Inauguration Address - NIU - Office of the President

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DeKalb, IL 60115


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NIU President Douglas D. Baker
Prepared Remarks for Inauguration Address
November 13, 2013

Good afternoon and thank you all for being part of this great day.

I want to start with a quote:

Today, at NIU, we find ourselves in a position where we can assume leadership in forging what I shall call the New University.  If the vision I am sharing with you today comes about, I believe the New University will once again claim the prideful allegiance of its faculty, students and alumni, but this pride will be based not on nostalgia, sentiment and football victories, but on continuing participation in the life of the mind.

These words were spoken by Rhoten Smith, NIU's 6th President, at his inauguration 45 years ago. It was a very different time. NIU was dealing with peak enrollments fueled by the Vietnam War, and with social and political unrest across our nation. Dr. Smith recognized that NIU was at a turning point, and could "assume leadership in forging the New University" by achieving two main goals - "Excellence and Opportunity."

NIU is once again at a turning point.  In fact, it is a critical time for higher education in this country.  The world around us has changed much more rapidly and decisively than it has within our halls.  As a result, we have been on a path of declining funding, declining enrollments, and declining job prospects for our graduates - a trend that is clearly unsustainable. 

Yet, we see workplaces that are thriving because they are engaged in transformational change. They have embraced a rapidly evolving global economy that rewards those who think beyond traditional boundaries.

At NIU, we have a heritage, we have a place, and we have a wealth of dedicated people with the capacity to ratchet up our connectivity to this changing world. In so doing, we can set a new example for shaping graduates who will live fulfilling lives and provide leadership in our communities and throughout the world. 

We must now “forge the New University” of the 21st century. We owe it to our students today, and to their grandchildren tomorrow, so that they, too, will have the opportunity to be part of our Huskie family.

A solid foundation

It’s a tremendous honor to be entrusted with the responsibility to guide such an effort, to lead this venerable institution with nearly 120 years of history. I am thrilled, humbled and excited to stand before you today as Northern Illinois University’s 12th president.

I would like to take a moment to express my gratitude to:           

  • The board of trustees . . . for selecting me.
  • To my predecessor, John Peters . . . for his advice and counsel.
  • To the campus community . . . for the warm welcome you extended to my wife, Dana, and to me.
  • To the students of this university . . . for making me excited for the job ahead and reinforcing for me why we are here.
  • To the alumni . . .  for their support, encouragement and Huskie pride.
  • And to all the people who have put together and participated in this program, including our emcee, Pam Smith, a Board of Trustees Professor of Accountancy, who is a recognized national expert on integrating ethics into the classroom.

NIU is known for its leadership, including internationally in such diverse areas as polar research, the Arts and Southeast Asian Studies.

We are known nationally for our top-ranked programs in accountancy, business ethics, public administration and other disciplines. In fact, U.S. News and World Report says we are one of the Top 100 National Public Universities.

Oh, and we also happen to have a football program ranked among the nation’s top 15. It also has graduation rate of 85 percent, the third highest among the top 25 ranked teams. In fact, that 85 percent rate applies across all of our varsity athletic programs.  We do it the right way.

We’re also known for providing affordable excellence. places us in the top one-third of universities for return on investment.

And I’m proud to announce that, just yesterday, NIU won the inaugural “Place” award from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities for “excelling in community, social, and cultural development work.” This recognizes our work in broadband development, our Center for P-20 education and our engagement activities in Rockford. Thanks and congratulations to Anne Kaplan and Lisa Freeman.

These are things in which we can take pride. They represent the high-quality fabric of our institution. And it is my goal to continue and build upon these successes.

Also filling me with confidence for the future are the personal stories that you have heard today.

  • Stories of students overcoming obstacles.
  • Stories of faculty going to extraordinary lengths to care for students.
  • Stories of alumni who are eager to come back to campus and share their successes.

More than rankings or statistics, these people speak to our core focus, which is Student Career Success.

Student Career Success

Student Career Success -- you have probably heard me use that phrase. This is the focus of the “new university” for the new millennium.

