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UI trustees OK solar farm, hospital upgrades

INSIDE ILLINOIS, Nov. 15, 2012 | Mike Helenthal, News Editor | 217-333-5491  [Email | Share ]

The UI Board of Trustees met in Springfield on Nov. 8 and approved a 20.5-acre solar farm that its planners project will produce more than 2 percent of the electricity used on the Urbana campus by 2015.

The farm, which will be located near the intersection of First Street and Windsor Road in Champaign, will aid the university in meeting the goals outlined in the 2010 Illinois Climate Action Plan.

The plan’s goal was that 5 percent of campus electricity will come from renewable sources by 2015.

“The solar farm is another important step for the university’s commitment to sustainability,” said Jack Dempsey, the executive director of Facilities and Services, after the meeting. “Exploring renewable energy sources such as solar energy is critical in the pursuit of carbon neutrality for our campus.”

The university will enter into a public-private partnership for a 10-year power-purchasing agreement with a partner that will design, build, operate and maintain the solar farm.

The partner will be responsible for delivery and installation of photovoltaic panels/collectors, site access and connection to the university’s electrical grid in return for a land lease agreement of $1 per year.

Substantial completion of the solar farm is anticipated in fall 2013.

Hospital initiatives

Board approval to sell bonds totaling $85 million for repairs at the main building of the UIC Hospital led to a conversation among trustees about the unknown effects of the Affordable Care Act in the coming year.

Trustee Timothy Koritz, a physician and outgoing chairman of the board’s health care system committee, urged trustees to carry “a sense of urgency” in closely monitoring the effects of the act.

The hospital, he said, already represents 30 percent of the Chicago campus’s budget and operates on a razor-thin margin. He said “radical changes” in the reimbursement rate for government-sponsored insurance programs could push the balance to alarming levels of exposure for hospitals.

“It potentially poses a great financial risk to the university,” Koritz said, especially in the next two to four years as the act becomes fully implemented.

In approving bond sales for the renovation project, Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Walter Knorr said the university’s credit rating is actually four rankings ahead of the state’s level – which reflects the university’s financial standing compared to the state.

Knorr said financial leaders would be closely monitoring the health care changes.

Koritz said university officials will have to make the issue a priority or “risk being swept downstream” by the changes.

“I’m confident we can deal with the change,” he said, “as long as we have a clear idea what to expect in the near future.”

Chairman Christopher G. Kennedy said the board already has plans to place a renewed focus on hospital funding issues and the impact of the act.

Changing landscape

Kennedy also led a conversation about the changes in higher-education delivery – specifically technological innovations such as massive open online courses – and what strategies the UI needs to employ to remain competitive.

“We have a tremendous education experience to offer,” he said. “But how do we compete?”

Avijit Ghosh, a special assistant to the president and a professor of business administration, said scholarships and financial assistance continue to be one of the major competitive areas – something the university has worked hard to address with increased fundraising.

“(Students) do get a lot of offers from a lot of different places,” he said, “but you have to go beyond the monetary part of it.”

He said the university continues to push many of the campus-only attributes that make the UI stand out, including “How we will take advantage of their leadership skills.”

There are also indirect ways to reduce costs, he said, such as opening other course-taking avenues that allow students to reduce graduation times.

Sidney Micek, outgoing UI Foundation president, said he thinks emphasizing “what happens when you leave” – such as research and graduate school opportunities, employment opportunities and the strong alumni base – is an important distinction.

“You’ve got to take a look at the ultimate outcomes,” he said.

Trustee Karen Hasara said the competition has become evident in the UI’s declining enrollment “yield,” the number of students accepted who ultimately enroll.

“Technology is pushing the question,” said Trustee Pamela B. Strobel, noting the matter would be discussed at greater length at an upcoming board retreat. She said teaching and “faculty excellence” should be a competitive edge for the UI.

“(We have) to let the students know they’re going to be exposed to great minds,” she said.

Kennedy said faculty input would be vital as administrators continue to develop competitive strategies. He said he likely will ask chancellors to include more student-tracking information in their quarterly dashboard indicators reports.

Other business

  • Trustees received a report from Maureen Parks, the associate vice president of human resources, on the implementation of recently revamped policies prepared by the university’s Sexual Abuse and Harassment Task Force.

She said each campus already has its own policies, but because of changes in state laws making all university employees mandatory reporters of sexual abuse, “an overarching” university policy was necessary.

“I believe that these policies will provide for a comprehensive program that protects minors on our campuses as well as increases the safety of our students, employees and visitors,” she said.

Policies reviewed include those covering the protection of minors and the prevention of sexual discrimination, harassment and misconduct, and mandatory training programs that will be offered to employees beginning this spring.

Parks said the policy expands background checks for camps and other events that might involve children, and includes protections for whistleblowers.

“We will be available to consult with campus units and departments,” she said.

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  •  Trustees heard an update from Senate Executive Committee Chairman Matthew Wheeler, a professor of animal sciences, on changes being made to reduce regulatory burdens on campus researchers.

Wheeler has reported on some of those regulatory problems in the past.

“It means less money and less time I can put in on the research,” he told trustees. “Our systems have put a lid on our ability to react, but they’re beginning to be addressed.”

He said while regulatory issues continue to affect research time, recent administrative moves have led to some improvement.

Changes in procurement and hiring rules on the Urbana campus have helped, he said, as have the recent addition of two administrative research positions. There also is work being done on a universitywide online training system that offers researchers training and tools for navigating the grant-funding process.

Wheeler said the work on streamlining campus paperwork is a “long-term process. It still continues to be a concern for faculty.”


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