Chicago Rotary Club, April 15, 2014

Prepared remarks by University of Illinois President Robert A. Easter for the Chicago Rotary Club.


It is a pleasure to be here today.

I spend about a third of my time as president here in the city … in an office just a few minutes west of the Loop on our growing Chicago campus.

On the top floors of the four-story building, there’s a bank of windows that gives you a panoramic view of downtown. It’s eye-popping … a postcard of one of the world’s best-known skylines and when I walked by, it used to literally stop me.

But it struck me the other day that I barely notice anymore. The view isn’t any less spectacular. I just take it for granted now.

We sometimes do the same thing, I think, with our businesses and institutions. It’s easy to forget just how important Allstate and State Farm are to the vitality of our state, or Caterpillar and Deere, Sears and Boeing, Abbott and Archer Daniels Midland.

Or the University of Illinois.  I hope you’ll forgive me if I brag a bit.

The University has been a fixture in Illinois for all but about 50 of the nearly 200 years that the state has existed.

I suspect we’re part of the woodwork now … like the majestic skyline that no longer catches my eye.

But you may have seen a recent news story that reflects the power of the University of Illinois and its critical role in helping lead our state and nation to a new era of progress and prosperity.

President Obama announced a $70 million federal grant that will bring the nation’s flagship research institute for digital manufacturing and design innovation to Chicago. The research center will help reinvent U.S. manufacturing and is the fourth of innovation hub proposed by the president to foster high-tech discovery that creates jobs and economic growth.

Chicago won the grant in fierce competition, including a group led by MIT, one from an aerospace hub in Huntsville, Alabama, and another on the West Coast.

Why Chicago?

Several good reasons: support from the Governor, the Mayor, our Congressional delegation, business leaders and alumni. But I’m proud that the University of Illinois played a key role through UI Labs.

The University led a coalition of academic, industry and government partners that committed more than $250 million in matching funds to help land the first-of-its-kind research center here in the city.

The University’s human and high-tech resources were central pivotal in bringing the new center to Chicago. That includes the leading-edge scholarship of Urbana campus’s College of Engineering, which ranks among the Top 5 in the nation, the state-of-the-art research facilities such as Urbana’s Blue Waters supercomputer -- the world’s fastest academic supercomputer -- and the Chicago campus’s leadership in critical fields such as computer visualization technology and workforce development.

The new research hub is just the latest example of how the University’s place as a world leader in education and innovation contributes to a better future for our state and nation.

I’m never sure whether people fully grasp the University of Illinois’ standing as one of the world’s premier public research universities.  

We are a $5.6 billion operation, with about 29,000 employees.

Across our three campuses in Chicago, Springfield and Urbana-Champaign, and our college of medicine satellite campuses in Peoria and Rockford, through the research parks, Illinois Extension and the state surveys; there is no part of the state of Illinois left untouched.

We are the state’s largest educator, with a record 78,000-plus students enrolled last fall. That’s nearly twice as many as Northwestern, the University of Chicago, Loyola and DePaul combined.

Our students come from every state in our union and every continent … a sign of the quality of our academic programs and the value of a U of I degree.

For each of the last two years, our campuses have awarded more than 20,000 degrees … record highs that help supply the highly skilled workforce required for the 21st century.

Enrollment is up 15 percent from a decade ago, and graduates are up 30 percent. We were the only public university in Illinois with an increased enrollment this year.

It’s a testament to academic programs that include many ranked among the nation’s best, to internationally acclaimed faculty that includes Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners and MacArthur genius fellows,  and to the success of more than 650,000 living alumni that include Fortune 500 CEOs, and founders of companies that are ingrained in American culture, from Netscape, Pampered Chef and PayPal to the National Football League. 

We are also a global center of discovery and innovation.  Our $1 billion research portfolio includes federal research funding that grew to $857 million last year --  record for us.

Federal funding ranks in the Top 10 among universities nationwide, and we are first in funding from the National Science Foundation and among the leaders in funding from the National Institutes of Health.

The University’s research funding brings dollars to Illinois that would go elsewhere if not for the world-class scholarship of our faculty our students and facilities
And we put it to work to serve society and drive economic growth.

Our Urbana research park has incubated 145 start-up companies since it opened in 2003 and nearly 80 percent remain in Illinois.

It has grown to 1,500 employees and interns, and attracts leading companies that set up shop to partner with the University on research, including Abbott, State Farm, Caterpillar and Yahoo.

A similar business incubator is growing here in Chicago and is already working to spin out high-tech start-ups from our UIC campus. UIC, I believe, is poised to play a crucial role in building a brighter future for Chicago and, in turn, our state and our nation.

