State of the University Addresses

State of the University Address

Dr. John G. Peters
October 12, 2000

Thank you, Provost Waldeland … and thank you, members of the Northern Illinois University community.

I am honored to be here, and humbled by your kind remarks and good wishes. Thank you, Enso quartet … Barbara and I are thrilled with the excellence in our NIU performing arts, and I'm reminded of that again this afternoon … thank you.

I'm particularly pleased to see our good friends Representative Dave Wirsing and Senator Brad Burzynski in the audience today … Dave and Brad, will you please stand? Thank you for all you do to support NIU in Springfield.

I'm also honored to see two members of NIU's Board of Trustees here today - trustees Myron Siegel and James Barr -- Myron and James?

We are extremely fortunate to have a governing board whose members act as ambassadors for the university and who respect the shared governance process and who work constantly to improve NIU.

I also see one of my ten predecessors in the audience … Dr. William Monat, will you on behalf of all former NIU presidents, stand and be recognized for your contributions to the NIU that we celebrate here today?

Finally, I'm pleased to see a number of students in the audience … I'm honored that you came, and I'll bet you're really hoping I say something interesting … I'll try not to disappoint you, and thank you for coming.

I became president of NIU just over four months ago, and I've spent the intervening time on an accelerated learning curve. Much of what I've learned about Northern has confirmed what I knew about the university before I came here: This institution enjoys a strong reputation in a number of key areas. In fact, I don't know whether many members of the NIU family really appreciate just how highly regarded this university is across the nation.

There have been surprises as well.

I've learned a good deal over the last few months about the challenges of running a suburban/rural institution serving traditional/ nontraditional, residential/commuting students, from any of four locations. It is staggering to me to realize that 8 million people live in the metropolitan area surrounding Chicago, and that NIU is the only public university located in the greater northern Illinois region.

I've been looking for another example of an institution similar to NIU, and I haven't found a close fit yet. We are wonderfully unique, with even more strengths than I realized when I first arrived here.

In many respects, NIU may be the prototype for the successful public university of the future - balancing competing roles, serving a diverse student body, discovering new knowledge and applying that knowledge in ways that directly improve quality of life, assisting communities with economic development and preparing tomorrow's leaders through a combination of any and all of the above.

I am tremendously impressed with NIU's integration of teaching, research and artistry and public service throughout the curriculum and in its outreach programs.

And I acknowledge my predecessor, John La Tourette, for having had the foresight to - among other things - establish regional sites at Rockford, Hoffman Estates and Naperville. Our physical presence in the region plays a key part in my vision for the NIU of 2010, 2020 and beyond.

It is an exciting time to be at Northern Illinois University. We've just received our largest-ever private gift -- $20 million from alumnus Dennis Barsema and his wife, Stacey, for a new College of Business building.

We learned a few weeks ago that we have been accepted into the nation's most prestigious public higher education association - the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges or NASULGC. Only about five percent of all American universities belong to NASULGC. As a long-time participant in NASULGC activities, I was concerned that Northern was not a member. Clearly, our mission, size, comprehensive role and quality of programs qualified us for membership. I phoned my friend Peter McGrath, the Executive Director of NASULGC, to discuss the issue. He agreed with my view, took the issue to his Board of Directors, and had no trouble making the case for NIU.

Another major change in our institutional status occurred this semester with the news that NIU is now listed at the top of the Carnegie Foundation rankings for research institutions. Fewer than five percent of U.S. institutions qualify for that designation.

Friends and colleagues, as an introduction for a new president, I must say it doesn't get better than this.

NIU has arrived.

NIU has always enjoyed a strong reputation nationally for the academic strength of its faculty and programs. Many of our fine and performing arts programs, such as jazz and theater, are well regarded. Our Public Administration program routinely ranks in the top ten nationally. Our science and technology faculty with their joint efforts with the Fermi and Argonne National laboratories and the recent approval of our Ph.D. in physics have raised the NIU profile to the level where I am pleased to announce today that I have been informed that the Board of Directors of the University Research Association, which is a consortium of many of the most prestigious public and private research universities in the country, has voted unanimously to elevate NIU to full membership.


