It is an honor and a privilege to be invited to share the stage here with Mayor Smith to reflect on the state of our community in 2018 … It is a testament to the strength of our city-university partnership that NIU is routinely invited to participate in this way.
When I stood here a year ago, we had just received our first state budget in nearly two years. Along with our public university colleagues around the state, we have spent a good deal of time since then trying to reverse the damage that was done and restore financial stability to our institutions. That work continues in 2018, but at NIU we are not allowing those challenges to limit our thinking about the future. We are moving forward rather than looking backward.
As we think strategically about the next five … 10 … and even 20 years, there is a common theme in all our discussions, and that is partnerships. Virtually every major initiative we are involved with or are planning involves partnerships with other colleges and universities … with the private sector … with philanthropists … and of course with our local community.
Let me give you a handful of recent examples (some already mentioned by the mayor):
- The merger of local bus services to create a better and less expensive public transportation system in DeKalb and Sycamore.
- The connection of the bike and walking path that goes through our campus to the DeKalb Nature Trail and Prairie Park.
- Bringing the very popular VeoRide bike rental service to NIU and DeKalb.
- Installation of more than 250 banners up and down Lincoln Highway and Annie Glidden Road.
These are all projects that could only happen through city-university partnerships. They are quality-of-life improvements that benefit all our citizens, and we’re proud to have been partners in bringing them to life.
Sometimes partnerships grow out of regular interaction between individuals or entities, as with the projects I just mentioned. But other times, they develop out of unplanned conversations and chance encounters. Here is one such example:
The head of our Computer Science program, Dr. Nick Karonis, was having a conversation with one of his alums who works at Discover Financial Services. Nick was interested in providing new research opportunities for his undergraduate students. Turned out, Discover was looking for ways to capture the innovative thinking of tech-savvy college students for product development. The result is a newly renovated space in Founders Memorial Library, dedicated to a new program called “code_orange.” Forty undergraduate students will be paid to work on new Discover technologies in the areas of mobile-software development, web-application coding and person-to-person payment systems. In addition to the great experience for our students, code_orange has attracted significant national media attention, including from the Wall Street Journal. A great example of a university-industry partnership with countless benefits for both partners! We’ll be dedicating this new space later today.
Up to this point, I’ve talked about partnerships on some very well-defined, individual projects. Now I’d like to shift to three other initiatives, all very large undertakings that contain multiple programs and many potential partners. In all three cases, we believe these initiatives can be huge game-changers for our university and for DeKalb.
First, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed into law late last year created a program aimed at targeting underdeveloped areas with new private investment. The Opportunity Zone program provides significant tax advantages for investors who reinvest capital gains into projects in these zones.
This very new and not yet well understood program caught the attention of City of DeKalb economic planner Jason Michnick. With only days to apply, Jason successfully nominated a section of northwest DeKalb for Opportunity Zone designation. That area includes nearly all of our DeKalb campus, as well as most of the Annie Glidden North corridor.
Since learning of the designation, we have since met with financiers and have been told that DeKalb offers a combination of characteristics not seen anywhere else in the country – peri-urban location, access to interstate highways, rail, an airport, existing fiber optic networks and a respected research university. We have also heard that the amount of private money available for Opportunity Zone investments nationwide is more than $6 trillion, and that investors are anxiously awaiting the final IRS guidelines that will help them choose the best projects.
At NIU, we’ve chartered an Opportunity Zone Task Force that is developing projects for consideration. Generally speaking, the areas we’re looking at include community revitalization, manufacturing, health care and food systems innovation in the context of community sustainability. You’ll be hearing more about Opportunity Zones in the near future – and I want to give a shout-out to Jason Michnick for his great work in recognizing this opportunity and including our campus in the proposal he submitted. Jason?
The second game-changing partnership I want to tell you about involves the related entities of the Illinois Innovation Network and the Discovery Partners Institute (often abbreviated DPI).
The Illinois Innovation Network will link DPI, a public-private research institute led by the University of Illinois System and headquartered in Chicago, with partners across the state. Five hundred million dollars have already been appropriated to fund the project. As the primary hub of the Illinois Innovation Network, the Discovery Partners institute will facilitate research projects that combine the expertise of faculty at multiple universities. We’ve been working with our University of Illinois colleagues to become the first non-U of I affiliated hub in the network, and on Oct. 9, University of Illinois System President Tim Killeen and I will be holding a news conference here in DeKalb to announce the outcome of those discussions.
