NIU President Dr. Lisa C. Freeman delivered an encouraging State of the University Address via video to face-to-face and online audiences Tuesday, reflecting on the journey through COVID-19 and the challenges and opportunities that await.
Freeman, who also took live questions after the conclusion of her pre-recorded remarks, stressed the importance of NIU’s mission, vision and values in moving forward toward “a commitment to equity and diversity that is deep, strategic and sustainable.”
“At this very time last November, we were eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic and two weeks past an emotional election season,” Freeman said.
“The vast majority of our classes, students and employees were remote. We were preparing to launch a new COVID-19 surveillance testing program and hopeful that the FDA would soon authorize a vaccine for emergency usage. We missed being together in person,” she added. “Since then, we’ve been building a community of belonging as we reunite.”
Reuniting has taken the shape of in-person commencement ceremonies for the graduates of 2020 and 2021, residence halls “full of new life,” 70% of classes being delivered face-to-face, a 12% jump in new first-year students and a still-climbing vaccination rate on campus of almost 90%.
“Our Huskies are once again in the lab, on stage, in the field and more. This is exceptional progress, and we’ve been able to do it because of Huskies who have taken their responsibilities seriously to protect our pack,” the president said. “Huskies who never took their focus off student success; Huskies who adapted to new ways of teaching, learning and working; Huskies who embraced our mission, vision and values; and Huskies who pitched in – in any way they could. I am profoundly grateful and proud of our caring and committed community.”
She simultaneously acknowledged the toll of the past 20 months while expressing her optimism.
“Morale has been hit, hard. Exhaustion feels a like a permanent state than a passing feeling, and I’m certain we’re all wondering when and if an end will be in sight,” she said. “I believe there will be – and together we will continue to help one another navigate the ebbs and flows until our new normal stabilizes.”
Evidence of the need is available from the NIU Center for Student Assistance, which since April 2020 has helped to connect more than 6,000 Huskies to the Student Emergency Fund for $5.7 million in direct aid for costs related to housing, meals, transportation and technology.
Assurance has come from observations of grace, kindness, flexibility and mutual respect.
COVID-19 also “has underscored our need to be more comfortable with uncertainty, more nimble and more open to change so that we can be in the best position to manage new challenges and new opportunities,” she added. “We need to change the processes and practices used to support our mission, vision and values in order to stay true to the things that make us NIU.”
President Freeman announced that she will today present the NIU Board of Trustees with an ambitious set of university goals that commit to curiosity, creativity, equity and inclusion, and that require innovation, entrepreneurship and financial discipline.
“We want to shape a growth trajectory that reflects additional student success, expanded research impact and enhanced community engagement,” she said. “Owning our destiny requires that we take new, more-transformative approaches, champion change, take risks, invest and evaluate our progress.”
Her request for approval is part of NIU shared governance model, which recently contributed to national recognition on the roster of “Great Colleges to Work For.”
It’s shared leadership that propelled the Remote Working/Flexible Scheduling Task Force. Several of its recommendations are being implemented “to expand work-from-home options to be more modern and inclusive,” she said. “Our employees have shown that flexibility can fuel productivity.”
Likewise, shared leadership will drive collaboration on the next Strategic Enrollment Management Plan.
The current blueprint, launched in 2019, has made an NIU degree “even more accessible, equitable and affordable” through initiatives such as the shift to test-free admissions and the implementation of scholarship programs including Huskie Pledge and Rockford Promise.
This fall’s first-year Huskies, 57% of whom are first-generation college students, represent the most diverse incoming class in NIU history. Boasting an average high school GPA of 3.34, 70% of them received merit scholarships.
Their presence buoys NIU’s mission.
“Diversity is a dimension of our excellence, and equity is a driving force and necessary condition for achieve excellence,” Freeman said. “Each Huskie deserves to be seen, heard, valued and welcome, and while we are one community, what we each need to be successful is different.”
Meanwhile, she added, “we are proud of this new class and our continuing students. Our commitment to their futures requires that the entire university purposefully come together to help them persist to graduation. And our need to do so is greater than ever. COVID-19 has proved to be an unrelenting obstacle in our efforts”
Personal outreach is underway to students who left the university during the pandemic. That includes “working with them on their specific challenges” and “connecting them directly to resources, including federal funding and NIU’s Student Emergency Fund grants.”
“Our aim,” the president said, “is to bring back as many 2020 first-year students as possible who did not enroll for this fall so that they may pursue their dreams.”
Because the dreams of college degrees typically culminate in employment, NIU also is working to help students who “face post-graduation equity gaps when entering the job market.”
Assisting the university in this effort is Braven, a non-profit organization that partners with universities “looking to enhance the earning power of promising students from underserved communities. They do this by providing them with the same support and opportunities available to peers from more-affluent starting points.”
First-generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds and students of color all will gain “the skills, confidence, experience and networks necessary to transition from college to strong first jobs and thrive in 21st century workplaces,” Freeman said.
Such outcomes result from NIU employees “who make it all happen;” from the engagement and support of generous donors and alumni; from the NIU Foundation that “continues to tirelessly advocate for our students and university;” and from the students themselves who “inspire us.”
The president closed with a promise – and a challenge.
“I want you to know that NIU will move forward driven by bold ambitions, exciting priorities and an unwavering commitment to excellence,” Freeman said. “Please continue your commitment to collaboration, push your comfort zones related to change and respect for different perspectives and, most importantly, commit to upholding our Huskie values.”