certainty to maintain our excellence and ensure new generations of service to students and to progress. The innovative solution picked up support last week when Northern Illinois University signed onto our proposed Investment, Performance, and Accountability Commitment, IPAC, which would provide predictable state funding in exchange for measureable performance standards that serve students and the needs of the state.

We also have received support from Governor Rauner for a new statewide research enterprise that the U of I System will lead to accelerate innovation and economic growth. In his budget address last month, the governor proposed half-a-billion dollars in capital funding to match private donations made toward construction of the Discovery Partners Institute, a Chicago-based research center that will spread its impact statewide through the Illinois Innovation Network.

DPI and IIN will deliver a high-powered jolt to the innovation infrastructure that is now so crucial to create new products, new businesses and new jobs. They will bring together the same critical ingredients that already make the U of I System a powerhouse of innovation and a key engine of economic growth. They will connect the world’s very best research faculty with the most pressing real-world problems of businesses and society with entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and with the students who will be the researchers of entrepreneurs of tomorrow. But they will magnify our time-tested formula for innovation to a massive, unprecedented scale.

DPI will be home to literally hundreds of world-class researchers--top faculty from across our system, new ones we plan to hire, and researchers from prestigious academic partners that already include the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. They will work with thousands of students, with countless businesses large and small, and with entrepreneurs and investors in the heart of America’s third largest city, a truly global city that helps drive the economic fortunes of our state, the Midwest and the nation.

And through IIN, the research center will connect with satellite hubs throughout Illinois, sharing its intellectual power with regional academic and business partners to help lift communities from Rockford to Carbondale, including Champaign-Urbana and Springfield.

Innovation is key in a knowledge-based economy where success is rooted in ideas, in living by our wits. Converting discovery to commerce is how our nation, with about 4 ½ percent of the world’s population, accounts for nearly 25 percent of the global economy. But our share has been shrinking--down from 37 percent 50 years ago. DPI and IIN can help turn the tide.

With their tremendous scale and the U of I System’s research know-how as an anchor, they can make Illinois the new center of gravity for economic growth. They can foster pioneering discovery that will not just rival Silicon Valley, but leapfrog it. As Governor Rauner said in his budget address, they could be the biggest spark ever to ignite our state’s economic growth engine. I am grateful for his support and his confidence, and hope the legislature will approve funding to make this forward-looking vision a reality.

In closing, I want to reaffirm that – even though some waters ahead on the federal, state and international levels may appear choppy at times – the U of I System will meet every challenge with our guiding principles intact thanks to your support and leadership.

Satement on BDS movement 

In this regard, I want to take just a moment to comment on an issue that has been a source of ongoing debate across our universities and on campuses around the country.

In alignment with the American Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and many other distinguished higher education institutions, the U of I System leadership stands in strong opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement’s call for a boycott of Israel. 

While we acknowledge and affirm the rights of faculty and students to express their own viewpoints, we believe that actions such as those espoused by BDS would damage academic freedom and may have an intended or unintended anti-Semitic effect which we utterly condemn. 

We will continue to strenuously oppose actions that go beyond protected speech and that seek to harass, delegitimize, alienate, and spread fear within our student communities on the basis of religion ... whether our Jewish and Muslim student bodies, or any other religious student community. 

To reiterate: we will NOT tolerate pervasive harassment or discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation or any other personal factors or characteristics. Such activities are inimical to the values that our system embraces.

Across the U of I System, we pride ourselves on being a community that seeks to develop and deploy knowledge to better the human condition through our world-class research, scholarship and service. We do this through our commitment to diversity and inclusion, as well as our active and growing engagement with academic partners around the world. Such efforts can only be diminished by targeted restrictions on academic freedom and global engagement. 

Our commitment to social justice and to excellence in free, open and engaged scholarship drives us to study, understand and help build solutions for even the most complex challenges we face globally and domestically. To that end, we welcome and embrace ALL of our students.

Our approach was well stated by Thom Yorke of the alternative rock band Radiohead, when he was asked once whether a concert venue reflected the band’s political leanings: He said: “Music, art and academia are about crossing borders, not building them; about open minds, not closed ones; about shared humanity, dialogue and freedom of expression.” He could just as easily have been speaking for us, and I couldn’t have said it better.

My thanks again to the board for its leadership.