Preparing students for career success provides them with a deep and meaningful body of knowledge and skills to help them succeed. It is more than vocational education … rather it builds creativity, communication and critical-thinking skills that allow students to thrive not only in the workplace but also in life. Allison Delgado, for example, who spoke in an earlier video, actually turned down a great job opportunity in the suburbs because she recognized an extraordinary life opportunity, working for the Peace Corps with young people in Uganda.

A university focused on student career success has caring faculty and staff providing rich, transformational learning experiences. We saw this in the video earlier, faculty such as:

  • Tracy Nunnally, who literally teaches students to fly – while instilling in them lessons about teamwork and leadership;
  • David Bridgett, who has provided an amazing 21,000 hours of engaged learning opportunities for our students;
  • And Leslie Sassone, who went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that elementary education student ELISA LOPEZ, who spoke earlier, had what she needed to succeed and felt at home when she arrived here at NIU.

Expanded Vision of Student Career Success

These stories speak to our existing focus on student career success. The future NIU that I envision, and I think and hope that we all picture, will provide these life-altering experiences to every student who strives to succeed.

My vision for the New University is this:

  • A campus filled with students, individually and collectively, connected to a support system that includes more than 4,000 NIU employees, thousands of public and private organizations in the region (and beyond) and our 225,000 alumni.
  • It will be an institution where more and more students conduct research and artistic activity with faculty mentors. We see this already happening with the launch of programs such as Research Rookies or with the example of four students and a faculty member who played as a jazz quintet and opened for a festival in China last month attended by 200,000 people. Being a major research and artistic institution is one of our key competitive edges. Research and artistic activity develop new intellectual property, and creative ideas from these endeavors form the basis for the next generation of entrepreneurship.
  • Successful alumni will also play a more prominent role in the future. We need to tap into all the Bill Weinmans of this world. Remember, he is the alumnus featured in an earlier video who returns from Hollywood as often as he can to motivate and inspire film students. Over the last few months I have met many, many alums who also want to come back and help current students succeed.

Toward that end, we know students thrive when they have mentors to guide them. So let’s offer a mentor to every student enrolled at NIU; that’s right, every student enrolled at NIU –from peer mentors for freshmen to alumni mentors for sophomores, juniors, seniors and graduate students. This will require galvanizing our alumni base. It is 225,000 men and women strong and is a tremendous competitive advantage for our students and university.

  • We also need to galvanize our community right here at home. I’ve been talking to DeKalb Mayor John Rey and Sycamore Mayor Ken Mundy about ideas that will help us attract and retain students, faculty and staff. I think we share a vision of the greater NIU community as one that offers a premier living-learning environment. This includes a “cool college town” atmosphere. I am working with the mayors and other community leaders to make DeKalb one of the best environments for students and all of us to thrive in. We can and will make this happen.
  • Next, research tells us that the number one predictor of student career success isn’t a student’s major or grades. Rather, it comes down to this: Did the student complete an internship, preferably a paid internship, during college?

We need to ensure that every student who seeks an internship will get one.

  • Finally, how will we know that we are successful in this environment?   Well, student career success specifically points to jobs. Our goals should be this: Graduates who so desire will have a job in their area of interest within six months of graduation.  Of course, some may want to go to graduate school, start families, or pursue other interests, but let’s ensure that those who want a job get the one they want.

This is a bold statement and a big challenge, but we are up to it. We have to be.

The First Steps

Those are all noble goals, but getting there is going to require changing the way we do business – including fundamental changes to our infrastructure.

For instance, it is great to say that we want to connect 21,000 students with 225,000 alumni, but the infrastructure to do so does not fully exist. If we are going to commit to such a goal, then we must realign our budget to support important efforts.

