With a relationship spanning 120 years, it is mostly impossible to separate NIU from its home communities of DeKalb and DeKalb County.
The university and the municipalities operate not so much as sisters as they are an interrelated social and economic system. Collaborations among organizations and their chief executive officers is teamwork important for the systems’ success.
Baker, a trusted and valued colleague among his fellow local leaders, will share the stage at Faranda’s with DeKalb Mayor John Rey and City Manager Anne Marie Gaura.
“I am very pleased the chamber invites Doug to share in the program because NIU is a key party in the local community partnership,” Rey said.
“Northern is the major employer in our local economy, and Doug is very conscientious in his role in fostering community involvement,” the mayor added. “Doug’s activity serves as mentorship to staff and community members. Citizens appreciate and respect the president taking the time and effort to give back to the community in meaningful ways.”
Baker will talk not only about the university’s economic impact on DeKalb in terms of dollars and cents but in “people as individuals, and the great things that can happen when people come together around great projects and causes.”
“DeKalb plays a big role in the life of our university, and NIU plays a big role in the life of this community. We are inextricably linked. Our path forward is built on mutually respectful collaboration,” Baker said.
“It became clear to me early on in my tenure here that we needed to formalize our relationship a bit and put some resources behind our effort to undertake projects jointly with the city,” he added. “We have been working with a number of local government and not-for-profit partners throughout the county to address issues concerning economic development; safety and security; and quality of life.”
Consequently, Baker is excited by DeKalb’s new strategic planning process – work that could yield “a vibrant economy and a business-friendly and innovation-seeking culture.”
Facilitated and documented by NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies, the multi-year, collaborative and grassroots effort is expected to produce a 10-year vision for the city as well as a set of shorter-term specific actions to move toward those objectives.
The civic dialogue creates opportunities for people to meet neighbors, deepen their understanding of each other and bring about positive change. An NIU community conversation is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, July 27, in the Capitol Room of the Holmes Student Center.
“My involvement, as well as that of faculty, staff and students, is critical for joint engagement – work to strengthen NIU and DeKalb. In recent years, our relationships have strengthened, and a true ‘communiversity’ culture is emerging,” Baker said.
“I see DeKalb’s community planning process as not only a critical element to the successful future of DeKalb but also to the success of NIU,” he added, pointing to the “re-envisioning” of the physical campus.
Earlier this year, Baker tasked key NIU administrators and staff to develop plans that enhance the core campus, including the student center, Neptune residence hall and central campus.
“A dynamic process unfolded that included the participation of the City of DeKalb Community Development staff,” the president said. “The city provided valuable insight as well as a commitment to collaborate on retail and business development that will be attractive to our students and beneficial to our community.”
Local community leaders value the eager participation that Baker pours into the town/gown relationship and look forward to more.
Dan Templin, executive director of the DeKalb County Community Foundation, said Baker’s “personal interest in the quality of life in our communities” makes him a critical partner.
Baker meets regularly with the foundation’s executive committee and leadership to review initiatives of common relevance and to share updates from NIU’s visioning efforts, Templin added.
“No NIU president, in the history of the DCCF, has communicated so willingly and regularly with our leadership to contribute to a spirt of collaboration and practical partnership in support of strong communities. Doug Baker embraces that reality wholeheartedly,” Templin said.
“We also have begun some informal discussion about how best to engage philanthropists who both value NIU and the many communities in its vicinity: Communiversity!”
Rey looks forward to Baker’s continued enthusiasm for projects that allow cooperation between the city and NIU.
“His participation at the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation sends a message to our business leadership that he truly cares and wants to contribute to the economic vitality of the region,” Rey said.
Paul J. Borek, executive director of the DCEDC, praises Baker for his “outstanding leadership” and “proactive outreach and earnest, engaging interest to help create productive, effective partnerships.”
Baker’s strong encouragement of internships is making an impact, Borek said: A recent survey of larger DeKalb County industries indicated that 57 percent of the respondents use interns in some capacity while another 17 percent are interested in doing so.
Meanwhile, Borek said he’s eager to begin work with Baker on the Innovation and Digital Manufacturing Roundtables spearheaded by the NIU EIGERlab Innovation Network as well as entrepreneurship and business incubation initiatives.
“Dr. Baker’s leadership on the DCEDC board is important to the county economy, communities and business,” Borek said. “NIU is the largest employer and economic engine in DeKalb County, NIU’s success is critical to the local economy in terms of jobs, income and local purchasing.”
“The outreach under Doug Baker to locals is impressive. He talked at our City Council meeting and focused his comments on students: retention, engagement, attraction and student career success. No other president in memory has addressed the Sycamore City Council, and his remarks are appreciated,” said Mundy, an NIU alum and retiree.
“We look forward to continued partnering – and supporting Doug Baker and NIU – as we all navigate through challenging and hopefully rewarding waters to the safe harbor of sustained educational and economic viability and growth,” he added, “which, as Trustee Bob Boey says, is mutually beneficial to all of us.”
Baker believes that his active engagement in local affairs is not only part of his job description but an inherent passion.
“Place-making and community-building are fundamental to me. We have learned from nationally recognized community-university partnerships, such as Carnegie Mellon and the City of Pittsburgh, that the culture for transformative town-and-gown collaboration begins with the leadership’s desire and dedication to work together,” Baker said.
“NIU has begun to see the impact of internships and engaged service learning in the community and its impact on student career success,” he added. “I am more committed than ever to enhancing partnerships with the community as part of our efforts to achieve student career success and the development of thriving communities.”