State of the U: Dr. Freeman praises pandemic response, says NIU must strategically embrace change

In her annual State of the University Address, President Lisa C. Freeman praised the NIU community for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while charting a future course that builds on Huskie values and continues to embrace change in this period of uncertainty.

Noting the extraordinary circumstances of NIU’s 125th anniversary year, the president spent the first portion of her speech underscoring the university’s quick and thorough pandemic response that prioritized the health and well-being of students and community members.

The response included the rapid transition to remote teaching and learning, de-densifying campus, a move to virtual student services, overcoming technology challenges, establishment of the Student Emergency Fund and a quick shift by many researchers to pandemic issues. The university’s effort culminated in development of the Protecting the Pack plan, which implemented major classroom, housing and building-services accommodations, allowing for the return of students this fall.

“Your incredible hard work, creativity and flexibility are helping us to succeed in the face of tremendous adversity, and will serve us well in the months ahead,” Dr. Freeman said. She added that despite dire predictions nationally for college attendance, NIU’s enrollment grew this fall.

“We succeeded in recent months, because when we pivoted to change tactics and operations, we remained true to our vision of NIU as ‘an engine for innovation to advance social mobility,’ ” she said.

The university also relied on guidance from government, public health experts, higher education organizations, Northwestern Medicine and community leaders to navigate the pandemic and keep our community healthy. “I say often that relationships are resources,” the president said. “During the pandemic, we saw this in many contexts.”

NIU’s achievements were all the more remarkable because they came in the face of disrupted and delayed university plans, as well as many personal hardships. “Across our university, we have many unsung heroes,” President Freeman said. “To all these Huskies who never quit, I say, thank you.”

Turning to the future, President Freeman said NIU faces formidable challenges and will continue to be confronted with difficult decisions. The pandemic took a financial toll on the university, and there’s no clear picture regarding the timing and magnitude of any additional federal COVID-19 relief.

But the university must continue to be steered by its vision, mission and values, while continuing to embrace change and adapt.

“We will not be returning to business as usual. The pandemic has significantly and permanently altered not only our operating environment, but also our perceptions of what is possible. It opened us to new ways of doing things, encouraged us to be more nimble and less risk-averse, and showed us that reducing bureaucracy creates opportunity.”

Dr. Freeman highlighted six themes of the Strategic Action Planning Framework and cited examples of university goals around each. A key goal surrounds the theme of diversity, equity and inclusion.

High profile and tragic occurrences of social and racial injustice across our country are prompting “more open, honest and candid conversations about race, class and structural advantage across our nation and at our university,” Dr. Freeman said.

“I’ve listened as NIU students, staff, faculty and alumni of color expressed pain, frustration and skepticism. Acknowledging their trauma, and the tension caused by bias and racism, is important—but it’s not enough. We all need to commit to understanding our history and doing better for our future.”

Dr. Freeman said university must continue its efforts to hire and support diverse faculty and staff. Efforts are underway to examine the standards, assumptions, priorities and processes used in employee evaluations, and to develop a university-wide mentoring program, with an emphasis on faculty of color.

“We will not succeed, unless we recognize and remove systemic barriers that impede the success of NIU employees who are Black, Latinx, Asian, other people of color, women, LGBTQ+ and individuals with disabilities,” Dr. Freeman said. “Our university community will be stronger, more productive and more innovative, when all of our faculty and staff feel that that they are valued for their ideas, recognized for their contributions, welcomed by their colleagues and supported by our institution.”

Pointing to recent changes in financial aid and admissions policies—including the Huskie Pledge Program, a new Rockford partnership and implementation of test-blind admissions and scholarship criteria—the president said NIU must continue to be a leader in the area of equity and inclusion in student recruitment, success and experience.

NIU’s first-year retention rate jumped to 78% this fall—the highest in 15 years. The president said the primary driver of that increase is a 10-percentage-point jump in retention of students of color, with similar increases for first-generation and Pell-eligible students.

“At this time when the Illinois Board of Higher Education is making equity the centerpiece of its strategic plan, their board chair described NIU’s equity agenda as ‘a difference maker’ that is ‘driving how other institutions think about their mission.’ We must continue to set the pace, especially during this time, when our students face extraordinary challenges.”

Other goals for the coming year include collaboratively increasing efficiency in business operations to help unburden employees who already are stretched thin; an emphasis on removing barriers to transdisciplinary scholarship, curricular innovation and experimentation; development of public and private funding opportunities and partnerships to spur key university enterprises; and implementation of a multiyear budget and financial planning process, with regular and transparent communications.

The president concluded her speech by returning to the theme of equity and highlighting the need to empower NIU students.

“In this turbulent time, NIU’s commitment to equity and inclusion stands out as our greatest asset. Yet, it’s also one of our greatest challenges. Difference makers acknowledge and accept this paradox,” Dr. Freeman said.

“Our university community must model inclusive excellence and civility as we prepare our students to become agents of positive change in our world. And I have every confidence that we are up to the task. Now more than ever, Together Forward.”

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