Faced with a depressing state funding picture, an uncertain federal research funding outlook and slowly recovering state and regional economy, University of Illinois officials sat down with Chicago business and political leaders in the last year and asked the following question:
How does the UI contribute to the region and state's economic development and at the same time protect the public institution of higher education?
The answer: Why not create a research and development laboratory in Chicago where the university would partner with corporations in computational, information sciences and engineering research.
They agreed on a name — UI Labs: The Future Today — trademarked it, and have been quietly talking up the idea to possible corporate partners and faculty leaders in recent months, as first reported by The News-Gazette last week.
Few people are talking specifics about the project, but it's clear the idea is gaining momentum. The UI Board of Trustees is expected to discuss the idea in closed session in the next few months, The News-Gazette has learned.
As the university explores this new terrain — it has not considered creating a new entity since the failed Global Campus online venture from a few years ago — the questions and push for details is expected to grow. Last week, the University Senates Conference heard from UI Vice President for Research Larry Schook, whose office is in charge of UI Labs. Members of the faculty governance group expressed support for the idea but also pressed for more information about the mission and possible structure. It's not finalized yet, but the university is leaning toward establishing UI Labs as a separate 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, rather than as a unit within the university.
What is apparent is university officials appear determined to come up with an answer to the question of how the university can translate its brain power into economic power for the state.
"All of us are grappling with the question how do universities, in their role in education and innovation, contribute to the economic revitalization of the region?" UI President Bob Easter said.
He pointed to a number of universities that have, in different ways, attempted to answer that question.
For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has, within the framework of the university, the federally funded Lincoln Laboratory, a research and development center sponsored by the Department of Defense. Its researchers conduct scientific research, including systems development and analysis for the government.
The Georgia Institute of Technology has the Georgia Tech Research Corp., a separate nonprofit corporation. Stanford University's School of Engineering has the Center for Integrated Systems. And Cornell NYC Tech is Cornell University's grand tech campus planned for Roosevelt Island in New York City. It will encompass a graduate school and office park for technology companies.
Schook, who sits on the Illinois Innovation Council, a group formed by Gov. Pat Quinn in early 2011 to promote and develop strategies that boost economic development, pointed to a recent report on the Chicago area's economy by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, and commissioned by the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. That report said the region has lagged behind other U.S. metro areas in economic growth in recent years and, to realize its full potential, the tri-state region of Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana should encourage "innovation-driven economic development and job creation," support startups, encourage technology transfer from research institutions to businesses, and more.
"From our perspective, it was about connecting the dots. How does the University of Illinois connect with the business community, with the government?" Schook said.
In recent months, Chicago tech companies and the city of Chicago, in particular Mayor Rahm Emanuel, have been on a concerted effort to recruit engineers from the Urbana campus to add to the Chicago workforce. Emanuel visited Urbana with dozens of startup companies with Chicago ties, and he met with students touring the city as part of Chicago Ideas Week. The city also is exploring redeveloping the former Michael Reese Hospital site on the city's South Side into a technology park.
World Business Chicago, a group of business leaders chaired by Emanuel, also has a strategic plan for the region that calls on, among a dozen other recommendations, transforming the region into a center for advanced manufacturing, encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, boosting exports and much more. Messages left with the mayor's press office were not returned.
"While premature to comment on specifics, any activity that strengthens the relationship and narrows the distance between Champaign-Urbana and Chicago can be a win for both cities, the university and the state," said World Business Chicago's spokeswoman Karley Sweet.
"This is not all about Chicago and Mayor Emanuel," Schook told faculty recently. Nor is it about a choice between UI Chicago or the Urbana-Champaign campus.
Schook said the decision is not whether the university creates something good for Chicago or good for Champaign-Urbana. He said he believes what's good economically for the Chicago region will drive the economy of the whole Midwest region.
"I'm for this, but I think we've got to somehow become much clearer in the message" of what UI Labs will do, said UIC Professor Don Chambers, a member of the University Senates Conference.
"This is not a fully formed entity. This is partly going to follow where the funding is," said UIUC Professor Nicholas Burbules, chairman of the conference.
Schook said he did not want the project to be perceived as a top-down idea, and he wanted to seek feedback from the faculty group.
"It could do many things. The intent is to allow you, faculty, to really be able to do two things: do different things and do them differently," he said.
"The concept is a great one not only for Chicago, but for Illinois and the University of Illinois, and the entire Midwest," said Shahrbanoo Fadavi, professor of pediatric dentistry at UIC's College of Dentistry.
What programs would be involved, who would be corporate partners, how much it would cost and where it would be located are all to be determined. Because UI Labs is not proposed to be part of one of the campuses (each campus has an academic senate which advises campus leaders), the specific role of faculty governance in its structure also is unclear.
Faculty are envisioned to spend a significant amount of time there, such as if they were to spend a semester sabbatical conducting research at another university. Contractual agreements would be drafted outlining specifics of leave time, how the research would be conducted and funded, intellectual property rights and much more.
"I love that the institution is urging faculty to think more creatively about funding sources ... and to be more entrepreneurial," said Lynn Fisher, anthropology professor at UI Springfield.
However, she also urged Schook to review a paper by the American Association of University Professors, which comprehensively reviews the state of industry-academy relations and provides recommendations on all the forms it comes in, such as corporate sponsorship of research and corporate alliances.
"There has to be protection of the academy," said mathematics Professor George Francis from the Urbana campus.
The topic of how a public university can be an economic engine in the state is not a new issue in higher education, President Easter said.
"But the question is: But how do we do it today as opposed to how we did it 50 years ago?" he said.