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URBANA — Chancellor Robert Jones and his administration mulled between a few words to describe the direction of their institution during Jones' State of the University address on Thursday.

Compassionate, committed, determined, unshakable were a few options. He went with “optimistic.” It happens to be the title of one of the premier tracks from gospel group “Sounds of Blackness,” which Jones performed with for 30 years.

“I’m looking around at some of the faces in the audience here, and while masks are hiding some of the expressions I saw quite a few eyes narrowing and brows furrowing when I said ‘optimistic,’” Jones said during his live-streamed hour of prepared remarks. “And I know there are a few of you asking, ‘Jones, did you once again accidentally put on your rose-colored glasses this morning?”

He spent his address going through his own reasons for his chosen word: the UI’s heralded COVID response, record-setting enrollment and new capital projects among them.

Jones highlighted the university’s new partnerships around quantum computing, including the new IBM-Illinois Center announced this May.

“Our world is on the verge of a leap forward that will be at least as significant as the digital revolution of the 20th century, and just as we were then, our university is right on the front edge of this quantum and cloud computing century,” he said.

He touted the “long overdue” renovation of the UI Library system, including the upcoming conversion of the undergraduate library into a special collections space, and the new plans for a building to house the ethnic and gender and women’s studies programs at the UI.

And the contributions of the UI’s Research Park, which now “employs more than 800 students each and every year, which is more than any other research park of this kind in the nation,” he said.

Jones closed his address answering half-an-hour worth of submitted questions from the university community, read by Provost Andreas Cangellaris.

Here are the questions and Jones’ responses, lightly edited for length and clarity:

The university has seen success in terms of large enrollment numbers. Given our latest increases in enrollment of first generation college students, can you provide examples of investments being made to further provide support for this population?

A: If you want to understand what an institution cares about or where its values are, follow the money. And this is one of the areas I’m extremely proud of, where we have increased our financial aid assistance by almost $50 million in the five years I’ve served at this university.

For the Illinois Commitment, free tuition and fees means that it’s free in terms of the 5,500 students that we enroll. Somebody’s got to write a check for that.

And that’s something that a lot of people don’t understand, we have to come up with the resources to reinvest in that revenue to provide this tuition program to our students. We’re constantly looking for new and innovative ways to make education accessible and affordable.

We’re very excited to be named as an anchor partner with the new initiative that was announced a month or two ago called Hope Chicago. It has the big plan of educating more than 20,000 students from Chicago Public Schools and we are certainly glad that those 20,000 students will be educated at universities across the state of Illinois, and as being one of the primary partner, we expect the vast majority of them to enroll in this university.

We also are working on a new initiative that’s called FOCUS that will provide state of the art career counseling to help our students, particularly those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, to better understand career paths and trajectories, so that when they graduate from this university they will have clear knowledge what they’re going to embark upon.

We have to be much more aggressive recruiting students from underrepresented backgrounds, as well as serving the southern and central part of the State of Illinois.

One of the things that struck me when I went on the statewide tour with President Killeen was the degree to which not only are we needed in Chicago folks, we are greatly needed down in Marion and Carbondale and down near the Shawnee forest. We are greatly needed across the state, because there are folks facing significant food insecurity who basically have to shop at a brand store that isn’t designed for groceries.

What is the university doing to address the recent gun violence and shootings in our local community?

I think we have to be clear eyed that this is one of the greatest threats this community has faced in quite some times.

You might think that this only happens in major metropolitan areas like the south side of Chicago, but that is not true. Gun violence in recent months has come to really impact members of this community.

We’ve had people shot, killed, wounded, the whole nine yards. And it really is very, very troubling.

So as an anchor institution in this community, and I say this time and time again, sometimes we forget that our destinies are inextricably linked to the city of Urbana-Champaign and Champaign County, what affects one affects every one of us.

And the violence in this community affects this university, the sense of safety parents feel when they send their kids here. The sense of belonging.

We have been working very hard with the Urbana-Champaign police departments to try and keep the community safe, thinking about all the investments we need, and how do we need to step up and help them out as a critical partner.

The United Way has been leading an effort to raise funds for solution grants to try to find solutions to this problem. And we have been very thoughtful and engaged — very quietly — in these last few months trying to find solutions to mitigate the impact of gun violence across our community and how we can step up and carry out our role as anchor institution, to make sure this community is safe for all, not just for the students that attend this university, but for each and every one of those individuals that call this place home.

With the continued rise of breakthrough cases on campus and in the community, why are we still not testing everyone for COVID?

We set up an expectation when we did what some people said couldn’t be done. There was a time that some people said the notion of testing everybody in the university community twice per week was a fantasy. Well, we did it for two semesters and beyond.

The reality is that was done in an environment where there weren’t vaccines and other kinds of mitigation steps. And so our strategy at the moment is not to test everyone.

We do go into situations where there’s outbreaks or breakthrough cases (more than 1 case in a couple days or more than two in a week in a given location) we do what we call targeted surveillance testing where everyone in that facility has to test every other day.

