UI board has taken to opening meetings with state song
After a tense, closed-door meeting in March 2012 to consider the future of University of Illinois leadership, UI trustees launched their public session with ... a song.
It was just days before embattled UI President Michael Hogan would resign, and trustees were considering the latest revelations about his former chief of staff.
But before their public meeting, they listened to a performance by Ollie Watts Davis and the UI Black Chorus.
Since mid-2011, just about every University of Illinois Board of Trustees meeting has opened with a rendition of the song "Illinois."
Not "Hail to the orange ..." or "Os-kee-wow-wow," but the official state song, written and composed by C.H. Chamberlain and Archibald Johnston. (You know, "By thy rivers gently flowing, Illinois, Illinois ...") (Here's audio of the song on the state's website.)
And the afternoon session of the board's day-long meeting includes a second "lively arts" presentation — everything from music to theater to poetry.
It's the brainchild of board Chairman Christopher Kennedy, who has an affinity for the arts. In his former job as president of Chicago-based Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., he ran some of the country's biggest art fairs in the United States — in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere.
One of the UI board's roles, Kennedy said, is to "create a tone at the top, and part of that tone needs to be an acknowledgement that the arts are a core part of the university's contribution to the state. We can demonstrate that by dedicating part of our meeting to the arts."
"Illinois" has been sung by soloists, duettists, opera singers and an ensemble from the Black Chorus. Afternoon performances have included a prep high school choir, jazz trio, string quartet, poets, actors and the Varsity Men's Glee Club.
All of which makes for some interesting (and awkward) moments in the board rooms, where trustees sit just a few feet from the performers. The rooms aren't known for their acoustics "or frankly their inherent beauty, or the views," Kennedy noted.
One memorable show in Springfield: two students who performed short scenes from a couple of plays, including a heated argument. One viewer who tuned in late to the videostream of the meeting emailed UI spokesman Tom Hardy to find out what was going on.
"It looked like there was some kind of fracas," Hardy said.
"We weren't really briefed on what was coming," Kennedy added. "I was waiting for the song to begin."
Sometimes the weather interferes. When the singer for the January 2012 meeting couldn't make it because of flight delays, Kennedy turned to fellow trustees and UI employees: "Now we're going to take volunteers. So who's got a good voice? And knows the words to the state song?"
No hands went up. Undaunted, Kennedy pressed on.
"There's no one, really? Nobody in the entire university leadership, the faculty ...?"
Eventually another trustee mercifully moved to skip that part of the meeting.
The performances are a nice "respite" from the board's more serious business, Kennedy said.
"You're dealing with a lot of issues that can be overwhelming. It's an eight- or nine-hour meeting. It's very public. Everyone's being filmed. It's an uncomfortable situation," Kennedy said. "And yet those performances, I think, inspire everyone to stay there and do the hard work.
"I think it gives us all a chance to reflect and rededicate ourselves to the importance of the university."
His favorite moment? Hearing former UI President Stanley Ikenberry sing along to the state song.
"He's got a beautiful singing voice," Kennedy said.
In January, jazz singer Dee Alexander, who also works in the UI Chicago's Office of Research Services, surprised Kennedy with "Moondance" by Van Morrison, one of his favorites.
On tap for today's meeting: Bethany Stiles, a doctoral student in voice performance and literature, singing "Illinois"; and for the afternoon, a small group from the Marching Illini, which has a couple of surprises in store.
Stiles, 31, has appeared with C-U Symphony Orchestra and Sinfonia da Camera and played Fantine in last summer's Champaign-Urbana Theater Co. production of "Les Miserables."
Singing at board meetings is nothing new for Stiles, who has performed at Kiwanis and Rotary club meetings — as well as a UI ice hockey game last year.
"I'm really looking forward to this," she said during a rehearsal Tuesday at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
A native of Owensboro, Ky., Stiles prefers "My Old Kentucky Home." She grew up in Hodgerville, Ky., the birthplace and boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln, and challenges Illinois' claim to the 16th president. "We got him first," she said.
But today's performance is "a nice opportunity to learn the state song of my adopted school," she said. "It's a really beautiful melody."
Major items at trustees meeting:
1. A package of contracts for the State Farm Center renovation worth almost $87 million. They include $25 million to Grunloh Construction of Effingham; $24 million to A&R Mechanical of Urbana; and $16.2 million to Oberlander Electric of Peoria. With the home basketball season over, major construction on the $165 million project gets underway shortly.
2. A structure for a 19-member search committee to help with the selection of the UI's next president after Bob Easter retires in 2015. It would include three trustees, eight faculty members from the three campuses, one student from each campus, one academic professional, one civil service staff member, one administrative officer, one member from the UI Alumni Association and one member from the UI Foundation.
3. A proposal to cover gender reassignment surgery as part of the optional student health insurance plan at Urbana. It's part of a $37 increase in student insurance rates for 2014-15, including $2 to $3 for the surgery coverage. Trustees approved a similar plan last spring for the Chicago campus, where students had pushed for the coverage.
4. A $50 million renovation for Everitt Laboratory, former headquarters for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, which is moving to a new $90 million building. Everitt will now be used for the Department of Bioengineering.
5. A total of $41.6 million in contracts for the second phase of the new residence hall at the Ikenberry Commons, the third to be built in that complex. It's scheduled to be completed by May 2016.
6. An honorary degree for Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Phillip Sharp, who received his doctorate in chemistry from the UI.