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Trustees at the University of Illinois voted Thursday to end the school's aviation program, citing cost savings and dwindling enrollment.
The move closes the program and degrees it offers at the university's flagship campus, despite outcry from students and faculty who claim the university targeted the program years ago by not filling positions and that the demand for pilots is rising.
Interim Chancellor Robert Easter, who oversees the Urbana-Champaign campus, praised the program's "long and prestigious history as a leader in aviation education" but said ending it will save up to $750,000 a year. He said enrollment has dropped more than 50 percent from 2002 to 2010.
"We have concluded that it is in the best interests of the campus to discontinue the degree programs and to close the Institute," Easter told the board, which met in Chicago.
The board voted 6-2 in favor of closing, according to university spokesman Tom Hardy. University officials said the program officially ends in 2014 giving current students a change to finish their degrees.
The campus has provided some form of flight training since the mid-1940s and operates Willard Airport in central Illinois. The university's Institute of Aviation began its bachelor of science in 1999 and a masters' degree was added in 2003.
But university officials had considered closing the program for years, even as early as the 1970s. University officials said the institute had 176 applicants in 2002, but only 30 were enrolled by 2009. In the following year, 34 freshmen enrolled in the program.
Dozens of opponents to the proposal picketed the trustees' meeting Thursday morning. They had started a website, www.savetheinstituteofaviation.com, which said closure rumors have hurt the institute's recruitment efforts and the program was denied transfer students. They said closure of the program will leave a big gap in aviation education.
"It definitely is a blow," said Laura Gerhold, the academic adviser at the institute. "The industry is forecasting a huge demand for pilots. We're no longer going to be producing pilots for that pilot pool."
The university has said it is talking to other schools to look for a way to keep parts of the program alive in some form.
"The campus is engaged in ongoing conversations with other institutions of higher education regarding how to support their possible interest in creating local flight training programs," Easter said.