Tuesday, June 23, 2020

UIS' Illinois Innocence Project helps free man who was wrongfully convicted of murder

Nathaniel Onsrud walks out of the Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois on June 23, 2020, with Chrissy Ferree from the Illinois Innocence Project.

A Rock Island County man’s 2008 murder conviction was vacated and he walked free from the Menard Correctional Center on June 23, 2020, due to the efforts of the Illinois Innocence Project (IIP) at the University of Illinois Springfield and attorneys of Erickson & Oppenheimer, Ltd. (EO) in Chicago. Newly discovered evidence proves that Nathaniel Onsrud was not responsible for the death of his infant son.

Onsrud’s conviction was vacated after it was discovered that exculpatory documents were not disclosed to defense counsel that provided additional evidence that Onsrud is innocent. The Rock Island County State’s Attorney’s Office supported the request of IIP and EO to vacate Onsrud’s conviction and release him immediately.

“Our client, Nathaniel Onsrud, maintained from day one he had nothing to do with the tragic death of his infant son,” said IIP Chicago Legal Director Lauren Kaeseberg. “For the past 13 years, Nathaniel has fought to clear his name and has been through the unimaginable ordeal of losing his baby and then being wrongfully convicted of murdering him. We are so thankful that the State’s Attorney of Rock Island County has acted in the interests of justice and that we can bring Nathaniel home today.”

In May 2007, Onsrud’s four-month-old son, Dax, who had been born 10 weeks premature and had significant medical complications, became unresponsive while in Nathaniel’s care. After emergency medical treatment at home, Dax was transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead a short time later.

Initial medical examinations did not reveal foul play and the forensic pathologist brought in to consult on the case was reluctant to determine the death was a homicide. After investigators focused on Onsrud, they had multiple meetings with the pathologist to devise a new (yet erroneous) theory – that he had caused Dax’s death. Onsrud was subjected to two interviews and finally, after continual questioning, made some ambiguous statements that the investigators determined was a “confession.” Ultimately, based in large part on this “confession,” Onsrud’s defense attorney at the time encouraged him to plead guilty.

False confessions played a role in the wrongful conviction of 96 individuals in Illinois – nearly 30 percent of Illinois’ 331 exonerations since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

“To call this an injustice is a colossal understatement,” said Michael Oppenheimer of Erickson & Oppenheimer. “This was a grotesque, coordinated effort by corrupt cops, an unscrupulous and malicious prosecutor and a dishonorable medical examiner. They worked together, for the sake of their own careers – far outside all bounds of the law – to destroy an innocent man and his family forever.”

“However, I would like to commend the current Rock Island State’s Attorney, Dora Villarreal, for her dedicated leadership role in working to right this horrible wrong,” Oppenheimer added.

Nathaniel Onsrud is one of approximately 100 innocent Illinoisans whose cases have been reversed after they pled guilty, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

“Our criminal justice system is fundamentally broken and we see that in large part in guilty pleas, where a vast number of people, once they are trapped in the system, take pleas to avoid hefty sentences threatened by the State,” said Kaeseberg.

In addition, Onsrud’s case is the latest example of the reversal of cases nationwide in which faulty science was used to convict innocent people where no crime had actually occurred.

Onsrud is the 16th client of the Illinois Innocence Project to be released or exonerated.

Read Rock Island State’s Attorney Dora Villarreal's press release about Onsrud's release.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

UIS plans for safe return of students in fall 2020

The following message was sent by the University of Illinois System to students, faculty and staff on June 18, 2020.

Dear students, faculty and staff:

We are very pleased to announce that on-campus educational activities will resume this fall at the University of Illinois System’s three universities, with a hybrid mixture of in-person and online classes. Of course, our collective decision assumes that Illinois stays on track to meet Phase 4 requirements established by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan that allow reopening of classrooms.

Plans to restore in-person instruction were developed through weeks of exhaustive review that brought together literally hundreds of key stakeholders and considered every available option, from a full return to traditional instruction to remaining fully online.

