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CARBONDALE — Each year, the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU Carbondale receives thousands of pages of reports on the fiscal and political health of Illinois.

They’re important tools for policy making, said Institute Director John Shaw, but in a state that needs a major shakeup, the endless debate between small groups of experts in Springfield and Chicago feels like a stale approach.

So Shaw and colleagues at the Simon Institute came up with a novel idea that shouldn’t be so novel: ask young people to envision the future of their state.

On March 28th and 29th, some 35 students and teachers from eight local universities will gather for two days on the SIUC campus, to discuss Illinois’s challenges and its way forward, at SIUC’s first-ever Renewing Illinois Summit.

“We thought, let’s bring together smart university students from across Illinois, who will be voting with their feet in a few years about whether they stay here or not,” Shaw said. “It might be worth hearing what they have to say, before decision day arrives.”

The Institute reached out to the leaders of political science departments at Eastern, Western, Northern, Illinois State, Illinois Wesleyan and McKendree universities, as well as Wheaton College. Each department selected several bright students to represent it in Carbondale, alongside the Simon Institute’s Student Ambassadors.

Students will learn to analyze state government with the help of experts like former state representative Jim Nowlan, former Illinois Attorney General candidate Erika Harold, and Illinois official state historian, Samuel Wheeler.

Together, they’ll analyze budgets, and debate priorities. They'll also get some time to just hang out, dining together and bowling at the Student Center.

The summit will focus on three major challenges facing the state, Shaw said: the budget, the future of higher education, and the condition of politics in Illinois.

In each case, students will take on difficult questions: How does a state that’s billions of dollars in debt find billions more to fix its roadways and bridges? How can a network of state universities with competing interests become more cooperative and streamlined, to stop losing so many students to other states? How can politicians find compromise in a time of polarized politics?

At the end of the summit, the students will present their views and their recommendations, to be compiled into a final report, Shaw said, and sent to the Illinois General Assembly and Governor J.B. Pritzker.

There probably won’t be a magic pill solution, Shaw said, but he thinks the project will capture the interest and attention of policy makers.

“I think they may say, ‘hey this is a different voice than we’ve heard before, on the issues. They might have some perspectives we’ve not really thought about much,’” Shaw said.

The Institute, which studies ethical government and conducts political polling, will be repeat the summit regularly, Shaw said, bringing new student leaders and new universities in to the conversation.

“This is their state,” Shaw said. “Let’s see what they have to say about its future.”

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Reporter

Gabriel Neely-Streit is a reporter for The Southern covering higher education.

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