We have reached a higher plateau in terms of our reputation, and our efforts to connect with key components in American higher education have been successful . . . and now the bar has been raised. Along with an increase in status come raised aspirations and expectations for our institution. My message for you today is that we must seize the moment and take advantage of the momentum. In my judgment as president, and from my vantage point as having been involved with two large flagship universities, NIU is an institution of national prominence having a significant impact on the Chicago region and greater northern Illinois area, and it's time to tell our story with more vigor and clarity than we have before.

I have spent my first months here on a "listening tour," asking everyone I meet to tell me of their dreams and aspirations for NIU. I've driven literally thousands of miles throughout this region, and it seems like I've met almost as many people. I've talked with students, faculty and staff. I've visited state legislators, mayors, governors and federal officials. I have listened to farmers in coffee shops in rural areas, and I have had conversations with business and corporate leaders in Chicago and the western suburbs. I have visited with many of the Illinois Congressional Delegation in Washington-and I have discussed NIU with the heads of major higher education associations and with many of my fellow university presidents. I've consulted with members of our governing board, and with our state coordinating body, the IBHE.

All the ideas and all the points of view offered me over the past four months have helped me begin to shape a vision for Northern Illinois University as we enter the digital age.

I've also been reading and working my way through stacks of important NIU reports, memoranda, and proposals, so I know something about the campaign you mounted to bring a law school to Northern, and I know how much effort went into justifying a college of engineering.

I have seen the proposals you wrote and rewrote and rewrote again to get Ph.D. programs in Biological Sciences, Mathematical Sciences and most recently in Physics, and I have read the arguments you developed to maintain your doctoral programs in the face of a strong state-level effort to eliminate several of them.

I have also looked at the planning documents and analyses we developed to locate, finance, and build our three wonderful off-campus facilities. None of these initiatives came easily; each succeeded in the face of bureaucratic inertia and political pressures from competing institutions. But we prevailed.

NIU, it seems to me, has been on a 25-year journey to become the institution it needed to be to fulfill the mission it has always had: to be the public university serving northern Illinois.

I have boundless admiration for the faculty and staff who have worked to realize that mission, and for the leadership which has kept that goal in sight.

Now, I am here to tell you that we have arrived. Our challenge is to live up to our success.

Three guiding principles inform my vision (which is really your vision) for NIU:

First: NIU is and shall remain a student-focused, learning-centered university.

Second: an appreciation for and cultivation of true, interactive diversity is a core value here.

And third: having a focused vision means making critical choices and setting priorities. A vision is not a vision unless it says yes to some ideas and no to others.

This turning of the page with both a new president and a soon-to-be new provost gives NIU a unique opportunity to address basic issues - both internal and external - on both fronts at the same time.

One vision for NIU must begin with our students. We need to know who they are and what they desire from their collegiate experience, and what they will need to be effective learners and citizens. We need to have a clearer picture today of what our student body will look like in ten years.

And while I certainly mean that we need to study demographics, I also mean that we must take a more active role to influence the make-up of our student body. We need to have a campus dialogue about enrollment. Therefore, in the coming year and under the leadership of the provost, I ask the campus community to address the following issues:

First: is NIU attracting and admitting students who are academically prepared to succeed and to take advantage of the comprehensive array of programs offered at NIU? We need to encourage high school students to take a more rigorous and academically challenging high school curriculum, since we now know that a rigorous high school curriculum is the best predictor of success at the university. By this I do not mean to suggest that NIU will become a more selective or "elitist" institution. We will not abandon our traditional mission to provide an opportunity for students from disadvantaged backgrounds; at the same time, we are going to demand more of our students.

We have raised the bar … with the raising of the bar we must raise our aspirations and our expectations.

Second: What is the optimal size for our student body? Given current resources - both financial and human - what should our numbers look like, and how should we sustain them?

Third: How can we attract a few more out-of-state and international students? We are a national university, yet we have one of the lowest out-of-state student numbers in the country. This, too, is a diversity issue: a more diverse mix of student backgrounds improves the educational experience for everyone.

Fourth: Providing enhanced learning opportunities for tomorrow's undergraduates should be a top priority for NIU. Therefore, I want to double the number of honors students, provide new opportunities for those already here, and consider development of a residential honors college.

In this context, I would also challenge our next provost and his or her enrollment management team to find ways of attracting transfer students to our honors program as well. Since half of all our students begin their college experience elsewhere, we must step up all of our work with community colleges - recruiting, articulation and advising.

I will be asking the next provost to appoint an enrollment manager to carefully analyze all these issues and to seek input from all of our constituents, but particularly from our faculty.

