February 28, 2017
Robert J. Jones, Chancellor
Let me echo Chairman Koritz and President Killeen in welcoming all of you to the official opening of the Sesquicentennial of the University of Illinois!
This is a special moment for us – and for all of American higher education. We were among the original 37 public land-grant universities that were established by the Morrill Act of 1862. To me, that legislation ranks among the most optimistic expressions and realizations of the potential of higher education in our history.
It was passed in the midst of the Civil War. It came at a point when there was good reason to doubt the very survival of the union. From one of the darkest times in our nation’s history, we get the beginning of a new kind of university. And we find the foundation of a system that has redefined educational access and opportunity. Five years later, exactly 150 years ago, we officially claimed our place in that history. Here at Illinois, we have been shaping the future since 1867. So, this is truly a day for celebration here at Illinois.
It marks the start of 15 months of commemoration of the people and accomplishments that have defined us and made us proud for 150 years. But today is also an open invitation to join us in framing our vision, our hopes and our aspiration for what our university will bring to our society over the course of the next 150 years.
The university – and all of the land grants born with the Morrill Act – was founded not to recreate nor dwell in the past, but to actively imagine and actively engage with the world around us to deliver a better future.
In his inaugural address at Illinois in 1868, John Milton Gregory, our first regent, made this statement:
"It is no ordinary work which we are set to do, and it comes to us under no ordinary conditions. We are not here to reproduce, in this new locality, some old and well known style of college or university… The hungry eyes of toiling millions are turned, with mingled hope and fear, upon us, to see what new and better solution we can possibly offer of the great problems on which their well-being and destiny depend.”
He was laying down a challenge to define the public land-grant university in mission and practice for his century. Today, as we embark on our next 150 years, we have that same challenge: to define the land-grant mission for the 21st century.
I’ll tell you right now that this is not going to be easy. But it is essential.
No one in this hall would argue that American public higher education finds itself in an unsettling place today. We are expanding access to high-quality college education. We are carrying out research and scholarship that pushes the edge of what we know about our world. And we are engaging with our communities, locally and globally, to translate knowledge into real impact.
But at the same time:
Right now, hearing that list, some of you are checking your programs trying to figure out if you accidentally wandered into the wrong event. This is supposed to be a celebration. A day of optimism and excitement. Well, let me assure you – you are in the right place. And, although the list is daunting, I am very optimistic and excited about our future.
You might ask how that can be.
Because we have been faced with that list before. And we didn’t simply survive, we thrived and charted a course through those issues that has seen us go from a single building and 77 students to one of the most storied and accomplished universities in the world.
Every item I mentioned was one that our founders faced in 1867.
Fights over budgets, state and national arguments over curriculum, faculty qualifications and who should be allowed to attend – Gregory and his faculty had to deal with them all. The Morrill Act might have established the mechanism for our university to exist, but there was no blueprint and no instructional guide for what we would become, nor for the choices we would make along the way to define us.
What we were given that day in 1867 was an idea. A big idea. What we did from there was take that idea, drop it into the context of the time, place and society, and began to build, piece-by-piece, what has become the land-grant university. But that idea was never locked into a year or a place.
We have changed to meet the needs of each generation. Our university today would be unrecognizable – and quite possibly unsettling – to those first faculty and students.
The son of a sharecropper from southwestern Georgia as the chancellor? Women and people of color – not only as members of our faculty, but as a part of the student body? No uniforms and no classes in fence-building?
We are not the same university today. We are bigger. And we are so much better. And now, it is our turn to set the foundation that will support those who will be standing here talking about us 150 years from now.
I start with that list of challenges because we need to be accountable and honest with ourselves and with the public we serve. We must recognize the real context in which we operate and the needs of our society today.
That is part of the deal we accept as a public institution. We are answerable, not just because we're a state institution and because tuition is a large part of our revenue, but because we are chartered as a public resource. We have a duty to be engaged with our community.
When I talk about engagement, I don’t simply mean outreach and service. Things like our Extension network, our Education Justice Project or the Physics Van and hundreds of other programs are all important components of translating knowledge into impact. But I’m talking here about public engagement as an organizing principle for our university.
One of the greatest strengths of a land-grant is our ability to convene people and organizations around critical issues. We're a collaborative institution with broad stakeholders operating on a massive scale. We can bring about partnerships and networks that do not come together naturally. This is a leverage that we do not always execute nor exercise as we could or should. And our reluctance to exercise this power has consequences for the individuals and the families we are charged to serve. But it also undermines our capacity to deliver on our mission.
We find ourselves entrenched in debates about the value of our contributions because there has been an erosion of public trust in the connection of our work to the issues that most concern them.
John Milton Gregory talked about offering new and better solutions to critical problems of our society.
There is no shortage of those to be found today: poverty, hunger, war, energy security, human rights, political gridlock, ethnic and religious discrimination, educational and economic disparity. These are causes of real uncertainty. And I'd suggest that for many, the biggest fear isn't one issue – rather, it is the fading belief that solutions can be found for such complex problems.
People are losing hope and they don't see our university as a way forward for everyone. They see us as more and more disengaged with the world, even as they use tools and knowledge developed here in their daily lives. This is a misalignment that we can – and we must – correct by orienting and organizing ourselves in ways that put public engagement more clearly as a priority.
I want to be clear: When talking about public engagement, I am speaking on the institutional and university level. There is a difference between being answerable as an individual versus being answerable and accountable as an institution. Not every faculty research program or scholarly undertaking will have a public engagement component. Not every one will have a readily apparent practical application.