Throughout, this work was guided by two, intertwined core principles – promoting the safety of our campus communities while maintaining the academic excellence that is synonymous with our best-in-class universities in Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield. In the process, faculty, staff, administrative leaders and students drew upon the insights of our own healthcare and education experts, as well as best practices of peer institutions and guidance from state and local health departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

The result is a thoughtful, science-based approach that will bring our universities back to life, with a campus experience that will look somewhat different. But the life-changing benefits will be the same – academic programs that lift students to the careers of their dreams, research that drives discovery and progress, and a healthcare enterprise that provides both patient care and innovation.

A system-wide coordination committee assisted groups at each of the three universities that have worked over the past few weeks to develop detailed plans for reopening. Each university will be providing details of their unique, campus-based plans within the next few weeks, including starting dates and calendars for their fall semesters. But here is a summary of elements that will be common to all:

  • Classes will be a mixture of in-person and remote instruction to provide the physical distancing that inhibits spread of the virus.
  • In-person courses and classroom schedules will be adjusted appropriately to ensure physical distancing and safer traffic flow.
  • Accommodations will be made where possible for students and faculty in vulnerable and at-risk groups, and for students who cannot come to campus due to travel restrictions or other considerations.
  • Classrooms will be cleaned and disinfected daily.
  • Reusable, washable masks will be provided to all students and required in all classrooms, and hand sanitizer will be widely available in all buildings.
  • Training for faculty and instructors is being provided over the summer to sustain high-quality online and distance instruction with state-of-the-art technologies and virtual modalities.
University housing/dining
  • Residence hall occupancy will be limited to two students per room.
  • Outside visitors will not be allowed in residence halls.
  • Quarantine areas will be created to accommodate students who test positive for COVID-19 or display symptoms.
  • Dining halls will largely provide packaged meals for carryout, and in-person dining will be limited.
  • Common areas will be cleaned and disinfected regularly, and hand sanitizer will be available.
  • Use of these common areas will be limited, and physical distancing will be observed. 
Campus life
  • The size of gatherings will be based on standards under the state reopening guidelines in force this fall and beyond.
  • Use of auxiliary facilities such as recreational centers will be limited to preserve safety. 
  • Outside visitors to campus will be asked to follow physical distancing and wear masks in public places. 
  • Research activities will continue a ramp-up that began over the summer.
  • As in classrooms, masks will be required and other safety measures will be followed.
  • Research will continue to support treatments, vaccines and other measures related to COVID-19. 
  • Most faculty and staff will continue a phased-in return to work that began in June and will be completed by the start of the fall semester, though some will continue to work from home to reduce campus density.
  • Flexible work-from-home guidelines will be developed for the benefit of vulnerable employees and those with family-related considerations.
  • Work areas will be cleaned regularly, and hand sanitizer will be provided.
  • Masks will be required in publicly shared spaces and reusable masks will be provided to all employees.
  • We will continue engagement with our labor unions to discuss the impact of these plans.
Testing and notification
  • Our scientists are piloting cutting-edge testing procedures for the COVID-19 virus that are accurate, cost-effective and scalable to the whole university community and provide same-day results.
  • We are partnering closely with local public health authorities to notify individuals at risk for infection and mitigate spread, through a combination of manual and rapid app-based approaches.
  • All app-based software will protect individual privacy so that positive test results are shared only with the user, and no location data will be required, collected or shared with third parties. Local public health departments will be provided test results based on required local, state and federal regulations. 
General safety
  • Training will be required for all students and employees to ensure compliance with physical distancing and other COVID-related safety measures.
  • Hand sanitizer or disposable wipes will be available at building entrances, elevator lobbies and in common and high-traffic areas.
  • High-touch surfaces such as door handles and elevator buttons will be disinfected multiple times daily.
  • Flu shots will be strongly encouraged for all students, faculty and staff to lessen the possibility of dual outbreaks when traditional flu season begins. 
The pandemic is still evolving, so our plans will be flexible and nimble. We will monitor campus safety and the latest guidance on the virus, and will adjust plans as needed to protect the well-being of our students, faculty, staff and the communities we call home.