Interim Provost Waldeland and her staff have done an excellent job setting the stage for this next step. I would expect the next provost to follow Dr. Waldeland's lead by fully involving faculty in this most important discussion.

I have read and re-read the Provost's Report on the Undergraduate Experience, and I am impressed by the extent to which that report emphasizes the need for enhanced advising services at all stages of the student experience.

As I mentioned before, we know that the best predictor of college success is whether a student took challenging courses in high school. We need to work with high school counselors to help them encourage students to take honors courses and advanced placement classes whenever they can.

And once students are here, they need help making good choices. I have been impressed with retention efforts to date, and I'd like to see us enhance those efforts in the coming year. Programs like University 101 and Peer Mentoring are excellent programs and should be enhanced (with special attention given to students in the "undeclared" major status). Increased advising, retention and graduation rates are high on my list of priorities, and I will see that they receive the immediate attention of our new provost.

We need to continue creating new learning environments for our students. The new Fine Arts House living-learning unit that we opened earlier this month in Neptune Hall is an example …

When students are immersed in the excitement of their fields of study, they are far more likely to persist and excel, and far more likely to enjoy their overall experience at NIU as a result.

Another tremendous NIU attribute I want to build on is our Cooperative Education and internship program. In my vision for NIU, we will enlarge those efforts and begin to emphasize "service learning," in which students combine classroom work with field experience in areas that directly benefit their communities and region.

We also need to increase our involvement in the on-line delivery of courses. While I do not advocate Internet courses for their own sake, I believe that we lag behind many of our competitors in offering courses and programs on-line. There are some students for whom it will be the only way that they can have access to what this university has to offer.

And finally with respect to our students, I am appointing an ad hoc committee on student leadership and campus life, and I've asked my assistant, Nolan Davis, to chair that group. The committee is being asked to take a broad look at what it is like to be a student at Northern Illinois University, and to ensure that we have systems in place that encourage all students to take full advantage of the rich range of programming at their disposal. I'm also asking that group to look at how we can foster more interaction among and between different groups. We need to celebrate diversity, but we also need to move to a new level of unity. We need a warm and welcoming climate here so that people from varying backgrounds can feel safe and productive and satisfied that they are being evaluated on the quality of their work.

I want to say a few words about athletics. Intercollegiate athletic teams can bring attention that helps attract top students and increases participation of alumni and donors. As with all of our programs at Northern, we are raising the bar for athletics. We must have successful, competitive programs here, and I believe we are on our way.

Ours is a program with high integrity. Over the past four years, we have been ranked in the top ten nationally for number of Academic All-Americans competing for NIU. The graduation rate of our student-athletes consistently exceeds that of the overall student population. All in all, athletics can play a major role for us in "claiming" the northern Illinois region.

The positive exposure of successful teams, made up largely of athletes recruited from within the region, is critical in building and sustaining student and alumni interest in NIU. And with the addition in two years of the exciting new NIU Convocation Center, our athletics program will for the first time be on more equal footing with peer institutions in terms of facilities.

The Convocation Center is just one of the exciting new facilities coming on line in the next few years on our campus. Overall, I am tremendously impressed with our progress in developing new facilities.

These buildings go a long way in helping us ensure the quality of programs and services offered to our students.

The amount of new building activity that has taken place here over the last ten years is staggering, but it will pale in comparison with some of the newest additions, either just finished or coming on line in the next two years. Our recreation facilities are top-notch now, and they will be greatly augmented by the Evans Field House renovation.

As that building takes on new life as an indoor recreation facility, our new Convocation Center will be well on its way to becoming the cultural and entertainment center of our campus and the DeKalb-Sycamore area and beyond.

About the same time, Barsema Hall, our new, 130,000 square foot, state-of-the-art College of Business building will be opening; our new state-of-the-art Child Care Center, which opened this fall, will be serving hundreds of student parents; and Altgeld Hall will have been returned to its original design and centrality to the campus.

Our west campus development, anchored by the Convocation Center, will have at least one additional new building there by 2002 - the federally-funded Center for the Study of Family Violence and Sexual Assault building will be the first of many new ventures on NIU's far west side.

State-funded projects like the renovation of the Stevens building will begin to come on line within the next few years, and heavily-used classroom buildings such as DuSable Hall will continue to get special attention, both in terms of basic improvements and technology upgrades.

