About John G. Peters

2001 State of the University Address

Dr. John G. Peters
Eleventh President
Northern Illinois University

October 4, 2001
Carl Sandburg Auditorium
Holmes Student Center

Thank you, Sue, and good afternoon, colleagues, friends and students.

It’s truly a pleasure to be here today and to have the opportunity to publicly reflect on my first year as president, my thoughts about the future and my feelings about this great university in its second century of service.

Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge a few people here today who contribute great things to NIU in terms of leadership, partnership and advocacy.

First, I’d like to acknowledge the tremendously important role played by an individual who could not be with us here today – an NIU alumnus who loves this institution and now serves it well as chair of our board of trustees – Manny Sanchez.

I’d also like to acknowledge the power and effectiveness of our system of shared governance here at NIU. That system is embodied by the president of our faculty senate and executive secretary to the University Council, Dr. Sue Willis, and by the presidents of the Operating Staff Council and Supportive Professional Staff Council, Judy Burgess and Jennine Povlsen. Sue, Judy and Jennine, will you please stand.

Finally, I’d like to acknowledge and offer thanks on behalf of the entire NIU community for the steadfast support we enjoy from our local representatives in Springfield. Dave Wirsing and Brad Burzynski, will you please stand and be recognized.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, this is a much more difficult speech to make than at the same time last year. The events of these last few weeks have clouded our future. It is difficult to predict with any degree of certainty where we’ll be three months, six months or a year from now. It is clear, however, that the challenges we face as a nation have very real ramifications for all institutions, especially higher education.

At this time last year, we had a series of very exciting developments that occurred at roughly the same time: Our $20 million gift from Dennis and Stacey Barsema for our new College of Business building; our admittance into NASULGC, the land-grant system, and the Universities Research Association; even our ascendance into the top tier of the Carnegie rankings. All of those advancements have played out over the last 12 months in ways that further our mission and enrich our institution.

This year, we find ourselves no less inspired, yet challenged by the events of the day. An already tenuous economy has been badly shaken by the events of September 11, and the prospects of prolonged U.S. military involvement abroad and implications for internal security completely reorders priorities, both nationally and locally. In this environment, our ongoing need for institutional assessment becomes an even greater imperative.

I have reached that point in my presidency when I feel that I know this institution and its people very well. And even if the events of past weeks did not force us to do so, I believe we are at a place in our university’s history where assessment and focus are the orders of the day.

Many things have impressed me about NIU during my first year here. If there is a single theme to what I have discovered about this university, it is that NIU is a value-driven institution. A commitment to hard work, to the provision of opportunity and to social justice permeates everything we do. This is, I have come to understand, the enduring strength at NIU over our 100 year history. Never have we needed that strength more than now. We need these values to help us understand the struggle in which our nation is now involved. We need to resist appeals to emotion and call upon our ability to think rationally – and to help others think rationally – in the days ahead.

NIU is one of the most diverse public universities in the Midwest. I believe that diversity is a strength, and never more so than in these troubling times. For out of that diversity comes a culture of understanding and appreciation of differences. Out of our diversity comes a sense of unity with all people. I have been very proud to see our campus community, and particularly our students, rally around our core values and reach out to each other in recent weeks.

There were many heroes in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania last month, and there have been many heroes here as well. I am thinking of the instructors and faculty members who took time in their classrooms to stimulate discussion and deepen understanding of the tragedy and its aftermath. I think of the counselors who spent long hours in our residence halls, helping students come to grips with the enormity of what happened and what might lie ahead. I think of the thousands of students and staff who attended prayer vigils, gave blood, and organized discussion groups.

Our university cannot lose its voice on issues of the day. It is critically important for us to be heard, whether the issues involve terrorism, stem cell research or the globalization of our economy. I can think of few other institutions in our society with a heavier burden in times like these. We prepare tomorrow’s leaders, we contribute to the body of knowledge, and we provide direct service to those in need.

As a value-driven university, we are acutely aware of our need to earn the investment of resources in our institution. What I’ve learned about this university over the last 16 months is that we have earned the respect we need to receive those investments.

Over the course of the last three years, we’ve received nearly $22 million from the State of Illinois for new buildings and building improvements. So today I want to publicly thank our governor and our state legislature for their investment in our campus and its students.

For anyone who has walked through our campus recently, it is hard to escape the impression of traveling through a large construction zone. Through the largess of the state, the federal government and private donors, we are seeing massive improvements to the physical face of our campus.

