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Phyllis Baker, whose nearly 30-year career in higher education includes experience in classrooms, research and high-level administration, has been named to lead academic activities for the Discovery Partners Institute (DPI), a pioneering new research institute led by the University of Illinois System.

In her role as DPI’s inaugural director of academic affairs, Baker will develop, implement and lead the institute’s educational activities, as well as engaging students and developing the programs that will support them outside the classroom. She assumed the position in a designate capacity April 22, pending formal approval by the Board of Trustees at its May 16 meeting in Springfield.

Baker has helped oversee and manage development of DPI’s initial academic plans and policies for the last 18 months in her role as visiting special assistant to the president of the University of Illinois System.

DPI, a purpose-driven, collaborative research center led by the U of I System in downtown Chicago, will ultimately be home to thousands of students and over 100 top researchers. They will work with academic, business and tech partners around the world on breakthrough discovery to drive innovation, economic growth and prosperity in Chicago, the state of Illinois and beyond.

“Phyllis brings with her a wealth of experience in academic administration, and I am thrilled to have her as part of the permanent leadership team of DPI,” said Bill Sanders, interim director of DPI. “Through her current position in the president’s office, she has already had a key role in the facilitation of DPI’s thematic and cross-cutting working groups that are helping to define the vision and action plan for the institute.”

Baker joined the U of I System in 2015 as a sociology professor in Urbana-Champaign and is a professor emerita at the University of Northern Iowa, where she worked for 25 years as an instructor, researcher and administrator.

“It is truly an honor to be on the ground floor of an initiative that will have a transformative impact on the lives of students, the city of Chicago and its local communities, the state of Illinois and beyond,” Baker said. “I look forward to contributing to DPI’s mission to address societal grand challenges, promote entrepreneurship, grow the next generation workforce and build prosperity helping to fulfill the land-grant mission of one of the finest public university systems in the country, the University of Illinois System.”

DPI’s academic programs will focus on key areas such as innovation and entrepreneurship, training students to lead the next waves of research discovery and business creation that drive progress and economic growth in our knowledge-based, 21st century economy.

Baker will lead development of educational and research programs in cooperation with partners in industry; governmental, non-governmental and community-based agencies; and cultural and philanthropic organizations who will bring real-world problems to solve. She also will work with academic partners that already include the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem and MS Ramaiah Medical College in India. In addition, nearly 1,000 faculty from across the U of I System are sharing their talents to build DPI’s academic programming.

The institute will attract students from across the U of I System, as well as from current and future academic partners. Time spent at DPI will be similar to study abroad programs and students will earn their degrees from their home institutions.

Before joining the U of I System in 2015, Baker was a sociology professor at the University of Northern Iowa, where she joined the faculty in 1990. She also served as head of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology, as director of Women’s and Gender Studies and as associate dean in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

She earned her undergraduate degree in sociology from San Diego State University, and her master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology from the University of California at San Diego.

DPI currently operates in offices at 200 S. Wacker Drive in Chicago. A permanent facility will be developed on a donated site along the Chicago River, bringing together top faculty in agriculture, healthcare, computing and data, the environment and other critical fields.

The institute also will be the centerpiece of the Illinois Innovation Network (IIN), a virtually connected enterprise of public universities across the state that will use education and research initiatives to launch new companies, strengthen the workforce and lift communities.