A week ago, Doug Baker set out on a cross-country journey on his Ducati motorcycle through breathtaking views, winding roads, endless hills of mountain country to the plains of Nebraska and Iowa.
His goal: taking time to clear his head for the tasks awaiting him as NIU’s 12th president.
But by early Monday morning – a week in advance of his official July 1 start as NIU’s 12th president – Baker had literally rolled up his sleeves, taken up residency in Altgeld Hall and jumped into the serious business of the new CEO of NIU.
His full calendar attests to one of his critical missions: providing transformational experiences for NIU students and paving the way to their career success after graduation through such things as undergraduate research, internships, study abroad and service learning.
The new president already has held meetings to discuss each division’s FY14 goals with each vice president, received a full briefing from NIU’s Springfield liaisons on pension and state budget issues, conversed with the president of the Faculty Senate, had dinner with a trustee and an alum, filmed video welcome messages for orientation and Open Houses sponsored by the Office of Admissions, given an interview to the DeKalb Daily Chronicle and spoke on the telephone with a parent.
So what was paramount on Baker’s mind this week?
With Idaho in the rearview mirror, the moving truck still a few weeks away and his wife, Dana Stover, on vacation in Canada with her sisters, Baker quickly settled into life as the president of NIU.
And he loves it.
“The thing that gets me really excited is the people of NIU and the culture here. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with a few students and, boy, it is really exciting to be with them. It reinforces why we’re here,” Baker says.
“The faculty and staff and administrators of this institution are really dedicated to student success. I think that’s been the highlight – seeing that culture and the people and how excited they are to move forward.”
Coming to campus also allowed the former business professor, who has taught courses in management, organizational behavior, strategic planning and more, to check on some homework he had assigned.
“The last few weeks, I’ve asked the key leaders in the institution to share their key priorities for the coming year and how they want to accomplish those,” he says. “So I’ve spent this week meeting individually with them, and talking through those issues, seeing what the opportunities are, the obstacles and how we might be able to overcome those.”
Baker’s schedule Thursday – his busiest day by far this week – found him booked late into the evening at a meeting of the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation.
A strong town-gown relationship is important, he says.
“A vibrant community helps us recruit and retain faculty, staff and students, and also provides an educational opportunity for our students to be working in the community,” he says.
“When I was selected as NIU’s president in April, I met with some of the community leaders, including the mayor, and was really excited about what the city is trying to do to invigorate our community and move forward. I see great opportunities for partnership between NIU and the local community,” he adds.
Conversations with DCEDC leaders focused on “how to expand on those ideas and build on the new leadership in the local government.”
Baker’s running start actually began weeks earlier when he made several shorter visits to the Land of Lincoln.
“Prior to coming to NIU, I wanted to get a good feel for the institution and its many strengths, so I spent a number of days here in DeKalb and also at the three branches in Naperville, Hoffman Estates and Rockford,” he says.
NIU’s active involvement in the region offers “tremendous opportunities for our students as they engage in communities in internships and service projects,” says Baker, who also listened “to see what the needs are in the community and how the institution can best serve those communities.”
Everything he’s heard, from every corner and every constituency, only confirms his decision to take the top job at NIU.
“I’ve been tremendously impressed by those opportunities, and by the strengths of the faculty and the staff of NIU. I see that we have tremendous faculty who care a lot about our students, and who are doing cutting-edge research,” he says.
“I’m really excited to build on those things, and I’ve spent the last few weeks investigating those things. I have more to learn, but I really feel like NIU is a tremendous asset to the region, and I’m excited to get going.”