This time next year, we will be holding large events in the Convocation Center. (And, I might add, we will have an additional 3,000 parking spaces on the west campus when that project is completed.)

Students will be studying and professors working in beautiful new Barsema Hall.

Altgeld Hall will be nearing completion and plans progressing to move the Art Museum and the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center into that renovated facility.

The Founders Library build-out will be complete, providing finished basement space and dramatically increased shelving space.

The new Family Violence Center will be completed on our west campus.

Our storm water management system will be complete, with both east and west lagoon areas totally restored and functional.

The renovation of DuSable Hall will be complete, providing students with expanded entrance and lounge space. And hopefully, this time next year, we will be able to begin the planning process for renovation of the Stevens Building.

These projects, taken individually, are important; these projects, taken together, amount to a massive transformation of our campus landscape.

Again, I think it is very important to point out that each of these projects represents a major vote of confidence in our institution from external sources.

We’ve received substantial increases in personnel dollars as well. I have said, and will continue to say, that improving salaries at NIU is my number one priority. Certain specific groups have needed special attention: We have made progress on clerical salaries in recent years, and we have identified other groups with special compensation issues. Specifically, it has been my observation that the contributions of our non-tenured instructors deserve more recognition and reward, and I have made it a priority to work on that this past year.

Obtaining new resources for our institution is always at the top of the priority list for any university president. For the most part, that simply means telling the NIU story, over and over, to the right people.

I had the pleasure this past February of joining a group of about 50 faculty, staff and students on a trip to our state capital for our semi-annual NIU Day in Springfield. What I learned by visiting a very large number of legislators that day, many of whom we do not ordinarily interact with, is that the NIU message has been heard. Springfield knows NIU, and values the important work we’re doing here.

The value-driven university has been heard as well in Washington, D.C. Over the past year we’ve received nearly $7.5 million in special funds for top university projects: The Department of Physics initiative to plan the future of our nation’s top accelerator facility, Fermilab; meeting the primary health care needs of underprivileged residents in our immediate area through our School of Nursing’s TriCounty Community Health Center; and providing, at long last, an adequate facility for the critical work of our faculty in the Center for the Study of Family Violence and Sexual Assault.

All these programs caught the attention this past year of NIU alumnus Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Speaker Hastert knows the NIU story from personal experience, and understands the core values that drive our university.

So successful we have been this past year in obtaining federal dollars that the Chronicle of Higher Education recently ranked NIU fifth in the nation for the amount of federal funding obtained in the last fiscal year through the U.S. Department of Education budget.

I’m pleased to note that in attendance with us here today is the Chief of Staff for Speaker Hastert’s district office, Mr. Brandon Grometer. Brandon, will you please stand and accept our thanks on behalf of Speaker Hastert.

We have earned the investment of significant state and federal dollars over the past year. At the same time, we have, ourselves, invested in the institution and its students. The rigorous process by which we have implemented our new PeopleSoft financial management and human resources systems represents a significant investment of time and resources. This project was completed “on time and on budget.”

One of the people who made that critical project work was project manager Kim Hensley. Kim, will you please stand and accept our thanks on behalf of all the people here who worked on this important project.

We invested this past year in a process by which our student body was extensively polled about issues that affect their experience at NIU. The findings of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Experience were far-reaching. Many of the issues identified by our students as problems have already been addressed. Road conditions around the residence halls, for example, were a consistent complaint. We found a way to deal with that issue very quickly.

Other concerns such as safety, advising and parking have much longer timelines, and are being studied at departmental levels throughout campus.

One of the people who is playing a key role in improving the quality of life here for our students is Student Association President Troy Caldwell. Troy, will you please stand and be recognized.

We have invested as well over the last year in our campus technology infrastructure. More than $2 million over the past 12 months has gone into campus network upgrades. We have connected every room in campus housing to the campus network with high-speed DSL lines or Ethernet connections. We connected this year to the Illinois Century Network, providing our campus with additional fiberoptic access to the internet. And while we were doing all of this, our computer security experts were hard at work, successfully warding off most of the devastating new computer viruses that attack production servers or show up in our mailboxes online.

I’d like to ask one of our campus computer security people to stand and be recognized on behalf of all those who perform this valuable service: Jason Richardson, will you please stand.

Jason and his colleagues help keep us safe from computer viruses.