I’m very excited about our involvement with DPI and the Illinois Innovation Network. We’ve identified research themes that include food systems innovation, water resource stewardship and preparation for climate change. In addition to research programs that involve a wide variety of academic areas, we will also focus on public policy development and environmental law.
The innovation hub concept includes multiple universities and provides an attractive platform for attracting private partners. It will provide the opportunity for our students and faculty to become involved in collaborative research, engagement and education projects.
I mentioned that one of our foci will be in the area of food system innovation, and I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to give a plug for an upcoming event:
On the evening of November 13 at the Egyptian Theatre, the DeKalb Area Agricultural Heritage Association, or DAAHA, will be hosting an amazing event that I hope many of you will attend. It’s called An Evening with Innovators, and it will feature a conversation among three nationally recognized experts and two local entrepreneurs who have experience and success supporting food systems innovation.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I serve on the DAAHA board and have been involved in planning this event – but even if I weren’t, I would make time to attend. A few weeks ago, I spoke at the dedication of a new historical marker at the former DeKalb Ag/Monsanto building on Sycamore Road. As I told the audience then, one of the things that attracted me to DeKalb was its rich history of agricultural innovation. Capturing and celebrating that legacy provides a platform for networking that will help us to inspire the next generation of local entrepreneurs.
The final game-changing project I want to mention is the Annie Glidden North Project.
AGN is critically important to NIU. It is where the majority of our students live; it houses many of our Greek organizations; it is located on the border of our campus; and it is deteriorating. Nearly 25 percent of DeKalb’s total population lives in the AGN area, and it is time to reintegrate this neighborhood into our community.
Mayor Smith has already spoken at length about this project and the collaborative work of the appointed task force with area residents and the city’s consultant, but I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to reiterate NIU’s strong support for this important undertaking.
In the limited time I have left, I want to mention a few other partnerships that are enhancing our university and our community:
- Kishwaukee College is a tremendous asset to this community and a great partner with NIU. The programs we work on together are too numerous to mention, but I would like to mention that, for the fifth year in a row, we have seen an increase in the number of students who transfer to NIU from Kish College to finish four-year degrees.
We hope to encourage this positive trend. Therefore, under the new Aim High scholarship program, in Fall 2019, qualifying entering transfer students from Kishwaukee College may be eligible for a one-time $3,000 Kishwaukee College Transfer Scholarship.
My counterpart at Kish, Laurie Borowicz, is here today, and I’d like to acknowledge her as a great partner and education advocate. Laurie?
- Northwestern Medicine is still a relative newcomer to our community, but they have not wasted any time in getting involved with important local initiatives. Look for more announcements in the near future about partnerships between Northwestern and NIU. Northwestern CEO Jay Anderson is here today, and I want to acknowledge him as well. Jay?
Two recent events that both showcased our community and engaged NIU students were made possible by our strong partnerships:
- The inaugural “Campus Meets Community” event brought 43 DeKalb businesses to our campus to showcase their offerings to NIU students. Thanks to the DeKalb and Sycamore Chambers for helping make that event a success.
- And the new-and-improved Corn Classic Run more than doubled its number of participants for an event that took runners through our campus and into the downtown for a well-attended “Taste of DeKalb” finale. Again, amazing what we can do in partnership with each other!
Finally, I want to let you know about a school grants program funded by our athletic conference, the Mid-American to promote positive relationships within our local community. NIU has strong partners in both DeKalb superintendent Jamie Craven and Sycamore superintendent Kathy Countryman. So, when the university received a total $5,000 from the College Football Playoff (CFP) Foundation’s Extra Yard for Teachers platform, we provided $2,500 each to the DeKalb and Sycamore school districts.
- With these funds, the DeKalb School District will support faculty and staff professional development and the implementation of a Diversity Plan.
- The Sycamore School District will support Second Steps, an instructional program rooted in social emotional learning that equips students to foster positive relationships, conflict resolution, and good choices.
And NIU support for local high schools is also evident in our deployment of funds under the new Aim High scholarship program:
- Qualifying entering freshmen who will be 2019 graduates of a DeKalb County high school may be eligible for one-time $3,000 DeKalb County Scholarships.
- Further, DeKalb County high school graduates who are active members of Youth Engaged Philanthropy (YEP) may each be eligible for an additional $1,000 award if they meet the AIM HIGH family income thresholds.
If there is one thought I’d like to leave you with, it is this: Whether we are university employees, city staff, health care workers, private business people or public school officials, our future and our success are inextricably linked. Relationships are resources, and we dare not waste them. Every day, in every way, we are better together. Thank you.