Our plans for fall could not have been developed without you, and we are deeply grateful to everyone who shared their time and talents to guide us. And we know that you will now help lead the way again, modeling the safety protocols that are essential to make our plans a success.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a test unlike any in our 150-year history. But thanks to your commitment and creativity, we have done more than just answer challenges to our operations. You are supporting the leading-edge medical treatments and scholarship that are helping the state manage the crisis and move beyond it. You are helping show the life-changing power of our universities – in real-time – that will write new chapters in our long legacy of excellence.

Be safe, enjoy your summer and we look forward to seeing you in the fall.

Sincerely, Tim Killeen, President, University of Illinois System
Barb Wilson, Executive Vice President and Vice President for Academic Affairs, U of I System Robert J. Jones, Chancellor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Michael D. Amiridis, Chancellor, University of Illinois at Chicago
Susan J. Koch, Chancellor, University of Illinois at Springfield
Karen M. Whitney, Interim Chancellor, University of Illinois at Springfield

Thursday, June 11, 2020

UIS drops admissions-test requirement for 2021 due to COVID-19 pandemic

The University of Illinois Springfield will not require college bound high school seniors to submit standardized test scores as part of the application process for fall 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University of Illinois Board of Trustee’s Executive Committee on Wednesday approved a one-year moratorium on the entrance requirement because large numbers of high school students have not been able to take standardized tests, due to school closures and the unavailability of SAT or ACT tests, since March.

“Test-optional is an opportunity to meet the needs of Illinois’ citizens, economy and civic landscape by facing today’s challenges using both, the tried and true and the new,” said Natalie Herring, UIS associate provost for enrollment management. “This benefits students and families by removing pressure, cost and barriers. Our diverse state deserves and requires diverse options for post-secondary education and credentials aimed at keeping Illinois talent in Illinois.”

UIS currently reviews prospective freshman applications through a holistic admissions process. For those applicants who still choose to submit test scores, those scores will be considered. The impact of COVID-19 sparked UIS to be test-flexible with current freshman applicants wishing to begin this August. Fall 2020 applicants missing scores were given the opportunity to respond to essay prompts as a pathway to admission.

Last year, UIS announced that admission application fees for all students who enroll in 2020 would be waived. Applications from all students who wish to apply for fall 2020 classes at UIS will be accepted until August 24.

International students applying for fall 2021 admission will still be required to submit evidence of English proficiency through the Test of English as a Foreign Language, International English Language Testing System and Pearson English Language tests.

A number of other universities around the country have set pandemic-related test-optional policies in recent months.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

UIS and the Illinois Municipal League partner to publish the Illinois Municipal Policy Journal

The Illinois Municipal League (IML) announced a partnership with the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) to publish the Illinois Municipal Policy Journal.

Since 2016, IML has published the Journal as an educational tool that provides elected officials with academic research on the issues facing Illinois and its 1,298 cities, villages and towns. Additionally, it provides an arena for academics to publish their scholarly work on important topics, like public pensions, tax increment financing and other local government issues.

“This new partnership allows IML to continue expanding its benefits to our members by addressing some of the greatest challenges facing our state and providing solutions, which are needed now more than ever before as communities face decreased revenues that fund crucial programs,” said Brad Cole, IML executive director. “We are happy to join with the University of Illinois Springfield and look forward to the continued success of the Illinois Municipal Policy Journal.”

“A hallmark of this partnership is the blending of theory and practice made possible by balancing the talents and experiences of public officials delivering frontline municipal services with the input and observations of scholars who study and observe the role of municipal government in the state,” said Robert W. Smith, dean of the UIS College of Public Affairs and Administration. “This is something needed today more than ever to solve problems and improve municipal government and systems for all citizens in the State of Illinois.”

UIS’s College of Public Affairs and Administration will spearhead the development of content for the Journal. IML will publish and distribute the Journal widely to local and state elected officials, as well as academic and professional organizations around the country.

Three principal UIS faculty members will be involved in editing the Journal. Kenneth Kriz, UIS Distinguished Professor of Public Administration and Director of the Institute for Illinois Public Finance; Beverly Bunch, UIS Professor of Public Administration; and Arwi Kriz, a visiting Research Fellow in the UIS Center for State Policy and Leadership.

