President and chief diversity officer address international audience at Rainbow/PUSH forum

“Talent is universal, but opportunity is not,” NIU President Lisa Freeman told a packed audience at the Oct. 20 “Saturday Forum” broadcast at Chicago’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition headquarters. “At NIU, we’re committed to social justice and inclusion,” she said, “and we believe that higher education is a fundamental human right.”

NIU President Lisa Freeman, Rev. Jesse Jackson, NIU Board Chairman Wheeler Coleman, and NIU Chief Diversity Officer Vernese Edghill-Walden

Freeman’s appearance at Rainbow/PUSH came at the invitation of its founder, Rev. Jesse Jackson, when he visited NIU last year to dedicate a traveling museum exhibition called “Quilts and Human Rights.”

“Rev. Jackson told us that quilts are a great metaphor for an inclusive society,” Freeman recalled. “Individually the pieces are just rags, but sewn together they make a blanket of strength that warms and protects us.”

She went on to promote NIU as a university that has launched nearly a quarter of a million graduates since its founding, and with nearly half its current student body made up of people of color, it is strongly reflective of the region it serves.

Freeman described both long-standing initiatives and newer programs aimed at expanding access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The now 50-year-old CHANCE program, new scholarships for students from Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges of Chicago, and support for undocumented students were three examples.

NIU Chief Diversity Officer Vernese Edghill-Walden also spoke, describing the work of her Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“I don’t need to tell you that the challenge of recruiting a more diverse faculty is faced by nearly every public university in this country,” Edghill-Walden said. “At NIU, we’re developing graduate school pipelines for students of color who are interested in teaching and providing them incentives to consider a career as a university faculty member. My office also works with hiring departments across the university to educate them about ways they can attract more minority applicants for teaching positions.”

Responding to another speaker’s exhortation for people of color to “fill up the business and law schools in this country,” Edghill-Walden said, “I wouldn’t stop with business and law: Education is the best gift we can give our children, and a college education puts power in their hands!”

Freeman and Edghill-Walden were joined by the NIU Black Choir (also celebrating its 50th anniversary), a coalition of DREAM Action students, and NIU Board of Trustees Chair Wheeler Coleman, himself an alumnus of NIU and the CHANCE program.

“If it sounds like I’m extraordinarily proud of NIU, it’s because I am,” said Freeman.

“When we ask our students and faculty why they chose NIU or what they value most about our university, the rich diversity of our student body is consistently at the top of their list,” she said. “We have excellent faculty and staff, a beautiful campus, a growing portfolio of online programs and a community that strives to be welcoming and inclusive.”

The entire text of President Freeman’s remarks is available online.

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