Tom Kacich | Gov. Rauner's words bolster nagging fears about DPI

Tom Kacich | Gov. Rauner's words bolster nagging fears about DPI

Editor's note: An earlier version of this column included an incorrect ranking for the UI's College of Engineering. U.S. News & World Report ranks the UI's overall graduate program ninth nationally, not 11th, as it appeared in a quote in the original story.

Gov. Bruce Rauner is fond of telling people that he's not a politician. And after 3 years in the state's top job, at times that's still a pretty accurate self-assessment.

In a two-minute segment on WGN Radio about 10 days ago, Rauner made some spectacularly impolitic remarks about Champaign-Urbana and the University of Illinois, and he helped rekindle local anxieties about Chicago skimming some of the best and the brightest from the Urbana campus and taking them north.

It's a repeat of the concerns from a few years ago when former Urbana campus Chancellor Phyllis Wise had to fight Chicago politicians to propel her idea of an engineering-based medical school here, something about to become a reality when the Carle Illinois College of Medicine begins operations Monday.

In a June 22 segment with radio host Roe Conn, Rauner said that "one of the exciting things that we can do — and it's within our power — is to make sure that we invest in the technology and innovation sector. That's where the economic growth is. California is booming, Seattle is booming. New York, Boston, the Research Triangle of North Carolina, they're all booming because of the tech sector."

"And in all of those areas, the driver of that tech sector is the university system," Rauner said. "It's Harvard and MIT and Stanford and ..."

Good so far, but then Rauner began to veer off message.

He said that the UI is "one of the greatest research universities in the world, and their students have started many of the greatest companies in the world," but he observed that none of those companies are headquartered in Illinois.

Then he stepped in it.

"There are several reasons, but part of the reason is Champaign-Urbana is wonderful, but it's very hard to keep a company of more than six people there. There's no convenient transportation, not much of a workforce, and it's very hard," Rauner blurted.

In a matter of seconds, the governor — who mind you is up for re-election in about four months — dismissed all of the high-tech places in Champaign-Urbana that he had used for press pops in recent years: HL Precision Manufacturing in Champaign; Frasca International in Urbana, where he eagerly jumped in behind a high-tech flight simulator; EpiWorks in Champaign, where a month earlier he had participated in a ribbon-cutting as the company quadrupled its workspace. It also, Rauner's press office noted, was up to 111 employees "and it is expected to hire more tech personnel."

Rauner's statement also ignored all the tech companies that have set up offices in the University of Illinois Research Park, established 18 years ago in a partnership with Fox/Atkins Development.

Peter Fox, the manager of Fox/Atkins, said he wasn't bothered by the slight.

"Those things happen. I've said enough dumb things in my life that I am careful not to be critical," Fox said last week.

But there was more to worry about in Rauner's remarks, that nagging concern that local leaders have about the proposed Discovery Partners Institute in Chicago's South Loop, where the UI is supposed to lead a multi-university research institute. They worry that the talent, leadership and money at the Urbana campus might be shifted to Chicago. Rauner's comments didn't help.

"We can start some companies there" in Champaign-Urbana, Rauner said, "but what we need to do is help the University of Illinois expand in Chicago, expand into Rockford and Peoria, that have large economic systems and great, great companies already ... and a diverse, large workforce and then use their innovation and technology and ability, get their students integrated in the local economy, and we can boom. If we get the U of I to open a campus here down on Roosevelt Road, which is what we're striving to do and get them to partner with UC, Northwestern, Tel Aviv and Technion in Israel, their new partners for this, we can have some of the great innovation and some of the fastest-growing companies right here in the state of Illinois."

Rauner's talk of a campus on Roosevelt Road flies in the face of assurances from others that this would not become another UI campus. And it worries others, like Fox, who think the Urbana campus and community need to be more aggressive in fighting for state support.

"The thing that concerns me more than anything is that the Urbana campus is the jewel, in my opinion, in the state," he said. "And there are a lot of good competitors around the country now and, in my opinion, the Urbana campus has been under-invested in for as long as I've been involved. I think it's really important for everybody in our area that has a voice or opinion or a role to make sure that we get our fair share of any capital that is being allocated from Springfield or Washington."

To Fox, that means putting more support into places like the College of Engineering and the College of Medicine.

"If we don't invest in the College of Engineering, once it goes in the wrong direction, it will be very difficult to regain," he said. "I think it would be easy to spend $500 million (the amount this year's state budget contains for the Discovery Partners Institute) in Urbana, so I'm not sure why anybody related to the Urbana-Champaign campus would want to see that money invested in Chicago.

"I have enormous respect for (Chicago) Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Rauner, and I can see what they'd like to do something in Chicago. But I don't think we should not also make a very strong case that money spent in Urbana can have as quick a payback if not sooner than anything they can do in Chicago."

Meanwhile, state Sen. Chapin Rose has written to UI President Tim Killeen and urged him to "put some meat on the bone and let Champaign-Urbana know, publicly, exactly what is in" the DPI project for Champaign-Urbana.

"My recommendation is that you start visiting with the broader community, not legislators, on this topic and start sharing your vision right here (and in person). Too many conversations in the dark, Tim — time for you to bring the broader community into the conversation," he wrote in the letter that also was sent to other local officials.

Rose, a Mahomet Republican state senator, said that Rauner has stated repeatedly, including a week earlier on the Urbana campus "that DPI was going to be good for Champaign-Urbana."

"But this is Tim Killeen's baby. He's leading the institution. He's the guy who's going to have to oversee the interplay between the Champaign campus and all these other pieces of DPI," Rose said last week. "He needs to be the one to explain this and let the rest of us in on the plan."

Rose said that in private conversations he's had with UI administrators, including Provost Andreas Cangellaris, he believes DPI "would be kick-ass" and would benefit the Urbana campus.

But no ideas or plans have been shared publicly, Rose said, "and when there's a lack of information, people assume the worst."

Finally, Rauner has pledged to come to Champaign-Urbana to meet with local officials and to apologize for his unfortunate comments. That meeting, which could happen this week, gives them an opportunity to not only graciously accept the apology but also to re-emphasize his point about the transportation issues he cited here, including the need for high-speed rail, safer interstate highways and better airline connections.

He has the clout to do something about it, and he is, after all, up for re-election in about four months.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette columnist. His column appears on Sundays.

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