President Doug Baker unveiled a bold plan for Northern Illinois University’s future Wednesday, saying that he will work to dramatically expand internship opportunities, try to match every student with an alumni mentor and endeavor to ensure that every graduate is employed within six months of graduation.
Baker’s comments came during ceremonies marking his inauguration as the 12th president in NIU history. Baker, 57, officially came on board July 1 after spending eight years as the executive vice president and provost at the University of Idaho.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be entrusted with the responsibility of leading a venerable institution with nearly 120 years of history. I am thrilled, humbled and excited to stand before you today as president of Northern Illinois University,” he told a full house at the Carl Sandburg Auditorium of the Holmes Student Center.
The event was a celebration of NIU student success.
It featured live, filmed and dramatic interpretations of testimonials from students who have overcome obstacles, faculty who have gone to great lengths to care for students and alumni who are eager to return to campus and share their advice and successes with current students.
All of those things, Baker said, will be important aspects of sharpening NIU’s focus on student career success, which he believes must be the ultimate goal as NIU strives to reinvent itself for excellence.
“Today, at NIU, we find ourselves in a position where we can assume leadership in forging what I shall call the ‘New University.’ If the vision I am sharing with you today comes about, I believe the ‘New University’ will once again claim the prideful allegiance of its faculty, students and alumni, but this pride will be based not on nostalgia, sentiment and football victories, but on continuing participation in the life of the mind,” Baker said, using language borrowed from the inaugural remarks of NIU’s sixth president, Rhoten A. Smith.
It seemed appropriate, Baker said, because NIU once again stands at a crossroads.
“It is a critical time for higher education in this country. The world around us has changed much more rapidly and decisively than it has within our halls,” said Baker, who made the case that the university should prepare students to thrive in all facets of life.
“A university focused on student career success provides students with a deep and meaningful body of knowledge to help them succeed in their careers. It is not a vocational school…but rather an institution that stresses creativity, communication and critical-thinking skills.”
According to Baker’s vision, a university dedicated to student career success will place a premium on:
- Mentorship – Baker announced that NIU will strive to offer peer mentors for university freshmen and tap some of its 225,000 alumni to mentor sophomores, juniors and seniors.
- Internships – Noting that the No. 1 predictor of student career success is whether students complete an internship during college, Baker said NIU will endeavor to find internship opportunities for every student who wishes to have one.
- Career Success – With university resources focused on career success, Baker said it is his goal to ensure that within six months after graduation, every graduate will have a job in his or her chosen field, be enrolled in a graduate program or be pursuing another endeavor of his or her choice (for example, starting a family, joining the Peace Corps, etc.).
“This is a bold statement and a big challenge,” Baker said of the final goal. “But we are up to it. We have to be.”
Another aspect of the focus on student career success will be working to create a premier living-learning environment that will help attract and retain students, Baker said. Toward that end, he has already been reaching out to local leaders and discussing ways to create a “cool college town” atmosphere where students and faculty can thrive.
Those efforts began in October when the president instituted significant structural changes, including: breaking the Division of Finance and Facilities into two separate units; creating a new Division of International Affairs; centralizing all university marketing efforts; and implementing a new chief financial officer position to completely restructure the university’s budgeting procedures and align finances with new priorities.
In October, Baker also launched a series of campus meetings where he gathered nearly 800 students, faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members to discuss priorities for the university, identify challenges and brainstorm solutions. The meetings, billed as Bold Futures Workshops, represented the first step toward unleashing the creativity of those groups, and getting the NIU community to think beyond traditional boundaries.
“This is a chaotic time in higher education. Change is happening rapidly, and we must respond,” Baker said. “Going forward, we must embrace a collaborative culture of change and innovation – all of us, or we will become irrelevant. The only unacceptable mistake will be to accept the status quo.”
Despite challenges facing the university, Baker is confident that NIU will emerge a stronger institution.
“At NIU, we have a heritage, we have a place and we have a wealth of dedicated people with the capacity to ratchet up our connectivity to this changing world,” he said. “In so doing, we can set a new example for shaping graduates who will live fulfilling lives and provide leadership in our communities and throughout the world.”
This afternoon’s ceremony included remarks by Board of Trustees Chair John Butler and NIU accountancy professor Pam Smith. Audience members also were treated to a live performance by School of Music students transmitted to the auditorium from the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall via Internet2.
The board set specific goals for the university and sought candidates with particular skills and experiences, Butler said. Specifically, they were looking for someone that could effectively relate to faculty, students, alumni, potential donors, local, state and federal officials and a wide range of individuals in business, government and education.
“We needed a strategic planner, comfortable working in a mature system of shared governance; someone with impeccable integrity, outstanding communication and interpersonal skills, strong administrative abilities and a personal commitment to public higher education,” Butler said.
“We sought someone with vision, creativity, high energy, and political astuteness – someone with a demonstrated commitment to diversity – and someone who possesses a personal style that engenders trust and respect,” he added. “And that’s just what we got in Doug Baker.”
Smith, who served as master of ceremonies, foreshadowed Baker’s vision that “each student benefits from a strong community of faculty, staff, and alumni who came together for a common purpose.”
“Since Dr. Baker took office, his vision has been clear – big, bold strides to secure NIU’s future. He’s brought together NIU faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members to move us forward together,” Smith said.
“He has asked us to unleash our individual and collective potential in order to realize innovative solutions to the challenges we face. He has invited us to be part of something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our department, bigger than our college, bigger than our university – to be part of our students’ career success.”
Following the ceremonies, Baker and his family – his wife, Dana, and their daughter, Robin, and his parents, David and Virginia – greeted well-wishers at a celebration in the Chick Evans Field House.