Before I leave the subject of facilities, I'd like to say that I am very impressed with the beauty of our campus, and with its potential for future development. I have stood in the Skyroom atop Holmes Student Center and tried to envision what this campus might look like in 20 years …

We have a great opportunity to develop state-of-the-art facilities and programs because of the foresight and support of our Board of Trustees in acquiring the more than 200 acres on the west campus. But what is most important about the west campus and our future is that NIU has broad development rights and flexibility to enter into partnerships and collaborations with both governmental and non-governmental agents.

I want our campus to be educationally and culturally invigorating, warm and welcoming to the top students, faculty and staff we seek to attract.

Of course, the most important thing we can offer our students is an excellent faculty. I have been extremely impressed with the quality of our faculty and the national reputations many enjoy, but also with their commitment to teach, pursue research and perform public service activities.

It is true that there is no university without faculty, but I believe that there can be no great university without great faculty. Therefore, I pledge to you that I will always work to maintain and strengthen our faculty and staff and to ensure that faculty and staff salaries are as competitive as we can possibly make them, and that they are commensurate with the talents and abilities of each individual.

We are asking a tremendous amount of our faculty these days: we ask them not only to be expert in their academic disciplines, but also to master new technologies, and to develop new teaching techniques. We call on our faculty to develop rich new programs at our regional sites. We ask them to create learning opportunities that simultaneously provide service and promote economic development in our communities and our region. And when they respond to these challenges with enthusiasm, we must reward that. Therefore, let me reiterate that faculty and staff salaries will always be my top priority.

But we have said the bar has been raised. This translates to every aspect of our university. In our vision for NIU, we are raising the bar for everyone. Students must be serious about their academic work, and they need to be strongly encouraged to take advantage of all the opportunities they have here.

Faculty must seize the moment by getting involved in service learning, embracing new technologies, and realizing that the kind of alumni relations that result in future private support begin when those alumni are our students.

Dennis Barsema, the alumnus I mentioned earlier who has donated $20 million for a new College of Business, is a perfect example. Dennis had a wonderful experience here at NIU, and he remembers with great fondness those faculty who made a difference in his life.

There is no greater role that faculty can play in fundraising than to give our future alumni the best possible experience while they are here as students.

We're all in the business of educating and thereby serving students, and in turn creating loyal alumni. We are also all in the business of promoting NIU to the external world. I strongly encourage all of you to get involved and stay involved in professional organizations. Make presentations there about "best practices" pioneered at NIU. We all must take on the responsibility to speak highly of Northern when the opportunity presents itself, for we all move in related spheres of influence.

This year we've set another record for success in competition for research funding.

I'm very pleased with the quality of research we have underway at NIU, and I intend to focus renewed attention on this aspect of our mission in the year ahead. We would not have been admitted to NASULGC, nor would we have obtained our top Carnegie ranking without the quality and quantity of research and artistry we are doing here.

My vision for NIU calls for us to selectively expand our research and graduate programs in those areas where we clearly have a competitive advantage. I will be asking our new provost to do a top-to-bottom review of all our graduate programs, to give us a clear picture of the relative stature of our research and artistic efforts. We then need to identify and invest in three-to-five interdisciplinary areas of excellence that will help define NIU to the external world. My goal for our research program is to double the current level of external funding in five years, from today's approximately 30 million per year to 60 million by 2004.

When I first came to NIU, I said that I believed Northern could become the nation's premier regional public university. I still believe that. For one thing, I can't think of another university that has made such concrete strides toward serving such a large and geographically diverse region as the one stretching from Chicago to the Mississippi. With NIU-Rockford, NIU-Hoffman Estates and NIU-Naperville, we have created educational facilities at which needed NIU programming and services can ultimately be developed.

Moreover, we are major participants in a consortium of universities in Lake County, and we have many programs and unique facilities, such as the Lorado-Taft education facility in Oregon, Illinois. We are now physically located where our constituents live - and that is no small victory in our efforts to claim the region whose name we bear. Now that we are recognized as a national university, we have a special responsibility to carry every aspect of our mission into that region.

However, we need a coherent plan, and we need new structures and processes in place to support the integration and the kind of change that will be needed to fully realize this vision. To that end, I am exploring several options to elevate and bring coherence to our regional presence, and I plan to announce those changes within the next several months. Our goal must be to fully integrate our academic research and service programs with our outreach activities in the region.

