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Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017 12:01 am

Stellar! Stellar!

Springfield’s U of I passes the hat

The new UIS student union, now under construction on the Springfield campus.

 

UIS wants to be everything it can be in spite of the General Assembly, so it has launched a four-year, $40 million fundraising campaign, “Reaching Stellar: The Campaign for the University of Illinois Springfield.” Its marketing rhetoric certainly soars: “With your support, we can propel the University and today’s students to new heights and continue to impact the generations to come.” Welcome news for undergrads: No more tedious climbing mountains or ladders, higher ed these days will shoot you right to the top.

Fundraising campaigns sometimes are clues to where an institution is heading. More often, they are clues to where the school is being pulled, by donors or the market or, in the case of public institutions, by the legislature. The money, if it comes, will buy no state-of-the-art labs (although, they hope, a little greener student union) and no Club Med dorms (although some nice plastic playing fields for the jocks). Just a little of that and a little of that, all stuff – professorships, scholarships, fellowships, technology upgrades – that a responsible General Assembly ought to be paying for out of hand. In Illinois, if you want something done well, you have to do it yourself.

UIS does not propose to boldly go where no university has gone before, in short, but it is proposing to go where it has gone before. Its hoped-for UIS Center for Lincoln Studies will continue the kind of public scholarship it supported in the original Lincoln Legal Papers project in 1988. In the campaign’s other priorities one can detect echoes of the creation of the university, like the leftover radiation from the Big Bang. The founding mandate of Sangamon State, UIS’ predecessor institution, was to make itself a public affairs university. That notion was never very clearly articulated but it was an ambitious and distinctive alternative to the narrow careerism of the usual state school.

The old SSU public affairs mission survives in UIS’s determination to use the fruits of its fundraising to bolster those of its programs that (in its phrase) “contribute to the public good.” These include National Public Radio Illinois, the Illinois Innocence Project and Sangamon Auditorium. (I would add to that list the Public Affairs Reporting program.)

Sadly for us all, serving the public good is trickier than it used to be in an era in which no one can quite agree on what either “public” or “good” means. For a decade or so beginning in the 1970s, SSU faculty were conspicuous in civil rights fights (sometimes unhelpfully so), in local history research, in city government reform. But as Ron Sakolsky and Dennis Fox observed about the change to UIS in their 2000 broadsheet, “From ‘Radical University’ to Handmaiden of the Corporate State,” “public affairs now seemed to mean training workers to serve the state more effectively.”

If only they were allowed to.

UIS is already making itself useful, of course, in the ways that all public universities do, by providing the private sector with advanced job training at taxpayer expense. That by itself is not a bad thing. The U of I’s founding mandate was, broadly speaking, economic regeneration. The school promised to help Illinoisans manage the transition from a farm-based to a factory-based future. Today we face a similar transformation from a factory-based economy to – well, no one quite knows. Past graduates were fully equipped to perpetuate the Springfield economy and culture but they seem unlikely to transform it. That requires encountering and learning from not just new ideas but new ways of thinking.

The UIS chancellor explained that the university’s larger goal is to “transform lives and serve society.” If, instead, UIS had announced a renewed commitment to serve lives and transform society, I would be as happy as John Tillman on Halloween night with a new Ayn Rand wig. But if any transforming is to be done, alas, it will be done by the governor and his minions, who are eager to transform Illinois public higher ed into a 21st-century version of its original 19th-century self, an agent of advanced job training and industrial innovation devoted to the state’s economic development.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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