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U of I chancellor offers optimism as pandemic continues

University of Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones gives his second "State of the University" address during the pandemic.

URBANA – Coronavirus transmission remains high. Gun violence is up.

Despite these worrying indicators, University of Illinois Urbana Chancellor Robert Jones said on Thursday he sees causes for optimism.

“I know there are a few of you asking, ‘Jones, did you once again accidentally put your rose-colored glasses this morning?’” Jones joked.

Thursday marked the second time Jones delivered a “State of the University” address since the pandemic began.

In his hour-long speech delivered at the Illini Union and via Zoom, Jones argued that the University of Illinois has flourished despite the pandemic — and contributed to a better world in the process. He described new buildings opened and scientific accomplishments like the university’s SHIELD saliva test.

High vaccination rate, strategic testing key to university’s safety strategy

At the end of the speech, Jones responded to questions that students and staff had submitted the week before.

Some questioners focused on the ongoing pandemic. One questioner asked Jones to reinstate universal biweekly testing on campus to prevent breakthrough infections among the vaccinated.

Last year, everyone on campus was required to test for the virus twice a week. Now, with vaccines available, Jones said they’re testing students, faculty and staff on a targeted basis.

“If there’s more than a couple of cases in a day or two or three cases in a week, we do what we call targeted surveillance testing where everybody in that facility does have to test every other day. And that, according to our public health officials, combined with our very high level of vaccination, is the best mitigation step to take at the moment,” Jones said.

Around 94 percent of the University of Illinois students and staff are fully vaccinated. That’s compared to 74 percent of people 18 and over statewide.

Serious breakthrough infections are still rare in Illinois. The Illinois Department of Public Health reports that a total of about 3,700 vaccinated people have been hospitalized in the state – or 0.05 percent of the vaccinated population.

University considers gun violence solutions

Other questioners asked Jones about the university’s social justice commitments. One asked Jones what the Urbana campus administration is doing to address the rise in gun violence in Champaign-Urbana.

Jones acknowledged that the university has a role to play in diminishing community violence, but he wasn’t sure what that role was yet.

“We have an obligation, and we’ve been working very hard with the Champaign Police Department and other partners to try to keep the community safe, thinking about all the investments we need and how do we need to step up as a critical partner,” Jones said.

Gun violence has increased in Champaign-Urbana during the pandemic. In Champaign two people died by homicide in all of 2019. This year, there have been 15 homicides.

There has been a recent movement at universities around the country to take responsibility for inequality within their own hometowns. For example, Jones lauded a new quantum research center at the University of Chicago campus that will invest directly into the depressed South Side neighborhoods around it. The University of Illinois is one of the members of this new Chicago Quantum Exchange.

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.

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Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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