“We are very excited about providing government officials throughout the state with the most current research on issues that affect the state and its local governments. When challenges to governance are more severe then they have ever been, the state university system is befitting to shed light on best practices in governance, forces that affect governments and choices that governments face,” said Kenneth Kriz.

“We will be working with scholars across the state to synthesize and share research on various economic, financial, social, legal and environmental issues. We will address topics such as the potential impacts of different alternatives, the types of factors that are important to consider, and what has worked, or not worked, in other governments. We are pleased to be collaborating with IML on this project,” said Bunch.

The fifth volume of the Illinois Municipal Policy Journal is scheduled to be available in December 2020.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Veteran university leader Karen Whitney named interim chancellor at UIS

Karen M. Whitney, a nationally recognized higher education leader, has been selected to serve as interim chancellor of the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS), University of Illinois System President Tim Killeen announced today.

Whitney is the president emerita of Clarion University in Pennsylvania and recently served as interim chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. She takes over from Chancellor Susan J. Koch, who has announced plans to retire from UIS effective June 30. Whitney’s appointment as interim-designate, pending approval by the Board of Trustees, is effective June 8, allowing her to work alongside Koch for a period before assuming the role of interim chancellor on July 1.

Killeen said Whitney will bring a wealth of relevant experience to UIS and its more than 4,200 students and more than 1,100 faculty and staff.

“Karen has deep experience working with higher education boards, administrative leaders and faculty, building consensus around common goals,” Killeen said. “At Clarion, she led an institution that is very similar to UIS in size, scope and mission. She is an ideal choice to build upon Susan’s work, which strengthened UIS and put it on the road toward becoming a regional force for progress.”

Whitney said she was excited to be selected to guide UIS as it searches for a permanent chancellor, particularly leading the university during the COVID-19 pandemic, a period she said only heightens the need for the kind of education UIS provides.

“I’m thrilled and honored to come to Springfield to lead a university at this incredible moment in time,” Whitney said. “I am drawn to the mission and vision of the institution, the way UIS has positioned itself to be the capital city’s university with an emphasis on leadership development – that is, I think, an extremely important role in American society today.”

A nationwide search for a permanent chancellor is expected to begin later this year. Whitney’s appointment is for one year or until a permanent chancellor is named.

As interim chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education in 2017-18, Whitney led 14 universities serving more than 100,000 students and employing more than 12,000 faculty and staff. The system has a $2.3 billion annual operating budget.

Whitney used her expertise in higher education finance and administration to work closely with Pennsylvania lawmakers regarding budgetary issues. In addition, she collaborated with civic and business leaders to ensure continued investment in the Pennsylvania State System’s campuses and appreciation of the value they bring to the state.

She also worked with the system’s 14 presidents to increase enrollment and foster stronger partnerships and leadership development across the system.

During her seven years as president of Clarion, Whitney led the university’s 5,200 students and more than 700 faculty and staff through both reorganization and the transformation of academic priorities. Based on the needs of regional industry and its workforce, Clarion became a leader in offering innovative professional programs in business, education, health and human services.

Before leading Clarion, Whitney was vice chancellor for student life at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis from 1999 through 2010. Previously, she served in leadership positions at the University of Houston and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

She holds a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin in higher education administration, a master's degree from the University of Houston in public administration and a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Houston.

Whitney was chosen from a field of candidates referred by The Registry, a firm that specializes in identifying leaders to fill interim roles in higher education. The candidates met with both Killeen and Executive Vice President and Vice President for Academic Affairs Barbara Wilson. Killeen and Wilson also consulted key stakeholders at UIS.

Koch has led UIS since 2011, a period during which the university added programs designed to meet the needs of local and regional employers, including degrees in information systems security, data analytics, theatre, exercise science and nursing. Under her leadership, UIS achieved record fundraising that helped build the new $21.7 million Student Union and increase scholarship support.

Koch has been appointed UIS chancellor emerita, effective July 1.

“Susan has been the ideal leader for UIS, a capstone to a tremendous career,” Killeen said. “We wish her and her husband, Dennis, a rewarding and well-earned retirement.”