There's a story I've heard a couple times since I arrived here. It's about an interview with Sir Anthony Leggett on the day he won his 2003 Nobel Prize in Physics. The award honored his work explaining how superfluid helium behaves in strange ways at temperatures nearing absolute zero. A reporter asked about the practical applications of this research. Professor Leggett's response was something like: "I'm not sure if there are any."
Pure scholarship or intellectual curiosity isn't something we should try to hide or mask. It is something we should take great pride in sharing. In fact, we need to do a better job explaining the contributions that come from disciplines and programs whose discoveries don't end up on the manufacturing line. But they profoundly change the way we observe and study and understand the world.
From the beginning, Illinois was envisioned as a place where students would have a comprehensive educational experience. We would seamlessly integrate the arts, the humanities and the liberal arts with science and technical fields. A great library was part of the early plans. An art museum matching those of the East Coast universities was a high priority. Courses of study in ancient languages, philosophy, history and literature were outlined on the same plan that offered agriculture, engineering, chemistry and commerce.
The pursuit of pure knowledge and discovery is the foundation of a world-class research university.
Everything we do starts from there. It attracts the best faculty and the best graduate students. It fuels our teaching and our educational experiences. It is why our faculty and staff and alumni have such a long history of forcing the world to continually redefine the word "impossible." Universities like ours must be where people turn to find trusted solutions to grand challenges that are too complex for any one entity to solve alone. And just as critically, we must remain committed to taking on problems that many feel are too controversial and too uncomfortable to be raised.
Ideas can be dangerous … and even threatening. They have the potential to rewrite history and disrupt governments. Sometimes they just lead us down dead ends and even are deemed failures. Still, we must be a place where our students and scholars alike have the freedom to pursue them all. Academic freedom is a bedrock principle at Illinois. But these ideas also lead us to knowledge, practices and discoveries that improve the lives of billions across decades.
We have a history here of individuals who have refused to accept the status quo. People who were brave enough and tenacious enough to follow their path and risk their careers, and who changed the world when they were shown to be right.
Sometimes the connections between what we do today and how it might impact us later won't be apparent. But look back at just a few of these people from Illinois. And consider how much darker and sadder the world would be if their ideas did not have the room to form and the freedom to take shape.
You can never predict where new knowledge might take us. But it is easy to figure out where we'd be if we didn't continue to innovate, study, discover and occasionally even fail.
We'd be standing still. And that's just not the style here at Illinois.
The final piece of our 21st century land-grant identity must focus on delivering exceptional educational experiences to our students.
Earlier, I mentioned our massive scale. There is no place – no place – where it is more evident than in our student body. This spring, we'll award about 12,000 degrees. Most will be undergraduate. Several thousand at the master's degree level. And probably about 1,000 will be doctorate and professional degrees. Our freshman class this fall exceeded 7,500. We had another record number of undergraduate applications to join us this fall.
We are by far the largest provider of human capital and educational equity in our state, and among the largest in the nation. With close to 450,000 alumni worldwide, our graduates are the most visible and most important measure of our success in delivering on our land-grant promise to educational access.
We must be accountable to students and families for the experiences we provide. Just as we are innovators in our laboratories, we need to push the edge just as hard when it comes to how we deliver learning experiences – both in and out of our classrooms. We need more initiatives like the Siebel Center for Design, new online or hybrid courses and rejuvenated facilities or a new engineering-based college of medicine that will transform medical education.
We need ways that let us offer more flexible and more creative learning environments. The best students choose us because we integrate research experiences and internationalization into our courses and programs. They know that our approach differentiates them and allows them to compete when they enter the job market.
Finding ways to increase both the diversity of our classes, to enhance the inclusivity and openness of our communities and provide a safe and supportive environment for all must always be at the core of the land-grant mission for the 21st century.
And, just as it was 150 years ago, we must find ways to offer opportunities that are affordable – both upfront and after students leave. It doesn't matter where you come from, what your parents do for a living or the size of your bank account. Our land-grant promise is that our doors will be open to those with the desire to learn and the will to work hard. We need to ensure that no family finds those doors closed because they cannot write a large enough check.
Setting out to define the land-grant university for our century is no easy task. But we undertake this challenge with 150 years of knowledge and experience at our backs. Our founders showed us a path that was at times reactionary and at other times visionary. Both served us well in the past, and both will be a critical part of our future.
I am absolutely optimistic about our future.
I was the first in my family to attend college – a land-grant university. I earned graduate degrees from two others. And today, I have the privilege of serving as chancellor of one of the most highly regarded land-grant universities in the country. A university that is home to some of the smartest and most talented people on the planet. I am a believer in the land-grant promise because I’m a product of it.
I started my remarks with some words from John Milton Gregory. I'm going to end with another legendary figure in our creation, Jonathan Baldwin Turner. In 1871, he said:
"It will probably take a thousand years for a single one of these great, free states to learn to endow and manage these Industrial Universities… This Institution will not and can not do all we desire for at least a round hundred years to come; though it may, and it can, and it will do a good work today, and tomorrow and forever."
I think Professor Turner would be proud of the good work we have done since 1867 to shape the future.
But let's put our focus on how we will build on that foundation and shape ourselves to be the public land-grant university for the needs of this 21st century and beyond. Let's make this sesquicentennial a celebration of all of the very good works the University of Illinois will do today, tomorrow and forever.