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Award honors NIU as a top college for diversity

September 20, 2021

Among a group of universities leading the charge for diversity, equity and inclusion, NIU has earned national recognition.

The university received the 2021 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine, the oldest and largest diversity-focused publication in higher education. The national honor recognizes colleges and universities that demonstrate an outstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion.

NIU will be featured among the award’s 101 recipients in the November 2021 issue of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.

The accolade recognizes NIU’s campus-wide efforts to create an environment that celebrates diversity in all its forms.

“At NIU, we know that the differences, along with the commonalities, of all who live, study and work here, shape our Huskie family in so many meaningful ways,” NIU President Lisa Freeman said. “Our focus is to create an inclusive university experience where all feel that they truly belong and can be successful.  We’re honored to be recognized for the progress we’re making.”

NIU’s Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Vernese Edghill-Walden.

In 2015 as the university’s then executive vice president and provost, President Freeman spearheaded efforts to centralize equity and inclusion at NIU with the appointment of the university’s first Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Vernese Edghill-Walden, and the creation of the Office of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Equity-minded and inclusive practices were embedded in NIU’s Strategic Enrollment Management Plan and are central to the university’s mission, vision and values.

“We have recognized for a long time that talent is universal, whereas opportunity is not,” said Edghill-Walden, chief diversity officer and vice president for Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.Validation from INSIGHT Into Diversity affirms our commitment to developing inclusive and equitable practices and is helpful as we share our successes and continue to create equity-minded practices and build an inclusive community.

“This award means that we are making meaningful and transformational changes and that with persistence and courage we will continue this important work. NIU’s mission, vision, and values are about equity, respect, building a better society, being accountable, and being strengthened by diversity. Creating a just and equitable campus community is a 24/7 commitment and responsibility, not just when classes are in session.”

Open to all colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada, the HEED Award measures an institution’s level of achievement and intensity of commitment in regard to broadening diversity and inclusion on campus through initiatives, programs and outreach efforts.

“We take a detailed approach to reviewing each application in deciding who will be named a HEED Award recipient. Our standards are high, and we look for institutions where diversity and inclusion are woven into the work being done every day across their campus,” said Lenore Pearlstein, publisher of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.

The application process was comprehensive and rigorous, involving questions relating to the recruitment and retention of students and employees — and best practices for both — continued leadership support for diversity, and other aspects of campus diversity and inclusion.

It took a campus-wide effort to both apply for and win the award, university leaders say.

“The faculty, staff and students at Northern Illinois University are committed to talking the talk and walking the walk,” said Tamara Boston, who spearheaded the application process as project coordinator for Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “We recognize that actions speak louder than words, and the work demonstrated in the application for the award speaks volumes.”

The university has made it a priority to remove barriers to a high quality education for students from all walks of life, advance the upward mobility of students, improve retention, close equity gaps in degree attainment and promote timely degree completion, said Beth Ingram, executive vice president and provost.

NIU’s incoming class freshmen class is the most diverse in university history.

“At NIU, we’re committed to creating an academic culture that ensures equitable access, opportunity and outcomes for all of our students,” Ingram said.

“We’re doing the hard work necessary to address systemic inequities and foster a more inclusive campus culture, knowing that achieving some goals and outcomes will require sustained, long-term effort, while other actions can lead to rapid, positive change. NIU faculty, staff and students are working to create and sustain a university community where every Huskie feels valued and has the opportunity to thrive.”

These efforts are reflected in positive enrollment trends this fall. On the heels of the university’s new test-free admission and merit scholarship process, NIU’s incoming freshmen class is the most diverse in university history. Students of color represent 70% of freshmen.

Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives stretch far beyond recruitment. They’re widespread at NIU, involving everything from the university’s student organizations, Academic Diversity Programs and Centers and  Cultural Resource Centers to the Faculty Senate and presidential commissions.

The university also offers expansive training, events and numerous programs through Social Justice Education, Prevention Education and Outreach, Undocumented Student Support and the Diversity and Cultural Resource Centers.