The expectation is there: people in our region want value for their educational dollar, and they want the quality connected to the NIU "brand."

Coincidentally, later this week on ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, see how NIU is featured in a story on the educational value that middle- and upper-middle class Americans are finding at public universities. Reporter Carole Simpson was here last week following an NIU freshman from Naperville. He chose NIU for the quality of our programs; his parents are happy with the value they believe they found here.) People do seek - and find - value for their educational dollar at NIU.

At the same time, communities in our region have countless needs for which they seek or would like to seek NIU faculty and staff expertise.

Our citizens and our policymakers rightly expect NIU to bring its expertise to bear on the challenges that face this growing and amazingly complex region.

We must seize the moment and make our regional sites part of a regional presence that fulfills our mission. Information technology is at the heart of this linkage … it is what will bind this campus to our other sites and to the region and beyond.

And our national stature will grow if we are able to live up to this claim on our region. Northern Illinois is the fastest growing and most economically and culturally vibrant area in the country. Whenever citizens of our region think about higher education, they should automatically turn to NIU first.

The other major claim we have to our region is, of course, our alumni. We have more than 180,000 alumni of record, and about three-quarters of them live and work in the Chicagoland area. In them, we have a mighty, and relatively untapped, source of support within easy driving distance of our main campus and our regional sites.

We need to do more to inject pride, stay in contact with and mobilize our alumni. Alumni Association President Bob Fioretti and I have had several very productive talks on this subject, and I believe with Bob's leadership, we are going to see an increase in alumni participation at all levels. We must continue our efforts to communicate with and engage our alumni as lifelong learners, volunteers and donors.

As our vision develops and our direction and priorities are set, we will also have to identify resources needed to address those priorities. Today, I am announcing that we have begun our plans for NIU's first major fundraising campaign. An important element in this planning process with the NIU Foundation will be setting the highest possible overall campaign fundraising goal, which must be set only after a careful analysis. I look forward to working with the NIU Foundation, the Alumni Association, faculty, staff, students and board members to develop a compelling case for such a campaign.

The vision requires resources. And whether we are approaching federal officials for funds or successful graduates for donations or legislators in Springfield for a larger appropriation, we must have a compelling case. We must be able to show that a dollar invested in NIU reaps returns many times over in the accomplishments of our graduates … in new knowledge applied to real-world problems … and in outreach and economic development in communities throughout our region.

This vision and these expectations for our institution are very ambitious. I believe that we are at a critical juncture in the history of this university, and that we have a very narrow window of time in which to take advantage of the progress NIU has made over the past 25 years. Many of the aspirations I've outlined here today will be carried out by others: the provost, the vice presidents, the deans, the faculty and the staff in all of the offices and programs which make NIU the institution it is. My role is to represent and promote the institution, to articulate its dreams, and to find new resources to carry out its mission. I want to be worthy of that trust, and to embody the values of this university and all that it stands for.

We are an institution on the rise, we care about our people, we value hard work, we seek excellence in all endeavors, and we strive for unity in our diversity. These are the NIU values I have come to understand. I believe if we do what I have outlined here today, we will in a decade or less become a university of first choice for undergraduate and graduate students, a university of first choice for excellent faculty, and a university of first choice for staff. We will be considered a major asset to the state, corporations, and developers in the region and to individuals who choose to work or study at NIU.

As we enter the next phase of our development, I welcome a dialogue with you. I want to hear your ideas and your dreams. At the same time, I want to be certain that my focus is clear and my timeframe for change is not too long. Therefore over the next several months I will be holding brown bag lunches and open meetings to discuss these ideas and hear from the university community.

Together, we must develop a clear purpose and we must move quickly to achieve that purpose.

On October 1, 1895, not far from this very place where we are gathered today, then governor John Peter Altgeld laid the cornerstone for the Castle on the Hill, the building we know today as Altgeld Hall. In his speech, Governor Altgeld could well be talking to those of us who, more than a century later, are privileged to follow in the footsteps of the university's founders. This is what he said: "Now we must go ahead, there is no retreat. The same energy, the same industry, the same high purpose which distinguished our people in the past must guide us in the future." Let us leave with those words, uttered more than a century ago, in our hearts and at the core of all we do for Northern Illinois University.

To all of you who have greeted me and Barbara so warmly, advised me so candidly and listened so attentively today, I thank you.