NIU to build $22.9M research center for sustainability

Timothy Killeen, University of Illinois System president, addresses the crowd Tuesday, in announcing the Illinois Innovation Network’s partnership with NIU in the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center.

By Jessie Kern

DeKALB – Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner joined NIU President Lisa Freeman, among others, to announce the construction of a $22.9 million facility in partnership with the Illinois Innovation Network.

The University of Illinois System-led Illinois Innovation Network, announced last fall, targets global issues while simultaneously focusing on driving economic growth in the state. The Network brings together top scholars with basic and applied research opportunities and relies heavily on the collaboration of different institutions.

The facility to be built on campus, referred to as the Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability [NICCS], is the fourth hub to be created as part of the Illinois Innovation Network and will be financed in part by state funding, with contribution from NIU.

“We fought hard in the General Assembly, got half a billion dollars committed from the General Assembly to expand U of I all around the state, and this is one of the most important centers here in DeKalb, in partnership with NIU,” Rauner said. “$15 million of that $500 [million] is to help start this center, along with $7.9 [million] from NIU itself.”

Rauner said in order to have balanced budgets to fund essential things like pensions, health care and education, Illinois needs the economy to be growing faster than government spending. He said for decades this has not been true for Illinois, and it’s caused a lack of funding, increased taxes and debt.

Rauner also said technology and innovation drive economic growth, and he doesn’t know a better investment for taxpayers’ dollars than the Illinois Innovation Network.

“This [investment] is going to spur economic innovation, economic growth, more job creation [and] expand our tax base, and this is exactly what we need to do to change the paradigm here and actually have the economy growing faster than government spending, so we have the money for essentials.”

Timothy Killeen, University of Illinois System president, said higher education is a profit center for the state, and those involved in the Illinois Innovation Network have a responsibility to produce a return on this investment.

Killeen said the NICCS at NIU will be the first of the Illinois Innovation Network hubs outside of the University of Illinois System locations in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield.

“These hubs are engines of the Innovation Network’s power, bringing together the very best minds in the state to solve real-world challenges and spark the research discovery needed to drive Illinois forward,” Killeen said.

Killeen said the outward migration of students from Illinois is a long-term loss for the state and its economy, and the outcomes of the Illinois Innovation Network will help to retain those individuals by creating opportunities within the state. He said the Network will help create businesses and jobs to keep talent in Illinois and attract new talent as well.

Killeen also said the Network is in line with NIU and the University of Illinois System’s commitment to academic programs and ensures financial stability, providing returns on the state’s investment.

“The hub to be built here will create a world-class innovation center, here, right here at NIU that will capitalize on NIU’s leadership and research relating to sustainability and the environment, dear to all of our hearts,” Killeen said.

He said sustainability and the environment will be the focus of the new center and will allow for collaborations with the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences in Urbana, among others.

Freeman said the hub’s focus environmental focus reflect the interests of NIU’s current faculty as well as younger generations. She said having this opportunity at NIU will help attract and retain students as well as exceptional faculty.

“Specifically, the Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability will create new knowledge, inform policy making and inspire action in three interrelated areas; innovation in food systems, development and stewardship of water resources and strategic adaptation to climate change,” Freeman said.

Freeman said in addition to the center, an allied environmental policy institute and environmental law clinic will be established.

Killeen said the massive scale of the Network and the “unparalleled research know-how” in Illinois will allow for innovation, leading to solutions for global challenges. He said the Network stemmed from a vision Rauner had long before becoming governor and pushes to drive economic growth in Illinois.

“[Rauner] saw the power of a deep network of top faculty [and] top students working in lock step with businesses and benefactors to accelerate groundbreaking discovery to create the new products, companies, human talent, social progress that are the foundation for a better tomorrow,” Killeen said.

Rauner said though he likes to think the idea was his own, it was proposed as early as 1983 by McKinsey and Company as the number one way to increase economic growth in the state. He said this unique opportunity allows NIU, along with other universities, to be leaders in technology, innovation and economic growth for the entire nation.

Rauner said NIU is one of the great research universities in the country, and the University of Illinois is one of the top in the world. He said bringing together the best minds in the state will allow for the forming of corporations, creating careers and an economic potential for the future of Illinois.

“NIU is already a leader in sustainability; now we’re going to take it to the next level and encourage the students and faculties to start companies with the technology they’re using,” Rauner said. “[We’re] not [going to] create a lot of charges, and fees and royalties. Use the technology, start the company while you’re a student [or] while you’re on the faculty, and let’s get the economy here in Illinois booming.”

Freeman said NIU’s pride in offering students a customizable educational experience is in line with the opportunities to be provided through the partnership with the Illinois Innovation Network. She said departments across the university will have the chance to apply their knowledge to solve problems threatening humanity.

Freeman also said solving these issues depends on the collaboration of the great universities in Illinois to come together, along with scientists from around the nation and world. She said through those solutions NIU will be able to increase enrollment and drive economic growth.

“I think our students will have opportunities they would not have otherwise for learning experiences, and this will also help attract and retain world class faculty,” Freeman said.

She said the logistics for the center are still to be worked out, and this year the focus lies on architecture and engineering for the facility, to be ready no later than 2022.

“After a couple years of having to tighten our budget belt, having this opportunity to dream about something that will create innovation and inspire our faculty and students to do great things, it’s just a great day,” Freeman said.