The state’s largest university seeks partners as it works to make a difference, University of Illinois leaders told FarmWeek.

“How can we materially work together? We have 4-H and Extension; we’re in every county; we have a legacy that is huge and important. How can we build that up in 2022?” U of I President Tim Killeen asked rhetorically.

Killeen, Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Robert Jones, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) Interim Dean German Bollero and other university administrators recently began a state tour, stopping at the Illinois State Fair, Dixon Springs Agricultural Center and other downstate locations.

“We are in this together. We need to partner with industry, with farmers, with families,” said the ACES interim dean.

Jones explained the tour provided Killeen, chancellors, other administrators and faculty an opportunity to “connect with our different constituencies across the board. To really firsthand understand what the needs are, to get honest feedback about what we’re doing right, what we could do better and to really send a very strong message ... that we take the responsibility to educate and do the research and innovate, and then to translate that to drive the economic vitality for all citizens. We take that seriously.”

The U of I plays a large role in Illinois’ economy – an annual $19 billion impact with one out of every 46 jobs “flowing from what we do,” Killeen said.

One major impact occurred during the pandemic when the university and its researchers developed the saliva-based COVID test known as SHIELD Illinois, Jones noted.

“We really did save lives not just in Illinois but across the country and in different parts of the world,” the chancellor continued. “It’s a good demonstration of how your land-grant university, particularly in Urbana-Champaign, goes about redefining what’s possible and impossible.

“We are very proud of how we have moved the University of Illinois to be at the cutting edge of ag and ag innovation,” Jones said. “We’re doing a lot of work to increase farm production and productivity. But also, ‘How do you think about the environment? How do you minimize the impact of critical, important farm practices and allow us to do that safely, but still be a leader in feeding not only the nation, but the world?’”

One way ACES continues to innovate is through the degrees offered to students. “A lot of departments have changed a lot of the degree offerings to line them up to the things we have always done and to what the future of agriculture is,” Bollero said. “Agriculture is from the field to the restaurant and everything in between.”

Now, an agronomy degree has returned to the Crop Sciences Department. Students may major in computer science plus animal sciences. Along with a food science degree, students may study nutrition and health, hospitality management and food science and human nutrition.

On Aug. 22 when classes started, Bollero anticipated a little more than 500 new ACES students, bringing undergraduate enrollment to 2,800. “We’re working very hard to attract students to the U of I and working with community colleges,” he said.

Each U of I leader offered a special message to farmers and other rural Illinoisans.

“We’re doing our best in public service,” Killeen said. “We’re providing world-class education at large scale. We’re increasing our enrollment. There’s a place for you and your family at the University of Illinois. We’re working really hard to make it affordable so it’s not out of reach.”

Jones added: “We’re very excited about the role we play across the state, across the nation and across the world. ... We will continue to innovate. We’re doing a lot in the ag tech side and ag innovation side. We’re just very proud.”

Bollero also reached out to students: “There are great careers, fulfilling careers in agriculture, if you want to change the world. Agriculture is keeping pace with the most modern of all the industries. ... We need you.”

U of I leaders forging partnerships across the state
U of I President Tim Killeen talks with RFD Radio's Jim Taylor during Ag Day at the Illinois State Fair about a statewide tour by university leaders and more.