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Bricks and Mortar?
Illinois Board of Higher Education proposes a new "University Center"


Lake County, which includes some of Chicago's northern suburbs and extends to the Wisconsin state line, is one of the fastest-growing and most affluent counties in Illinois but has no four-year public college or university.

Local politicians and business leaders have been lobbying for such a campus for years but the Illinois Board of Higher Education has been reluctant to approve one because of cost and because of doubts that a traditional bricks-and-mortar campus would serve student needs in the 21st century.

Now the board has proposed a somewhat novel approach - a "University Center of Lake County" that would include both public and private institutions and would offer instruction in traditional classrooms and by "distance education."

Most lower-division students (freshmen and sophomores) would continue to attend the College of Lake County, a community college with enrollment of about 14,800, while the new University Center would offer upper-division courses and graduate programs, from a variety of public and private providers.

"We are hoping to leverage all existing resources to complete a quality baccalaureate program," said Keith Sanders, executive director of the Board of Higher Education (BHE).
He said the center's offerings would concentrate on courses and degree programs that market research has shown are in most demand, such as accounting and business administration.

If the new center comes into being, it would replace the Lake County Multi-University Center, a coalition of a dozen public and private institutions that currently provides 60 to 70 courses for about 800 students. Coalition members range from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the state's flagship research campus, to Dominican University and St. Xavier University, two small Catholic institutions.

The Multi-University Center is run by the University of Illinois, a fact that grates on some independent colleges and universities.

"Requests for Participation" have been sent to the same dozen schools, asking if they want to provide courses and faculty members for the new enterprise. Notably absent from the list of those invited are two private institutions with extensive experience in running suburban campuses - DePaul University and the Illinois Institute of Technology.

However, BHE officials said other institutions might be invited to join the enterprise at a later time.

It is anticipated that most University Center students would be working adults, attending part-time. Market research commissioned by the BHE found a heavy demand for degree programs from employees of Abbott Laboratories, Baxter International and other major Lake County employers. "This really is about convenience education," said Douglas Day, BHE associate director for academic affairs.

At first, the center would be located at the College of Lake County, but eventually there is to be at least one permanent building, costing about $20 million. Construction costs would be shared equally by the state and the county.

The location of this building is likely to be a source of political dispute, said Edwin H. Moore, a utility consultant who has been a Board of Higher Education member for eight years and chaired the board's Lake County study committee.

A larger question is whether this building will be the starting point for a traditional campus - something many people believe Keith Sanders and the Board of Higher Education will be unable to prevent.

"This 'multi-university' approach will not last long," said a veteran Illinois university president who asked not to be identified. "The political pressures for a traditional campus are just too strong. In ten years that's what Lake County will have, and I'll bet there will be another bricks-and-mortar campus in the suburbs south of Chicago, which are growing even faster."

As envisioned by the BHE proposal, the University Center would be governed by an unusual 11-member body, including one from the College of Lake County Board of Trustees, five representatives of the other participating institutions and six "local residents," who would be selected in a manner not yet determined.

Operating costs would be paid by the state and by student tuition, much of which, it is assumed, would be subsidized by the students' employers.

Although many details have not been worked out, the University Center proposal already has won praise from local politicians and business leaders and from the area's major newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, which called it a "bold but sensible plan."

But the idea does not please everyone.

John LaTourette, president of Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, the four-year public institution that is closest to Lake County, thinks his institution could run upper division and graduate programs there more efficiently and less expensively than the proposed University Center.

"They will wind up with a small enrollment and a full, expensive administrative staff," LaTourette predicted. He asked, "If this becomes the accepted model, will other parts of the state want one, too, and can the state afford that?"

Some aspects of the proposal are disturbing to Illinois private colleges and universities.

"We were encouraged by the early talk about the role of 'market forces,'" said David Justice, vice president for lifelong learning and suburban campuses at DePaul University, "but we were surprised when they decided to limit participation to the 12 institutions" that are members of the existing Multi-University Center.

"The independents view the existing center as an outpost of the University of Illinois," Justice added. "We were hoping that would not be true of the new center, but now we're not so sure."

Justice and other private college representatives also are concerned about the wide tuition gap between public and private members of the proposed center.

"The privates are hoping the tuition can be balanced, to make it easier for private college students to attend," said Don Fouts, president of the Federation of Illinois Independent Colleges and Universities.

Board of Higher Education officials said that question, and many others, will be addressed in December when the board considers a financing and implementation plan for the University Center of Lake County.

- William Trombley

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