That, according to our public health officials, combined with our very high level of vaccination (94 percent campus-wide, 95 percent of undergraduates) is the best mitigation step to take at the moment, because folks remember we tested everyone twice per week back when we had about 20,000 students on campus, and you add our current enrollment and you add on top of that another 8,000 to 9,000 faculty and staff, in this case the person would be right, It becomes a fantasy or not financially prudent.

We tested because we had a desired outcome. And testing every vaccinated person in this university is probably not going to give us any different outcome from what we’re doing right now.

With inflation running so high, will the university increase its employees salaries accordingly to keep up with freezing prices?

Well if I ruled the world, I would increase university salaries above inflation. It’s very much a concern and I think you’re all aware, each and every year — and again this year — we’re asking for almost a 10 percent increase in the operating budget allocation to the University of Illinois system, and part of that ($26 million) would be directed toward mitigating salary issues as well as continuing to be able to hire the best and the brightest faculty ($10 million) to continue to meet the needs of this growing student population that we have. This doesn’t remove the urgency of providing additional salaries, but I remind you that during this pandemic we did what other universities failed to do, or refused to do or didn’t have the capacity to do: we kept people employed. We didn’t do furloughs, we didn’t terminate anybody. Doesn’t mean we won’t continue to work very hard to continue to find the resources to provide adequate pay for the work that you do at this university.

We can’t just depend on the next allocation from the state folks. We have to continue to reduce costs and increase our effectiveness and how do we garner those resources to reinvest in everything from hiring the best people and compensating accordingly.

I feel the pandemic has allowed us to reevaluate our work life balance in a positive way. My job life is more fulfilling when I have some autonomy over my work schedule. Will the university be supportive of long term hybrid work schedules?

I think we already demonstrated that, ever since we made it through last academic year and slowly started to bring people back to work, we didn’t issue an edict from myself or the provost or HR about what the work arrangements were going to be.

And according to some unofficial surveys, there are a growing amount of people who like working remotely.

But I remind you that we have a university to run we have an education, research and outreach engagement to attend to, and what we did instead was create a temporary model where individuals get to plead their case of whether they come back in person, a hybrid formation or continue to work remotely, and we think that was the best decision to make at the time.

We will continue to reevaluate this question. One of the question that dominated every higher education forum I’ve attended is the nature of work, and what that’s going to look like once the pandemic is behind us.

We are absolutely open to models that provide a bit of respect and support for people’s conditions or life circumstances, but at the same time we cannot run this university remotely. And we have to have the appropriate mix that allows us to remain effective. We’ll look at the next six months and then we need to think more long-term what that’s going to look like.

There are all kinds of legal issues we’re beginning to unpack that I won’t get into today, but it is probably one of the top things that is an outgrowth of this pandemic that has transformed the workplace and work environment forever.

How are you deciding course modalities?

That’s not my job. I’m not.

Cangellaris filled in: 

We are a residential university we are doing so many things that develop the next generation of innovators, students told us themselves they want a lot of personal, human contact. We are going to be continuing down the path of making sure that that personal engagement with the students, all of us, is not only instructors, teaching assistants, it is the staff and advisors, it is the community of the campus that engages these young minds and makes them feel what it is to be an independent member of a society.

I won’t be surprised if as we move forward we see a very creative blend of online and in person, some of that online being made available to students provides opportunities for faster translation rates, much better management of their time, we are going to be seeing significant innovation in those areas.

The decisions rest with the units. The units are the ones engaging the faculty to think creatively about how to do teaching with the teaching assistants, how to engage the students.

What is the university’s plan to reach the goal set in the iCAP, to fully divest from all fossil fuel companies by FY 25?

Our goal and our commitment hasn’t changed. It’s spelled out in our iCAP agreement and we’re still very much committed to that.

But the fundamental question is how do we get there, and I have to acknowledge that the foundation and President Killeen in terms of the resources that he’s responsible for. Each one of those entities have made significant progress moving resources away from some of these companies that I know students are concerned about and investing more of our money into sustainable entities.

We have to keep that goal of divestment from fossil fuel based companies, but it has to be done in a responsible way.

I think sometimes people forget that the foundation and the resources that existed across this system, I have no direct responsibility or decision making in that, but I do have the ability to make recommendations very strong and clear. And I have done that and will continue to do that.

We really do have to understand these funds are an important source of money that helps bridge some of those financial gaps we talked about, providing resources for scholarship, to keep education affordable.

We are still very much committed to that strategy, but at the same time, things have shifted. And I know at one point in our time we asked our business school dean to help us understand the consequences of this type of decision.

I will continue to urge us to move along that path, and we’ve come a long way in the last five years, in some cases more than a decline of 67 percent of some of our assets being invested (in fossil fuel companies).

It’s not some switch we can flip overnight, because we have a foundation and the foundation has a board which has fiduciary responsibility for managing those resources.

Now we’re going to be working with them to look at what more socially responsible investing might look like. We’ll continue to do what we can as the flagship university of the Illinois system. The important thing is we get to our sustainability goals.

