IC Annual Meeting: gratitude, fortitude, uncertainty

On Sept. 26, more than 150 advocates came together in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., to hear from University of Illinois President Tim Killeen, UI Alumni Association President Loren R. Taylor, UI Alumni Association Advocacy Committee Chair Bridget Lamont and special guest speaker Rodney Davis, U.S. representative, at the 2015 Illinois Connection Annual Meeting.

By Elyse Umlauf

Gratitude. Fortitude. Uncertainty.

Those were themes of the annual Illinois Connection meeting held in September.

More than 150 IC members gathered on a glorious autumn day at President Tim Killeen’s house to get a status report on IC’s successes and a look at the challenges that lie ahead.

Exerting steady pressure

The day’s speakers made it clear that the budget stalemate and looming education cuts could undermine both the University and the State of Illinois’s economy.

Yet, that fiscal crisis could be mitigated by aggressive advocacy on the part of IC members.

Loren R. Taylor, president and of the University of Illinois Alumni Association, noted that the past year was a record-setting one in terms of the number of member communications with legislators and civic leaders.

“What you do makes a difference,” he said. “We need to keep applying pressure.”

Widespread pain

That pressure by every single IC member is crucial in light of epic fiscal challenges at the state and federal levels as well as the budget impasse in the State of Illinois.

Illinois budget cuts, ranging from 8 percent to 31 percent, would mean losses of between $53 million and $209 million in U of I funding.

Such drastic reductions and a lack of robust, predictable funding would harm students and faculty, and compromise the University’s long-term vitality.

Moreover, threats to the University’s health threaten the well-being of the entire state. After all, the University delivers $10 billion in economic impact to Illinois annually, Killeen pointed out.

University funding is an investment

As such, the University should not be viewed as a cost center.

“It’s an investment in human vitality, skills and competence,” argued Killeen. “Our campuses are large-scale incubators of the highly-skilled workforce the state needs to succeed in the 21st century.”

Lawmakers need to understand that concept, and IC members are ideally suited to make that case on behalf of the University.

After all, Killeen pointed out, “Grassroots advocacy has been shaping policy, from city halls to Congress, since the nation’s founding. We need to do a better job of messaging the essential goodness and the impact of our legacy. Our research can drive progress and economic growth through breakthroughs in technology, health care, nutrition and energy, to name a few.”

Tell your story        

Bridget Lamont ’72 LIS, a University of Illinois Alumni Association Board of Director and Chair of the Illinois Connection Advocacy Committee, reiterated the effect of fiscal uncertainty on students, many of whom anxiously await grant money.

“If ever we needed a strong advocacy commitment, this is the time,” she said.

She offered four ways to be an effective advocate.

  1. Respond to calls to action. “Legislators must hear from you regularly,” Lamont said.
  2. Light up the lines. On October 19th, U of I will hold a “Light up the Lines” event. The mass call-in is aimed at showing lawmakers the value of funding higher education and the U of I. “Provide a personal reason why funding U of I is so essential. If we don’t tell our stories, no one will.”
  3. Attend in-district meetings. IC organizes and hosts meetings with lawmakers when they’re in their home districts. Such get-togethers offer opportunities for more intimate face-to-face conversations about your U of I experiences.
  4. Share findings. The IC staff wants to know who you’ve talked to, what you learned and how those lawmakers responded. Call or send an email to IC staffers and report back on your interactions.

In addition, Lamont’s goal is to expand IC to 100,000 members. You can do your part in achieving that by discussing IC with fellow alumni and recruiting them to join the movement.

No limits on students’ dreams

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) shared first-hand knowledge about what influences lawmakers and reinforced Lamont’s message about the importance of regular and personal contact with them.

“Because of my education, I was able to achieve my dreams. This next generation should have no limits to their dreams,” he commented.

Helping secure those dreams is why IC and advocacy are so crucial.

After all, your opinion is important to lawmakers like Davis.

Before a contentious, Davis looks to constituents to get a sense of a given topic’s importance.

“I ask, ‘What do the calls look like? What are they saying?’ I know when my phones ring off the hook, there’s an issue that matters to people,” he explained.

His insider’s tip: When contacting lawmakers, personalize your message and avoid pre-packaged scripts and form letters.

“Care enough to take the time to write your own letter,” he said.

Education isn’t a luxury

In addition to conveying how your University experiences transformed your life, paved the way to achievement and allowed you to contribute to the economic prosperity of Illinois, remind lawmakers that today’s students are tomorrow’s innovators.

They’ll be the future drivers of the state’s economic engine. They’ll develop the innovations that will cement the state’s vitality and prosperity.

Thus, funding the University isn’t a luxury. It’s a requirement.

“We have a powerful story to tell,” said Killeen. “This is the time for our voices to well up and send the message of the essential goodness of higher education and its value proposition.”

To view photos from the event, visit the Illinois Alumni Flickr album, UIC Alumni Flickr album or UIS Facebook album.