During Wednesday’s wide-ranging and upbeat State of the University Address, Acting President Lisa Freeman confirmed her commitment to being “smart, tough and relentless” in moving NIU forward – and to maintaining a campus that is open and accepting of all people.
Progress will not come easily, however, as public universities in Illinois “plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
“The impacts of more than 700 days without support from the state cannot be undone quickly, and there’s still a great deal of uncertainty with Springfield for next year,” Freeman said.
“We have parts of our budget that deserve – but don’t have – stable permanent funding. We have pressing needs related to renovation and repair of our physical plant and refresh of our technology,” she added. “We are going to have to continue to reduce spending in some areas as well as to increase revenues. Divisions will be asked to make further reductions.”
Yet NIU’s leader also cited many signs of resiliency and hope on campus and beyond, making sure to hail last Saturday’s mammoth Huskie Football victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Chief among the good news: “Campus visits are up,” she said, “as is freshmen enrollment, law school enrollment and overall retention. We have to build on those gains.”
Freeman began her remarks with words of comfort for those impacted by “unprecedented series of natural disasters” and “untold pain and suffering” from Texas and Florida to Mexico and the Caribbean.
She then reminded the audience of the promise she made during the summer when she accepted her current post.
“I pledged that NIU will be guided by the principals of shared governance, mutual respect and transparency in decision-making,” Freeman said. “This university will keep moving forward. We will formulate the appropriate strategies, make the necessary decisions and build momentum in the process to strongly position NIU for the future.”
One of those strategies seeks to reward many NIU employees for their hard work and dedication. “We cannot afford to neglect our most important resource – our people – any longer,” she said.
The acting president announced that she has asked the Board of Trustees to convene a special meeting Thursday, Oct. 19, to consider a 3 percent pay raise for eligible employees. That group includes:
- Employees hired before Dec. 31, 2016, who are not currently part of an open contract within a bargaining unit;
- Temporarily appointed Supportive Professional staff who have been continuously reappointed for three or more years; and
- Graduate assistants who would receive 3 percent increases in their stipends.
Should the board approve the increment plan, Freeman said she will turn down the salary boost for herself. Meanwhile, her vice presidents also are either declining the additional dollars or making a gift to the NIU Foundation. Human Resources has developed a helpful Frequently Asked Questions guide and will update it periodically.
Among other areas of encouraging momentum:
- Program Prioritization has spurred mergers between similar and complementary areas. “Program Prioritization best demonstrates the power of bottom-up,” Freeman said. “The Program Prioritization process has changed our culture, encouraging us to think in news ways about how to support our mission and improve our operations. We are more thoughtful about whether it makes sense to keep doing things the way that they have always been done.”
- NIU is strengthening connections with the community. Projects include a possible integration of the Huskie Line buses with TransVAC, the formation of a City/University Student Leaders Group and a “Taste of NIU” series of events that aims to drive NIU’s nearly 7,000 local alums back to campus.
- Construction projects are changing the face of campus. “Next year, the Stevens Building will open with news classroom space and a Black Box Theatre waiting to be filled with our talented students,” Freeman said. “We are also on schedule to start revitalization of the ground floor of the Holmes Student Center, paid for by Build America Bonds.”
- NIU, along with partners Harper College and Township High School District 211, was selected as one four teams out of 50 that applied to participate in the Seamless Transfer Pathways Design Challenge. “This work will not only impact our own institutions, but will also provide opportunities for other schools to pilot the models that we develop and to benefit from our scalable innovation,” she said. “Other institutions view us as leaders, and we are.”
- NIU faculty attracted nearly $10 million in funding during Fiscal Year 2017 for fundamental and applied research, a growth of 11 percent over the previous year.
- Academic programs continue to enjoy national rankings and recognition, while the university itself celebrates a nod from the Brookings Report, placing NIU in a select national group of public universities that produce important research and advance the social mobility of students from low-income households.
Freeman directed her most passionate and well-received comments to those who are worried about the current political climate at home and abroad.
These students, whose “hopes, dreams, motivations and accomplishments” inspire Freeman, now find themselves “vulnerable and in need or our respect and support.”
Higher education, she added, “can and should be the catalyst for change.”
“Our world is struggling right now. None of us can avoid witnessing the turmoil and the injustices happening around the globe, throughout our nation and in our state,” Freeman said.
“Diversity and inclusion are at the core of our successful learning environment. Different perspectives and cultures enrich us all, open our minds and challenge our beliefs and our potential,” she said.
“No matter your background – whether you are Black, Latino, Asian American, white or an international student; have a different belief system; and regardless of gender identity or status – when we admit you, we accept you and we welcome you,” she added. “Feeling welcome, and achieving a sense of belonging, is what we all want. And, when we have that, we can be our best at teaching, learning, creating and ultimately shaping our world for the better.”
Improving the world begins with the ambitions, abilities, talents and personal stories of students, which have inspired Freeman and her husband, Doug Rose, to give $25,000 to the NIU Foundation this year for student scholarships.
“We believe in the potential of our current and future students,” Freeman said as she announced the contribution and issued a challenge. “Our hope in making this gift is that others will join us – to increase unrestricted funds available for scholarships – to make education a reality for those who want it most.”