(Divesting from fossil fuel companies by FY25 is an objective in the 2020 Illinois Climate Action Plan. Its implementation difficulty is listed as “high,” and the funding level “medium” in the report.)

What is the status as a whole of the branding, new mascot and Chief Illiniwek issues as they currently stand? What is leadership doing toward the resolution of the issue surrounding it, and in real-world, layman’s words, how do we put it to bed and move on, or what stops that?

In layman’s words, I wish we could just put it to bed. I’ve been working five years of my life to try and move us beyond the 89-year legacy of Chief Illiniwek.

And some of the things I talked about today is proof-positive. The fact that we started this conversation with the Land Acknowledgement statement. The fact that we hired the first person (Vice Chancellor Jacki Thompson Rand) to be in charge of Native Affairs.

The fact that we had a critical conversation that started the second year I was here, that evolved over the last three and a half to four years to being an honest conversation to do a reset and to do a truth and reconciliation to helping people understand that while this may have been acceptable for most of the last 80, 90 years or so, why it’s not acceptable now.

It really is the one thing that undermines the excellence of this university. You know I’m not one to label people, people can believe what they want to believe, but I can tell you Native American imagery and the way it’s been perpetuated at this university is antithetical to our goals, our visions and what we think is fundamentally right.

We can’t talk about it being a place of inclusivity and excellence as we perpetuate Native images.

How do we recruit more Native American students to this university? We decided that, what sense does it make to charge Native students of Native nations out-of-state tuition? State boundaries don’t mean a darn thing to Native nations. Statehood, that’s a colonial construct, and someone’s going to get mad at me for using that term, but I’ve been here six years. You can be mad, it’s OK.

But we got to move beyond that to really honoring Native American heritage and culture.

Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve never had more than about 7 to 10 Native American students every year. We’ve got to do better than that, folks. We absolutely have to do better.

And don’t get me wrong, I am not the apparel or fashion police. I cannot stop people from wearing what they want to wear. It is a nonstarter, we can’t get there.

It will take time but we’re committed to doing what’s right, and that’s to truly honor Native American heritage and culture, honor the land on which this university was built and to strengthen our commitment with Native nations.

Your description of the state of the university was optimistic. My understanding is this word has some special meaning for you. Would you please tell us the importance of optimism in your life and career?

We really did debate about what single word to best describe the university. And this one is especially important to me, if there’s anything that’s been a soundtrack for my 43 years in higher education and really my whole life, from the sharecropper shack in southwestern Georgia, to leading one of the most amazing universities in the world, you have to stay optimistic.

I think that some of you know, I don’t know if I get bored easily but I like to have a lot of things going on in my life. And for more than 30 years concurrent with being a professor and a research scientist at the University of Minnesota I performed professionally with a group called “Sounds of Blackness,” a Grammy award winning group.

And I was really saddened to hear this morning, someone broke into Clarence Avant’s home, and shot his wife last night. Some kind of break-in robbery. Clarence Avant is probably the most well-known, influential African American in the music industry. I don’t think Clarence ever finished high school to be honest with you, but went on to transform the music industry in ebing the first African American to be president of one of the major labels.

He’s the reason that “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis had the opportunity to develop the career of Janet Jackson, after Prince fired them for not showing up at concerts. That’s a whole other story. (laughs)

Clarence has shaped the music industry and music is the heartbeat of my soul and my career, and I had the great pleasure of performing with this group for more than 30 years. And one of the first songs the group released once “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis gave a recording contract because Janet Jackson heard us sing, and she insisted that these folks needed a recording contract. Their music which is a gamut of field hollers to gospel to message music, was really impressive to hear, and these guys had followed us for years and loved our music but never thought about a recording contract.

They wrote and penned some of the most powerful lyrics that really has become a soundtrack for my life. One of the songs was part of our second album, called “The Evolution of the Gospel,” the main song is called “Optimistic,” released in 1991. So I won’t trust those lyrics to my memory, but I’ll just give a framework of why it’s important to use that word as the framework for this State of the University address.

“Never say die

Optimistic

When in the midst of sorrow

You can' t see up when looking down

A brighter day tomorrow will bring”

“You hear the voice of reason

Telling you this can't never be done

No matter how hard reality seems

Just hold on to your dreams,”

“Don't give up and don't give in

Although it seems you never win

You will always pass the test

As long as you keep your head to the sky

Be optimistic”

“If things around you crumble

No, you don't have to stumble and fall

Keep pushing on and don't you look back

I know the storms and strife

Cloud up your outlook on life

Just think ahead and you'll be inspired

To reach higher and higher”

“You will always do your best

If you learn to never say never

You may be down, but you're not out

(That's what "optimistic" is all about)

Don't give up and don't give in

Although it seems you never win

You will always pass the test”

“As long as you keep your head to the sky”

Ethan Simmons is a reporter at The News-Gazette covering the University of Illinois. His email is esimmons@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@ethancsimmons).

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