Wise shifts attention outside campus

Chancellor offers to help lead local push to recruit more quality jobs to C-U

CHAMPAIGN — University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise urged local business leaders Friday to join her in a renewed push to recruit more quality jobs to Champaign-Urbana, preserve key businesses already invested here and perhaps double the population — and she agreed to help lead that effort.

"This university is only as healthy as the community around it," and vice versa, Wise told about 80 people Friday at a business roundtable discussion at the Hilton Garden Inn. "We are a public university. We don't have the luxury of being an ivory tower."

With no "interim" appointments among top campus positions for the first time in five years, and an 18-month "Visioning Excellence" process complete, Wise said she's turning her attention outside campus.

Among those she has talked to is David Foote, a consultant for the Champaign-Urbana MTD, who told her the university needed to think more carefully about the community around it.

Faculty being recruited by the university look beyond campus boundaries when making their decision, Wise said. Often they are considering jobs on the East or West Coast, and they are usually part of a two-profession couple.

"If we don't get two jobs, we don't get either one of them," she told the crowd. "You are the people who really sell the community and the university for us."

Foote told her the community may need a population of 200,000 to 300,000 to remain "vibrant and self-sustaining," Wise said, citing as models the college towns of Austin, Texas, and Ann Arbor, Mich. Whether or not that's the right goal, those involved in "sustainable, micro-urban planning" need to think about the kinds of jobs they want to create and how Champaign-Urbana can market itself as a destination, she said.

Among the ideas tossed around Friday were high-speed rail, improved airport service and better promotion of Champaign's recent ranking as the fifth-best community for "work-life balance."

Just as the campus is recruiting clusters of faculty around the themes identified in its "Visioning Excellence" effort, Wise urged business leaders to help attract clusters of businesses to build jobs.

"I would love it if there was one business who brought in 50,000 employees, and high-paid employees, but that's not going to happen," she said.

She mentioned a recent trip to Yahoo's headquarters in California, where company officials told her they planned to expand their business in the UI's Research Park, which has grown from six to 20 employees.

"My secret dream is that they would get so big that they can't stay in the park, and they'd have to find real estate somewhere else in the county," she said.

One challenge is keeping those companies in Champaign-Urbana as they grow. Both Yahoo and State Farm, which also has offices in the research park, hire UI students as interns, but those employees often move on to Bloomington-Normal or California.

UI graduate Hari Vigneswaran, who helped found the nonprofit company Bump in the research park, said students who start businesses here don't plan to stay as the companies grow.

"They think if they want to be an entrepreneur, they're going to go to San Francisco," he said. "Part of that is that there isn't a connected community (here) that's all together encouraging that and promoting that."

Wise said that's something the UI is trying to improve.

Foote said past economic development efforts have failed because "there was no agenda, there was no chairman or leader, and there was no follow-through," Wise said.

Businessman Alan Nudo agreed, telling Wise, "You have to take an active role in this."

"I know there's a lot of expertise out here who can help you with the art of the deal. We can play a role if you ask us," Nudo said.

Wise said this is new territory for her. In the other university communities where she has worked, in Seattle and Davis, Calif., "never ever was the chancellor welcomed in this kind of community-university discussion."

But the ramifications here are much bigger, she said, because of the interdependence of the UI and the community.

"That's why I'm here, to learn from you," she said.

Past planning efforts have identified agribusiness, biomedical industry, information technology and advanced manufacturing as possible routes for economic development. The chancellor wants to work with business and civic leaders to decide whether to focus on those areas or others.

She envisions starting with a small group of respected, influential people who are invested in the community, and meeting over the next six months to a year before undertaking a broader effort.

She also asked community leaders to give her ideas on their "dream community," and the university will help where it can. She reiterated that its primary mission is to educate students.

Wise was asked how the community could capitalize on its proximity to Chicago. She talked about the development of the new UI Labs — a planned business research center in Chicago utilizing scientists from this campus — which she said grew out of a suggestion by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to move the College of Engineering to Chicago.

"I hope Chicago realizes that if they want flowers in Chicago, they've got to plant the seeds in Champaign," she said, drawing applause from the crowd.

Habeeb Habeeb, president and CEO of Benefit Planning Consultants, said the goal of the roundtable was to allow business leaders to meet with Wise informally "as a person, rather than just a figurehead of a university." He is hopeful Friday's talk will lead to more collaborations among city and business leaders.

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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on July 19, 2013 at 11:07 pm
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Will this doubled population live in fancy high-rise condos, perched around Midtown Champaign (and should I invest in those parcels of land) or will we dig up a few hundred more acres of the world's most fertille soil, for future McMansion enclaves?

 

If we dig/bulldoze enough earth, we can create the kind of topography and bodies of water that techies seem to like.