Many remember The Junction Eating Place on West Lincoln Highway, about a block from campus. It opened in 1969, which just happened to be Harlan Teller’s freshman year.
“I used to come here a lot, usually late at night after studying. And now that I’m back, I’m glad it’s still here. It’s a source of continuity and a bit of my past,” he said while talking over a club sandwich.
It is only fitting that The Junction is still open today and looks very similar to the way it did back then.
“I always liked being in DeKalb. I started out as one of the ‘suitcase’ students who commuted via Greyhound Bus to Chicago every couple of weeks, but by the time I ended my junior year, I liked it so much that I house-sat that summer for one of my professors.”
That sense of community — as well as his gratitude for NIU’s role in shaping his life — has kept Teller involved with the university and the DeKalb community in many capacities in the more than 40 years since his graduation.
In June, the NIU Board of Trustees approved the appointment of Teller as interim vice president of Marketing and Communications for the next two years.
“We are delighted that someone of Harlan’s national reputation and stature—and a Huskie alum—is joining us in this critical role,” said NIU President Doug Baker. “Harlan epitomizes what we call ‘student career success’—someone who developed important skills while at NIU and has applied these skills to craft a highly successful career.”
Upon graduation in 1973, Teller started as a technical writer, but he moved into the field of public relations and corporate communications within three years, excelling at two of the world’s largest public relations agencies, Burson-Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton. He spent 1976-96 at Burson, starting in the corporate practice and rising to general manager of the Chicago office before becoming the first chairman of its U.S. corporate practice in 1996.
At Hill & Knowlton, he was part of the senior management team that rebuilt its U.S. operations, rising to president of the firm’s worldwide corporate practice in 2001. His client list at Burson and H&K was a virtual “who’s who” of corporate America, including McDonald’s, United Airlines, Procter & Gamble, Ameritech, Beatrice Foods, TransUnion Corporation, Deere & Company, Duracell and a number of electric utilities, including Chicago-based Exelon Corporation.
In 2005, he joined Financial Dynamics, now FTI Consulting, and rose to vice chairman in 2007. He has worked part-time for FTI as a senior managing director and maintained his own consulting firm until returning to his alma mater for the interim stint as the leader of the Marketing and Communications division.
Teller reports that he is enjoying his job greatly and is particularly bullish about his staff, whom he calls “mission-driven, highly professional and results-oriented.” He added, “This is my alma mater, and I care deeply about this place. I’m sure I’m going to be involved with the university in some way, shape or form well beyond my tenure as VP.”
One of Teller’s major goals is to unify the message of the university, which spans seven unique colleges and 39 different departments. “Speaking in a unified voice is a sizable challenge, given how highly decentralized we are when it comes to communications,” Teller explained. “We have worked quite a bit on an overall ‘enterprise narrative’—a way of talking about NIU that I’m hoping all communicators will adopt.” His division is in the process of revising the university’s graphics standards manual to integrate the NIU narrative and demonstrate how the narrative connects with President Baker’s cornerstone objective of student career success, the three pillars that support this objective and the strategic framework that is being adopted university-wide.
With regard to student career success, Teller believes very strongly that a liberal arts education plays directly into this goal.
“At NIU, I learned a lot of skills that have had a huge impact on my career,” he pointed out. “I learned how to think critically, to research, to write and to defend my ideas in front of a class—and there isn’t one of those skills I haven’t put to use in my public relations career.”
Teller believes one of the most important elements of selling the NIU experience is the desire from staff to help people around on campus. “We really personally care about our students, right up to the president, and it shows in how accessible and friendly our people are. I feel the same way about this today as I did as a student 40 years ago,” he said, adding, “This needs to be integrated into our value proposition.”
One of the first things he did upon returning to campus was to initiate a new campaign to deliver that caring spirit and attitude across the campus at the beginning of the fall semester. Under the theme “Ask Me… I Can Help You,” the campaign featured friendly pictures of staff and faculty on banners, signage and the NIU website, as well as prominently displayed in town hall meetings. The campaign, which began during Welcome Days, will continue throughout the year.
Teller has served on NIU’s alumni association board, has been a donor to the school, and is a past member of the dean’s advisory council for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
He is a regular guest speaker in public relations classes in the Department of Communication. His involvement with the university gave him a good basis of knowledge to draw upon as he assumed his new responsibilities.
Outside of NIU, Teller is chairman of the board of the Center for Economic Progress and a member of the Economic Club of Chicago. He is also a member of the board of trustees for PBS affiliate WTTW in Chicago. He mentioned that NIU is sponsoring the station’s first-ever web series, Central Standard—On Education, a nine-part series that looks into the life of middle school students in Chicago who are seeking acceptance into selective-enrollment high schools. Sponsorship of the program, which was repurposed and shown on air to respectable ratings, is part of NIU’s strategy for becoming more woven into the fabric of the Chicago community, which Teller believes will be accelerated by the hiring of a public relations firm sometime during the spring semester.
As an alum who has achieved career success, Teller is often asked for his advice on what this generation of Huskies should be doing to position themselves for similar success. “First, I would say, hedge your bets and spread your coursework around. I didn’t take business classes, I didn’t take econ, I didn’t take any accounting, because I just assumed I was going to go to graduate school, get my Ph.D. and teach in college,” he explained. “It didn’t work out that way, as I ended up in the private sector, where a bit of business and econ would have really helped a lot.”
And with regard to recent NIU graduates, he advises, “Be mobile, be flexible and jump at the first job opportunity. It may not be exactly what you want to do, but if you get into the flow of the workforce, you are immediately more marketable. Plus, you always have more leverage when you’re looking for another job if you’re currently employed.”
Armed with Teller’s expertise, the future of the NIU narrative looks bright. Teller stands as a model of student career success and looks to continue that success to benefit this generation of Huskies, too.