At the same time, staff in Finance and Facilities keep our investments safe, and allow the university to pursue physical and programmatic improvements. One of the most significant events in the life of our university happened earlier this year when the bond-rating service Moody’s upgraded our financial status to “A-2.” Now, that didn’t exactly make headlines, but in terms of issues that affect the future of this institution, perhaps it should have. Now, more than ever, the financial health of public universities determines how well we can serve our students and our region. I’m pleased to say that NIU passed its financial exam with flying colors.

One of the people who is responsible for that success is University Controller Keith Jackson. Keith, will you please stand and be recognized. Keith, on behalf of all our staff who labor over spreadsheets and keep the financial side of the ship afloat, we thank you.

We have invested heavily over this past year in our partnership with our host community, the City of DeKalb. We have many issues in common. Safety issues, such as concerns about traffic and pedestrians on Annie Glidden Road, are being addressed by a joint city/university task force. The revitalization of Greek Row is another challenge we’ve chosen to take on together.

DeKalb Mayor Greg Sparrow could not be with us today, but he took the time to send me this note, and I’d like to read you just a few lines:

“I wish I could be there to demonstrate my support for the good work you are doing at NIU. Spirit of cooperation and collaboration that is apparent in the relationship between the city and the university has never been better. A strong partnership between the DeKalb and NIU is important as we seek to make the city a better place to live, work and learn. We look forward to creating new ways to work together for mutual benefit. Sincerely, Mayor Greg Sparrow.”

Of course, our relationships with the communities we serve extend far beyond DeKalb. We need to solidify and build on relationships in communities throughout our region. And, frankly, we need to broaden the NIU knowledge base of our own faculty, staff and students so that all of us can be better ambassadors to the community and the region.

To those ends, today I am announcing the beginnings of three new programs:

Our first initiative, “The NIU Community Associates Program,” will establish a concentrated schedule of visits, speaking engagements, interviews, receptions and other events in key communities around the region. We will engage our alumni, elected officials, educators and community leaders in a dialogue about NIU and the educational needs of each area.

The second program, which I’m calling “Introduction to NIU,” will bring to our campus leaders of business, industry and other important community institutions new to our region, so that they can learn more about our university. We need to have opinion leaders in our community and our region understand our institution, its people and the values we share.

And third, I will be establishing a program called “Leadership NIU,” which focuses on developing among our own employees a greater understanding of the complexity of NIU. This year-long program will involve about 20-30 people at a time – future university leaders from every part of the institution – and will help them learn about the totality of experiences that make up NIU.

The more people who understand our values and how we operate, the more ambassadors we will have in the community, in the region and around campus.

We have invested heavily in a regional presence. Last year, I told you that we would be working hard on a plan to solidify our outreach efforts. Today, I can announce that we have taken full inventory of those efforts and have concluded that some reorganization will strengthen the focus of our overall outreach efforts.

Specifically, I have asked that the Division of Continuing Education, our Business and Industry Services operation and our Center for Governmental Studies join with our four regional sites to form a single, new Division of University Outreach. In this way, I believe we can focus our services, clarify our mission, and provide a single access point for these services in our region.

Already we have seen that focus expand our thinking about NIU’s service mission. A few weeks ago, we learned that NIU has received a $1.5 million LAAP grant – that’s the U.S. Department of Education’s “Learning Anytime/Anywhere Partnership” program – to work with Chicago YMCAs in provision of computer training and life skills assessment for underprivileged clients in Chicago.

We meet the needs of our region in many ways: free legal counseling at Law Clinic in Rockford, help for struggling readers throughout the region via our College of Education’s Reading Clinic, providing help for new city staffers in small towns without municipal government infrastructure, and establishing an alternative teacher certification program to help deal with our region’s critical shortage of qualified teachers.

In all these ways, NIU fulfills its public service mission as a value-driven institution.

As I mentioned earlier, I have learned that one of NIU’s core values is a deep appreciation for diversity. What a pleasure it was, earlier this year, to dedicate our new Center for Diversity Resources. That Center was made possible by a member initiative grant from Illinois Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones, and we remain very appreciative of his efforts on our behalf for that important project.

And how appropriate that during the same year, we saw the election of Manny Sanchez as chair of our own Board of Trustees. Manny is the first Latino to lead a public board of higher education in this state, and one of very few in the nation.

