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SIU, UIS, Sangamon County pushing for downtown Springfield ‘mini-campus’

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Andy Van Meter

Andy Van Meter, chairman of the Sangamon County Board, speaks to the Southern Illinois University Board of Trustees on Thursday about possibilities for an SIU campus in downtown Springfield.

SPRINGFIELD — A broad coalition is forming to push for state funding for a joint campus in downtown Springfield, to be shared by the University of Illinois Springfield and Southern Illinois University.

The effort originated with state Sen. Andy Manar, who introduced legislation in January requesting $50 million for an SIU facility in the state capital.

At the time, Manar said he hoped the bill would spark a conversation about supporting development in downtown Springfield in future capital bills.

“It has challenges, for a capital city. Besides what the (SIU) medical school has, there’s not much,” he told The Southern. “The capitol and medical district are not well integrated, and there could be a strong partnership there.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s $45 billion capital bill is now law. And while the Springfield SIU project is not an approved line item, there are funds that could support it.

But first, the governor wants a plan, said Andy Van Meter, chairman of the Sangamon County Board.

“The governor’s office has indicated the governor wants to see a plan from the community with broad-based community engagement that he can support,” Van Meter told the SIU Board of Trustees, Thursday.

And Springfield-area leaders have grown more ambitious since Manar's January bill.

On July 9, Manar hosted a meeting among leaders of SIU, UIS, the University of Illinois, Sangamon County, the City of Springfield and other stakeholders.

“We put several opportunities on the table — what would go in this building and on this campus, including initiatives related to medicine and law, social service, management of governmental intern positions, public health and policy, and so on,” said SIU Interim President J. Kevin Dorsey. “Collaboration between SIU, the School of Medicine and UIS was seen as critical.”

The Springfield university is already seeking to bolster its downtown presence via a new “Innovation Hub,” funded within the University of Illinois’s $500 million Discovery Partners Institute initiative.

“We’ve already engaged in conversations among community leaders to locate UIS’s Innovation Hub in the downtown area,” Van Meter said. “SIU has been a full partner in this process and we hope SIU will establish its own compatible programs in conjunction.”

As for SIU, the most frequently discussed possibility at Thursday’s board meeting was an extension of the Carbondale-based law school, to offer classes, support to law students interning in the capitol, and continuing education for legal professionals.

Ultimately, SIU Board Chair J. Phil Gilbert said he’d like to see a satellite law program in Springfield offering a Juris Doctor degree.

“Having a medical footprint and a law footprint here in Springfield is pretty powerful,” he said.

And with SIU leaders stressing they don’t intend to duplicate UIS programs, the Springfield school appears enthusiastic about collaboration.

“Such is the nature of the extraordinary cooperation this process has engendered that when we began to hear about the possibility of SIU establishing a law school presence here, UIS Chancellor Susan Koch expressed her interest to feed U of I graduates into the SIU Law School program,” Van Meter said.

In coming weeks, SIU leaders will assess options in Springfield, and discuss accreditation with the American Bar Association, said SIU Carbondale Chancellor John Dunn.

Both Manar and Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder have already identified an ideal location for a downtown higher education presence — the block just north of the governor’s mansion, downtown, which hosted a YWCA until its demolition in 2017.

But the plan's footprint could get even bigger, if it wins the state's favor.

“Our initial conversations have been about the 'Y' block, but as the conversations unfolded and as resources have become available through the recent capital bill ... it’s beginning to evolve into the development of a mini-campus of several blocks in the downtown area,” possibly including student housing, Van Meter said. “No prospect has so ignited as the possibility of establishing an SIU presence and the law school’s presence in the community.”

A Springfield-area economic development council has pledged $300,000 to establishing an SIU Law presence in Springfield, Van Meter said, and another downtown Springfield group has expressed willingness to contribute planning money to SIU for a new facility.

The plan also has support from Springfield-area state legislators and U.S. representatives, Van Meter indicated.

The immediate challenge is uniting all the players behind a plan, to then seek more substantial funding from the state.

“We are being told by those in charge of the funding that we need to move very quickly to develop a plan that is inclusive of U of I’s needs and SIU’s needs,” Van Meter said.

Board approves 50-50 split

The Board of Trustees approved a measure to give SIU Edwardsville fully half of the 5% funding bump awarded to the two campuses in this year’s state budget.

Since about 1975, state funds have been allotted on a roughly 64%-36% split between Carbondale and Edwardsville.

Allocating the new funds 50-50 will increase SIUE’s share by about $1 million, from $2.6 to $3.6 million, while SIUC’s share will decrease about $1 million, from $4.6 to $3.6 million, according to SIU Carbondale Professor Marcus Odom.

SIUE trustee gets the vote

Gov. Pritzker has awarded the vote to SIUE Student Trustee Mackenzie Rogers, announced J. Phil Gilbert, chair of the SIU Board of Trustees.

Voting privileges on the board typically oscillate between the student representatives of SIUC and SIUE on a yearly basis.

SIUC Student Trustee Brione Lockett held the vote over the last year.

President, board to ramp up diversity initiatives

SIU Interim President J. Kevin Dorsey and the board of trustees will ramp up oversight of the university’s Diversity Advisory Council, they promised, Wednesday.

The change comes at the request of Wesley McNeese, who leads the Council, created in 2017 to coordinate the diversity offices on SIU’s constituent campuses, support efforts to hire diverse faculty, and celebrate inclusiveness.

Since its creation, the Council has established an annual diversity excellence lecture, a system-wide diversity excellence award, and a student-led diversity conference.

But developing a system-wide diversity strategy has been difficult, McNeese said.

Council attendance is not compensated, travel is not reimbursed, and McNeese has little power to obligate attendance from his members, who are drawn from SIU Carbondale, SIU Edwardsville and the SIU School of Medicine, he said.

“We have accomplished inter-campus communication on matters of diversity,” he said. "Now, we need to get butts in seats," to plan unified action.

At McNeese’s recommendation, the board will review and assign Council membership, the President’s Office will work to offer travel reimbursement, and the chancellors of SIUC and SIUE will provide oversight on attendance.


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