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URBANA — When grand plans for a new Chicago-based Discovery Partners Institute were announced in October 2017, it caught many University of Illinois faculty members off guard.

The project had been quietly discussed in top administrative circles for months, but professors at Urbana and the other two UI campuses had many questions about what exactly it would be, how it would be governed, and what it would mean for their students and academic programs.

After more than a year of intense faculty consultation, the Urbana campus's Academic Senate on Monday gave overwhelming approval to the institute, on a temporary basis. The vote was 104-3, with three abstentions.

DPI Director Bill Sanders called it a "critical" step in the institute's development.

"This will really give us at Urbana, all of us in the state, the ability to have impact for good," he said after the vote.

The campus senates in Chicago and Springfield are considering the same proposal, and it must also be approved by the systemwide University Senates Conference, the UI Board of Trustees and the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

The temporary approval for DPI, used in the creation of other new programs, means the institute has five years to prove itself before the senate considers permanent status, said Professor Gay Miller, who chairs the senate's Educational Policy Committee. It will have to provide more details on how much the UI system is investing in the project, DPI's "added value" to the three campuses, and a list of long-term milestones to gauge its success.

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DPI is a collaborative research, education and innovation institute in Chicago, focused on solving 21st-century "grand challenges," Sanders said. It will anchor a statewide Illinois Innovation Network with "hubs" at the Urbana and Springfield campuses and other Illinois universities.

Its mission is to establish partnerships with businesses, government agencies, universities, foundations and community organizations to address those challenges, promote entrepreneurship and educate the "next-generation work force" to revitalize the state's economy.

"This will not be a fourth campus of the UI system," Sanders said, but a "convening place for faculty" from all three UI campuses and institutions that have signed on as partners, including the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University. Faculty, in turn, will benefit from those collaborations, and their research can have broader impact, he said.

Sanders said a diverse group of 130 professors has worked through 10 committees to help set it up, including four working groups focused on its research themes — computing and data, environment and water, food and agriculture, and health and wellness.

Across those four areas, DPI will offer opportunities in culture and society, entrepreneurship and technology transfer, education and workforce development, and public policy, he said. "Social equity" will be a guiding principle, he said.

The four working groups have spent six months engaging more than 1,000 people across the UI system, he said. Workshops were also held on three campuses to get input, including one in Urbana that drew 400 people, he said.

A faculty advisory group has been developing a system of governance, and an executive committee is providing faculty advice on the overall development of the institute, he said.

"All in all, a large and very diverse group of faculty has contributed substantial time to the development of DPI," he said.

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The institute is starting out with a small staff in a 20,000-square-foot rented space on Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago. The long-range goal is to create a 500,000-square-foot institute in downtown Chicago, using half of the $500 million in capital funding pledged by the state for construction of the institute and the Illinois Innovation Network. The developer, Related Midwest, has offered to donate the land as part of its "78th" development in Chicago.

The other half of the state appropriation will be used primarily on the UI system campuses, for buildings in Urbana, Springfield and Chicago, Sanders said. Urbana has already said it will use its portion to support a new Data Sciences Institute on the site of Illini Hall.

But tax-increment-finance funding must still be approved for the "78th." And the state has asked the UI to raise $500 million in matching funds before it releases any funding for the project.

Sanders said DPI is more than halfway to that goal, with about $300 million raised so far from university and industry sources, including a private funding announcement expected in Chicago today.

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The University Senates Conference, a faculty advisory group for President Tim Killeen, has been reviewing the proposal for months, concerned about how DPI's governance structure, academic oversight and faculty hiring will work.

As a systemwide research and education entity with outside partners, DPI is "unprecedented," Senates Conference Chairwoman Joyce Tolliver wrote in a memo accompanying the proposal. Several senators had expressed concern about the "relatively vague details" of the proposal early on, with one calling it "quite surprisingly 'undercooked.' There is typically much more detail and precision in most proposals for a new minor within a department," the memo said.

In "regular intensive conversations" with Killeen, UI vice presidents and Sanders about DPI, the Senates Conference insisted that its courses, faculty nominations and other academic matters be under the control of the campuses. The final proposal reflects that goal, Tolliver said.

"This will not be a place where you can get a degree. We will not be stealing students from our campuses because these will be our students," she said.

Faculty members will hold affiliate appointments at DPI, but their primary appointments will remain with their home academic departments, the same model used for other collaborative institutes such as the National Center for Supercomputing Applications or Beckman Institute, Sanders said.

It will host classes but won't have its own academic credit courses; those will be managed by academic departments at the UI's three campuses. And any new grants that faculty members develop through DPI will be credited back to their home departments.

"The idea is to grow resources available to faculty, not divide the pie," Sanders said.

Donna Cox, professor of art and design and director of the NCSA's Advanced Visualization Lab, spoke in support of the plans.

"Based on 30 years of experience connecting art, science and industry, I've witnessed groundbreaking research and public outreach," Cox said. "I truly believe DPI holds great promise."

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).