Under Manny’s guidance, we will next month be hosting at our Naperville campus the first annual conference on Latino educational achievement. A very exciting group of experts from around the state and nation will be on hand to discuss issues surrounding Latino access to and success in college. With Manny’s help, it is our goal to put NIU front and center in this very important discussion about the needs of our country’s fastest-growing ethnic population.

And if we need to be convinced of the impact of a fast-growing Latino population in our service region, we should take note that both our board chair and our elected student trustee this year are Latino. Alex Alaniz represents our students on NIU’s governing board. Alex, will you please stand and be recognized.

Another fast-growing student population at NIU is Asian and Asian-American. I have read the report of our Asian-American task force and talked with many of our Asian-American students, faculty and staff. And I am convinced that we must do more to support this group and their needs.

Today I am formally requesting that a feasibility study be conducted for the possible establishment of an Asian-American cultural center. Just as we have seen the power of these support units for our African-American and Latino students, so should we expect to find a greatly-increased sense of satisfaction and well-being among our Asian student population with similar support and attention.

A year ago, I stood here and enumerated the challenges I felt lay ahead for NIU, and I said that we needed to work on institutional image and private fundraising.

Over the last year, we have worked diligently on these issues. For the first time in NIU’s history, our primary vehicle for communication with alumni and friends took the form of a beautiful magazine, full of captivating articles and designed to earn a prominent place on coffee tables around the region.

We have a sharp new athletic logo, new turf at Huskie Stadium and a new scoreboard. Our basketball coaches confirm that recruiting has improved with the now-visible promise of our Convocation Center around the corner. And success on the field is earning NIU positive, image-raising attention throughout the region.

But we all know that our university’s overall reputation lags behind the true quality that NIU offers. After 16 months, I believe that gap – between perceived and actual quality – is even greater than I realized when I first came here. I believe this is in large part because we lack a strong institutional identity to differentiate ourselves in an arena where there are many high quality institutions of higher education.

Today I am announcing that, under my direction, and with the support of the NIU Foundation and Alumni Association, we are engaging in a serious study of our external communications and image issues with the expertise of a well-respected marketing consulting firm, Lipman Hearne. With help from these higher-education marketing experts, we will explore new ways to build visibility, create a lasting and recognizable image in the United States, and better engage all our audiences – prospective students, alumni, media, elected officials and other important constituents.

This is no small matter. What we will be about is defining this institution for ourselves and others. We must take on this task as a campus community. I feel very strongly about this. Image is not something that can be imposed on an institution. It comes from within, and I want all of us to participate in the process. To that end, we will be creating a Web-based mechanism for soliciting advice, opinions and suggestions as we go through the process.
Many of the issues I’ve talked about here today cannot happen without an investment of resources. It is clear to me that NIU’s long-term financial health requires us to diversify our funding base. Some of that we have done already through our aggressive federal agenda. Some we have addressed through stepped-up enrollment management efforts. But clearly those are not the only answers.

Last year I told you we had begun planning for NIU’s first-ever capital campaign. Today I can announce that I have formed an internal campaign planning team, and that we are hard at work defining the type of campaign that will be successful at NIU. By the first of the year we will have engaged a campaign consultant who will help us develop our strategy and test our assumptions and priorities with potential donors.

During this “quiet phase” of the campaign, we will be announcing some focused fundraising initiatives that will take advantage of opportunities to attract private support that will make a difference at NIU. The final campaign goal and the major projects for which we will be seeking support will be fleshed out during the “quiet phase” this year. This is a process that will involve a broad cross-section of our campus community, including deans, directors, alumni, students and faculty.

Everything I’ve talked about today is, in one way or another, centered around the academic experience. At the heart of our legislative, fundraising and image enhancement efforts are, of course, our faculty and students. When we talk about institutional quality, we are talking about the quality of the educational experience at NIU.

At this time last year, I told you that one of my greatest challenges would be identifying and hiring a new chief academic officer and provost for our campus. Twelve months and many search committee meetings later, I am very pleased to say that we have attracted to our campus community a new leader who is more than up to the challenges of the position. I know that many of you have already met him, but I’d like to take this opportunity to formally introduce and acknowledge our new Provost, Dr. Ivan Legg.

Let me tell you, we couldn’t be happier having Ivan here during this particular period in NIU’s history. There is not a challenge that we face that Dr. Legg has not dealt with before. As many of you know, Ivan is well-known around the country for his leadership in areas such as faculty rewards and diversity.

