Karen Baker set out more than three decades ago to right the wrongs.
Through every opportunity, experience and degree she earned and with every title she held at NIU, Baker worked to create an environment of fairness. Those around her say she did just that.
Baker will retire at the end of this month from her position as the associate vice president for Affirmative Action and Employee and Labor Relations Title IX coordinator at NIU. Her devotion to NIU–having worked at the university in various positions since April of 1988–extends beyond her career.
The alumna earned her bachelor’s degree in Economics, a master’s degree in Adult Continuing Education and a law degree here.
“Northern is a place that if you work hard and you are open-minded you can take your career to a variety of places, and I was fortunate to have a job and mentors and supervisors and leadership that allowed me to grow,” she says.
“I grew beyond what I thought I was going to do. It just kept growing and growing, and it has been just a great opportunity.”
Retiring from NIU, Baker still plans to be involved with some side businesses, do some traveling and spend time with her family.
Perhaps, she’ll even pursue a passion for fashion she’s had since her days as undergraduate in 1983.
“I think I can dress full-figured women better than anyone,” she says. “If you give me time, maybe you’ll see me on ‘Good Morning America’ with tips on how to look nice as a full-figured woman.”
By the time she enrolled in law school, education and employment law had captured Baker’s attention. Upon earning her law degree, she worked in Affirmative Action at NIU.
Both her education and her career have allowed her to pursue interests that mean something to her, from civil rights to labor and employee relations to diversity to Title IX.
For Baker, life in and out of the office boiled down to honesty, understanding, encouragement, acceptance, equity and, of course, fairness.
NIU Acting President Lisa Freeman worked closely with Baker on issues related to affirmative action and equity compliance, labor relations and Title IX.
“She has worked tirelessly to ensure that all members of our university community experience an environment that reflects a community of diverse ideas, people and services, is free from all aspects of unfair, unequal and/or discriminatory treatment, complies with labor and employment laws and encourages training and education,” Freeman says.
“Karen Baker will be missed. The work that she pioneered will continue.”
In Baker’s latest role, she helped educate and train thousands at the university about policies and procedures established to promote a campus free from discrimination and harassment. She also oversaw investigations of workplace and other complaints and was credited with creating the system for handling claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Her legacy earned her a Presidential Supportive Professional Staff Award for Excellence in 2017. In 2015, as associate vice president of Administration and Human Resources, she earned a Deacon Davis Diversity Award given to those who make significant contributions to the improvement of the status of minorities on campus.
“It has been a pleasure to work with Karen to advance diversity, equity and inclusion,” says Vernese Edghill-Walden, chief diversity officer at NIU. “We have had a wonderful working relationship, and she’s been a great colleague. Thank you for your leadership, wisdom and many years of service.”
Baker says she’s proud of it all, especially her most recent efforts to combat sexual harassment and assault and provide a safe environment for everyone at NIU. It’s just not OK to be mean, to bully or to harass, she says.
“I’m a believer in there are some things you don’t have to experience to say you’re living, and that’s one of them,” she says. “I think the more education we have for both the victim and the alleged offender, the better we can get down to saying, ‘This culture should not include that.'”
Through the years, Baker says she’s valued the advice given to her. And she’s learned a few things along the way, as well.
Among her advice:
- Have patience. “Be patient with respect to your career and your opportunities,” she says.
- Stay strong. “Surround yourself with people who have the same strength and the same power you have as far as in their minds and understanding of what power is, and use it accordingly,” she says. “A lot of women are tagged with being aggressive. You should know your strength on what you stand for and be OK with that. It’s not what they call you, it’s what you answer to…Don’t hook yourself to people. Hook yourself to your work, and you’ll always be visible in that regards.”
- Put family first. You only have a short time to raise children. Let them guide your career choices, not the other way around, Baker says. “People will always know your legacy by your children,” she says.
- By all means, pursue education. It might take awhile, but do it, she says. “Your education is the one thing no one else can take from you, ever,” she says. “It’s very important to give yourself an education so you have options. If you want to be an associate vice president you can be one, but if you also want to work at Lowe’s you can do that. Don’t let life dictate to you, you dictate life.”
Upon leaving NIU, Baker says she’ll miss her team the most, and the people she’s met along the way.
“I think it’s surreal,” she says of her retirement.
“Everyone who starts working always says, ‘Oh my gosh, you live to be able to retire,’ but when you get to the point where you can make that decision it’s very difficult because you have come to love what you do, love the people you work with and, as much as you might fight it, it defines who you are from 8 to 4:30. And you have to recreate that. The closer I get, the sun is shining. I’m getting excited to be able to control my time on a beautiful afternoon.”
Having grown up in DeKalb and immersed herself in NIU, Baker can’t see herself ever really severing ties with the university.
“I will always have NIU Huskie red running through my veins. I’m not going far. You’ll see me. I’ll be around,” she says.
“To anyone who’s worked with me, thank you. I consider everyone here part of my journey, and it’s been a wonderful opportunity. It’s time to do something else, and it’s OK. And I hope I left this place a better place.”
A farewell reception for Baker will be held from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. June 21 in the Clara Sperling Sky Room at the Holmes Student Center.