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Thursday, June 20, 2013 10:23 am

UIS's spirit of academic innovation

Must innovation be a huge departure from what preceded it? Can an innovation be a small variation of what went before, creating or filling a new need? Must it be as dominant as the iPhone to be known as innovative? What may be more important is the spirit that stimulates efforts to create new advances in what already exists.

It was 53 years ago that the first group of students began their studies at Sangamon State University (SSU), one of two new unconventional universities in Illinois. Both were different from other universities in the state by their designation as providers of upper-class and graduate courses only, an uncommon arrangement.

In addition, SSU fostered a mandate to be different. Students could take courses in several programs, two of which were Social Justice and Environments and People. At the time of their creation they were so new their proponents could hardly justify their existence. Issues associated with climate change, solar panels, fracking, social inequality and economic injustice in those days were topics that did not have the urgency they possess now. Although the programs underwent changes in the years that followed, eventually they lost their identity as separate degree programs. The mixture of innovative ideas that characterized early SSU thinned out when other matters took precedence, ending that era.

Included among the innovative features that looked so promising initially but dropped out were components like written student evaluations, quarter-term course schedules, University Week and special multidisciplinary courses called public affairs colloquia. A number of other novel ideas survived the test of time. Applied study blossomed, departments moved faculty offices closer together, conveners gave way to department heads and decision power shifted to the administration. Despite this movement to a more typical model, the spirit of innovation only went dormant among faculty and staff.

Most likely the increase in spirit became more evident in the early 1990s when Prof. Ted Mims of the computer department went to a state warehouse and managed to acquire a batch of computers no longer in use downtown. He distributed them to faculty who had let him know they were interested in this new technology and would use it. The spirit of innovation had begun to expand in size and its development.

Usage expanded further when the legislature renamed SSU as the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and merged it with The University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign. Both systems had previously begun to use computers to do the clerical tasks associated with operating a university. When it had become evident that the faculty could connect to the new powerful system, it became fashionable for each faculty department to have a web page. Thereupon administration issued computers to faculty with instructions on how to get in touch with the Internet.

One of the communication professors, Dr. Ray Schroeder, understood how empowering a computer linked with the Internet could be. If an instructor and students could access it, then instruction could be delivered by means of it. Innovation at first did not come easily. It took several trials of versions of online programs over the years before he was able to promote investment in a new method of delivering instruction – the Blackboard educational system for use in presenting courses online. His leadership became a dynamic force in guiding the innovative expansion which the university’s instructional online delivery system now manifests to its public. It has garnered several awards for its excellence. In fact the first course created to take advantage of the new online capability came with the help of the media staff. Media specialist M. Khaund paired with a faculty member to be first locally to produce a purely online course, one that explored the significance of the Beatles, which has received national attention for its excellence.

At UIS the times again are ready for innovation that looks promising. In the new computer world, hacking and other forms of violation of privacy have stimulated growing demand for computer security to stop it. As a result the career outlook for security specialists exists and is enlarging. The computer program faculty, spearheaded by Prof. Lucas Vespa, has acted to meet the demand. They have prepared the necessary steps required to offer to qualified students a program which will contain courses leading to a unique certification in cyber-security.

From its inception as Sangamon State University to its current existence as the University of Illinois Springfield, the university has been open to innovation with considerable success. In developing a new process or product, time is an important factor; the consequences of delaying a good idea can only benefit the competition. UIS needs to start immediately to fill this demand for cyber-security. Perhaps the current spirit of academic innovation will at last perfect the image the Board of Regents envisioned in its original mandate; that is, to be a university empowering leaders in their chosen careers.

Robert Crowley, Ph.D., of Springfield, is a UIS emeritus professor who works as a career counselor and employment consultant. He was a member of the founding faculty at Sangamon State University.
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