Some of that change is already underway. Last month I announced a series of structural changes, including:

  • An overhaul of our budget, finance and institutional research functions to build transparency and focus our resources on our highest priorities. I appointed Nancy Suttenfield as our interim Chief Financial Officer, and charged her with finding ways to clearly link our budgets to the strategic plan to enable its implementation.  Nancy has a long and distinguished career in budget and finance, having served as the CFO at Wake Forrest University, the University of North Carolina, Case Western Reserve and the Smithsonian.
  • I have asked Steve Cunningham to lead the new division of Administration dealing with facilities, human resources and compliance, and to integrate those activities across NIU.
  • I created a new division for International Affairs, headed by Ray Alden. In that role he has already led a team of senior administrators to China for high-level discussions with two new partnering institutions.  23 leaders from those Chinese universities will join us in December to further explore our partnership.

My thanks to Lisa Freeman for taking on the interim Executive Vice President and Provost role and to Lesley Rigg for taking on the interim Vice President for Research role.

  • I moved the management of the Convocation Center and Huskie Stadium to our new Athletics Director Sean Frasier, who has extensive expertise in this area.
  • I shifted the reporting line of our Chief Information Officer to me and expanded that role.
  • I charged Kathy Buettner with leading an enhanced integration of marketing and communications across all of our colleges and administrative units.
  • Similar coordination will be done by Vice President Eric Weldy on recruitment and retention.
  • In fact, I have charged all of the vice presidents with closely coordinating our work across affected areas at NIU, so that we can build our strength on those synergies to help us recruit, retain, and graduate career and life-ready students.

These are important first steps, but they are just the beginning of what needs to be done.

Many more changes – both large and small – will need to be made in order for us to unleash our Huskie potential and ultimately facilitate the end goal: student career success.

Frankly, I cannot do it alone. So, who will make the changes?

The answer is you—the faculty, staff, students and alumni of Northern Illinois University, as well as our local community. I am counting on you.

A Bold Future

Earlier I mentioned our sixth president, Rhoten Smith. His own university education had been interrupted by WWII, when he piloted a B-17 bomber, facing many formidable challenges. He also faced many serious trials as a university president.

In fact, Rhoten famously calmed a rowdy demonstration by joining a student sit-in on the Lincoln Highway bridge. And despite the chaos of his times, NIU flourished.

Among President Smith's legacies during his 4-year tenure:

  • The vision (now realized) of NIU as a comprehensive university with high academic standards and full integration of teaching, research and public service missions.
  • The Rhoten A. Smith scholarships for minority students seeking graduate degrees.
  • And the Deacon Davis CHANCE program—the same program that provided an opportunity to Steffen Canino, the impressive young man you heard from earlier.

Just as in Rhoten Smith's era, this is a chaotic time in higher education. Change is happening rapidly, and we must respond.

Over the last month or so, nearly 800 people -- faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of the university -- took part in a series of meetings we called Bold Futures Workshops.

The sessions were exercises in communication, brainstorming, prioritizing and bridge building. 

We asked participants to ponder what our priorities should be, to visualize ways to solve our biggest challenges.

The goal was not to solve every problem in four hours. Rather, it was to get people to think beyond traditional boundaries; to demonstrate the power of abandoning our silos and the power of building coalitions.

It was an effort to unleash the intellectual might and passion of our Huskie community. Going forward, we must embrace a collaborative culture of change and innovation – all of us, or we will become irrelevant. The charge to the participants was to take those ideas and their passion and go make changes to improve NIU.

Will you make mistakes? Yes. So will I—but I'm trying to keep a high batting average.

The only unacceptable mistake is to accept the status quo.

The good news is, as I pointed out earlier, we have a solid foundation. We are already an outstanding university - but we can, and we must, be even better.

How can we improve our community? How can we make it more sustainable and desirable for prospective students? How can we improve on their educational experiences? How can we assure they are job and life ready? 

I'm confident these answers will come—from all of us. I’m confident, too, that as in the case of Rhoten Smith, one day the future will look back upon us with no small measure of Huskie pride.

Thank you again, for the privilege of being the 12th president of Northern Illinois University. Together, we are going to think beyond traditional boundaries – and accomplish great things.  

Forward Together. Go Huskies!