Teacher. Manager. Soldier. Leader. Mentor. Athlete. Scholar.
Of the many hats La Vonne I. Neal has worn over her 40-year career in national defense, corporate America and higher education, the one she values most is “collaborator.”
“My professional brand is, in one sentence, that I’m a mission-focused, data-informed, transformational leader. I inspire people,” says Neal, associate vice president in the NIU Division of Administration and Finance.
“But my greatest joy is that I’ve been able to collaborate with people, and that means scholars, faculty, staff and other colleagues. Their success is the measure of my success,” she adds. “What an amazing experience this has been.”
After eight years at NIU – the first five as dean of the College of Education – Neal will retire July 1.
Yet her “significant and lasting positive impact on our university community” will remain, NIU Acting President Lisa Freeman says.
“La Vonne Neal and I started at NIU on the same day in 2010,” Freeman says. “Since then, I have seen Dr. Neal’s energy, creativity and organizational skills inform positive change not only in the College of Education, where she served as dean, but also across NIU. Dr. Neal has exhibited a strong personal commitment to the development of human potential.”
Neal’s recent work in process improvement and operational effectiveness has “helped the university improve our service to students and other members of the university community,” Freeman adds. “Dr. Neal has been a valuable resource to units interested in process re-engineering.”
Her legacy in the Division of Administration and Finance began with the drafting of a blueprint for the transformation process, instituting a Lean Six Sigma methodology with academia nuances.
During Fiscal Year 2017, she led 10 concurrent process re-engineering projects across 143 units with 244 project members.
“Thanks to Dr. Neal’s thoughtful efforts and dedication, Administration and Finance has a strong framework for process reengineering that will serve us well in the years to come,” says Sarah McGill, NIU vice president for Administration and Finance and chief financial officer.
“We can change a thing in many ways, but we never had a framework to do that here. My team and I had to develop that actual framework, and that’s what I’ve done my entire career – that which made things easier, if you will,” Neal says.
“Now there is at NIU a roadmap for problem-solving. Now we have a quantitative history. We have developed a process for transparency and for visibility, and we collected and generated data to inform the institution during the budget development process,” she adds. “When you think of that, that is huge – and we did it in three years. That’s high impact in a truncated period of time.”
Neal’s career has centered on “high impact.”
Known and respected nationally for her scholarship in the need for culturally responsive teaching, she came to NIU from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where she served as dean of the College of Education and implemented a new culture of assessment throughout its programs.
Neal eventually published “Diversifying the Teacher Workforce: Preparing and Retaining Highly Effective Teachers” in 2014 with national colleagues Christine E. Sleeter and Kevin K. Kumashiro.
One year earlier, Neal had begun mentoring three female members of the NIU ROTC.
Under her guidance, Karina Avila, Maria Colompos and Shanell Walter – none was a College of Education student – went on to conduct research, present at academic conferences and co-author a book titled, “Borders, Bras and Battles: A Practical Guide to Mentor Undergraduate Women to Achieve Career Success.”
Military service is in her background as well.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in political science from LaSalle University, Neal entered the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant in military intelligence. She rose to the rank of captain as she gained experience in leadership and strategic planning.
Leaving the Army for management positions with corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, Kraft Foods and Miller Brewing Co. sparked her “personal commitment to the development of human potential.”
She later enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned a master’s degree in special education and a Ph.D. in special education with an emphasis in multicultural education. Following five years as a social studies teacher in Texas, she joined the faculty at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.
During her time in the NIU College of Education, Neal realigned academic departments, celebrated U.S. News and World Report rankings for online graduate education and nurtured some members of her team into higher roles.
Modeling leadership through her capacity for talent identification and inspiration is important to her, she says.
“Leadership is not about me,” she says. “It’s about people.”
Vernese Edghill-Walden, senior associate vice president for Academic Diversity and chief diversity officer at NIU, calls Neal “an inspiring colleague, scholar, motivator, mentor and sponsor.”
“She has been a champion for equity and inclusion in her scholarship and throughout her professional career,” Edghill-Walden says. “Since I arrived in 2015, Dr. Neal has shown her unwavering support for the Office of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.”
Furthermore, Neal’s generosity of time – “invested in so many students, faculty and professional staff, not just at NIU but around the world” – demonstrates her consistent advocacy for research, scholarship, knowledge creation and leadership.
“As a mentor, her gentle reminders to students, colleagues and mentees to ‘reach your potential’ is a gift,” Edghill-Walden says. “La Vonne will be missed.”
In retirement, Neal plans to continue doing what has driven her for a lifetime.
“The common theme for me is engaging with people – enjoying life, engaging with family and friends, global travel,” she says. “I have friends and family all over the world.”
Fond memories of NIU will travel with her.
“When I came here in 2010, who knew what would take place? When you look at what we all were able to do together, this was a collaborative effort, and we were able to successfully transform on many levels,” Neal says. “I absolutely have enjoyed my time here.”