Let me explain.

Increasingly, major cities are the engine that drive economic fortunes of a nation.

A Brookings Institution report shows that America’s top 100 metropolitan areas account for only 12 percent of the country’s land mass, but are now responsible for three-fourths of gross domestic product, 70 percent of jobs and nearly 80 percent of competitive patents.

As cities go, so goes the nation.

Chicago is among those great cities, committed to progress and innovation.

I believe that Chicago needs a large, world-class public university to fully realize its vision.

One that provides a transformative education for large numbers of young people, regardless of their economic standing in life; one that provides the highly educated workforce that meet the needs of next-generation companies; and one that provides the pioneering research that fosters discovery, and fuels new waves of commercial development  to keep Chicago on the leading edge.

UIC shares that vision.

This growing campus is already the city’s largest, with more than 28,000 students. Its reputation for academic and research excellence has earned it a place on a prestigious list of the world’s top 50 universities under 50 years old.

We are committed to building on its capacity to serve society and solve its most pressing challenges.

One of those initiatives seeks to expand the impact of a health science enterprise at UIC that includes the nation’s largest medical school … one that produces one of six doctors practicing in Illinois, nearly half of the state’s dentists and a third of pharmacists.

Last month, the Board of Trustees approved a major reorganization that will align UIC’s health-science colleges with our nearly 500-bed hospital and 13 clinics in Chicago that combine for more than 450,000 patient visits every year.

Uniting clinical and academic units under a single umbrella will create opportunities for multi-disciplinary research collaborations in real-life settings so we can grow as a leader in health-care discovery.

UIC is in an enviable position as the nation’s health-care paradigm shifts toward wellness and away from costly hospital treatment.

As one of only a few universities in the nation with the full complement of seven health-science colleges, medicine, pharmacy, public health, dentistry, social work, nursing, and applied health sciences. UIC is positioned to help lead the way in a future world of comprehensive health care.

Despite our successes and potential, there are still things that keep me awake at night.

One is funding.

The University’s state operating appropriation has been on a steep, decades-long decline, reducing support for our academic programs by more than $130 million annually since fiscal 2002.

Thirty years ago, our state appropriation covered nearly half of the university’s day-to-day operating costs. Today, it accounts for only about 15 percent.

We face another deep cut next year unless the legislature is able to effectively address the revenue shortfall that will follow the expiration of the temporary increased income tax.

When I appeared before the House Higher Education Appropriation Hearing last year, I asked that we receive the same appropriation last year.

The Governor’s “bad” budget contemplates a 12 ½ percent reduction in our appropriation, or nearly $83 million.

That’s about the size of the entire budget for the Springfield campus.

 A cut of that magnitude would be devastating and would touch every phase of our operation … from academic programs to graduation rates to our workforce.

It would undo efforts to hold down student costs that have netted a 1.7 percent tuition increase each of the last two years … the lowest in nearly two decades.

And it would impair our efforts to recruit and retain the top faculty who are the core of our excellence … the faculty who attract research funding and the best and brightest students.

The impact on the state would be just as painful, affecting our ability to produce the highly skilled graduates and research discovery that are the keys to progress and economic growth.

The governor’s budget proposal is just the first step in the process, and we will continue to advocate at every turn for the best interests of the University, our students and our state.

There are other challenges.

Changes in the state’s pension system pose another threat to faculty recruitment, and retention.

Research funding is also at risk as Congress works to whittle a massive federal deficit.

The very model of higher education is also changing.

With the rise of online studies and the growing popularity of community college as a lower-cost pathway to degrees, what does the future hold for a traditional, on-campus education at four-year schools like the University of Illinois?     

Outside my office in Urbana, there’s a hallway lined with the portraits of the 18 presidents who preceded me over the last 147 years.

If those walls could talk, they would tell me of the challenges that they overcame.

The University endured through the Great Depression and countless recessions … through world wars abroad and cultural changes at home that have altered the very fabric of our nation.

The University adapted as transportation evolved from horseback to cars to space travel, and as communication shifted from the telegraph to Smart Phones.

It has not only survived. Our faculty and graduates have helped lead the way … locally, nationally and globally.

And we can do it again.

We will do it by building a new financial model that takes into account the realities of declining government support, the need for private giving and examines our operation from top to bottom to ensure it is efficient and cost effective.

And we will do it by sustaining our excellence and continuing to deliver the value to society that only quality education and pioneering scholarship can provide.

Thank you again for your time and support.

Now, I’m happy to answer any questions.