Ivan joined us here in August, and he hit the ground running:

It falls to our new provost to find new ways to attract external grant funding. Last year I said I wanted to see NIU double its grant total in five years. This year we increased that number by 11%, so we’re on our way, but much more remains to be done.

As most of you know, enrollment is up significantly again this year, and we’re pleased to see an increasing demand for the NIU experience. At the same time, we know that, at nearly 24,000 students, we are approaching capacity and may soon exceed our ability to provide course sections and housing unless adjustments are made. To Dr. Legg and his staff fall these challenges. I have established enrollment management as a top priority for our provost, and he has already begun to tackle the challenges laid before him.

How do we handle an on-campus student body that’s grown by more than 2,000 students in just the last few years? Should we reconsider current admission standards? Should we charge an application fee? Should we continue to grow? And if so, how do we ensure an adequate number of faculty, services and residential spaces for all these new students?

These are tough questions. Dr. Legg has already convened an enrollment management advisory group, and is meeting regularly with them to begin to define the issues. He will soon be bringing these key issues to the appropriate faculty bodies for advice and discussion as well.

One the challenges I have asked Dr. Legg to incorporate into his work on enrollment management is a strategy for significantly increasing the size of our honors program, and to strengthen and expand the content and rigor of the program itself. We did increase new honor student numbers substantially this year, following several years of decline in those numbers, but as I said before, much more remains to be done in that area.

I have also asked Dr. Legg to do a complete, top-to-bottom review of all our academic programs, undergraduate, graduate and professional. This is important. In order for us to develop a strong institutional identity, we must come to some consensus in identifying excellence and investing in success. Some of these programs are instantly recognizable – they have built a tradition of excellence, and have attracted top faculty to carry on the work.

I’m thinking of areas like our Jazz program. More people nationwide know of NIU through our Jazz performances than perhaps any other single program. My spouse, Barbara, and I have had the pleasure of hearing the Jazz ensemble, and we are tremendously impressed with the quality of that group and its leader, Ron Carter. I’m pleased to note that Ron is with us this afternoon. Ron, can I ask you to stand and be recognized.

Another program that consistently ranks at the top of any quality list is our Master’s in Public Administration. Our MPA turns out more municipal leaders for this region than any other program – and the faculty there are in high demand as experts for professional groups and the popular media alike. Today we have with us from Public Administration that program’s director, Dr. Don Menzel. Don, on behalf of all your colleagues in the MPA program, will you please stand and be recognized.

A third program of excellence that I would like to mention is the NIU Center for Child Welfare and Education, housed in the College of Education. That program helps abused and neglected children succeed in school. It is the only one of its type in the Midwest, and it has received a series of grants from the Department of Children and Family Services that will soon total more than $13 million! I’d like to ask the director of the Center for Child Welfare and Education, Dr. Sharon Freagon, to stand and be recognized.

One of the programs I have been watching with great interest since my arrival here is our Anthropology program. It is difficult not to have heard of the accomplishments of our faculty in that area, as they have made quite a few headlines in recent years. While she could not be with us today, I would like to draw particular attention to Dr. Winifred Creamer of Anthropology. Dr. Creamer is back in Peru this week, continuing her study of what may be the oldest civilization in North America. Her research continues to elevate the reputation of an already-well known and well-respected department.

Another perennial academic standout at NIU is our Accounting program. Year after year, this program garners the respect of its peers across the nation. NIU accountancy graduates enjoy tremendous success on professional certification exams, and our professors there continue to raise the bar in attracting top students to the program. Dr. John Simon, on behalf of all your colleagues in Accounting, will you please stand and be recognized.

Public Administration, Jazz, Child Welare, Anthropology and Accountancy are just a few of our best academic programs at NIU. Not only are they respected among professional colleagues, but they also help us enhance our image nationally.

At the end of the day, our university’s image depends of the good work of our faculty and programs such as those I have just mentioned here today. External validation of institutional excellence must become a higher priority for us. I salute those faculty members whose work has brought such honor to NIU.

Similarly, I will continue to look for new ways to support programs that attract and retain top students at NIU. One such example is a program developed last year by the provost’s staff. I had the pleasure recently of meeting some of the students involved in a new program we call USOAR – the Undergraduate Student Research and Artistry Program. This wonderful new program provides undergraduates with the opportunity to travel abroad and pursue interests in a particular topic. A few weeks ago, I met Brent Roman, Cara Pempek and Tom Neirynck, who told me about some of their experiences outside the classroom. Brent studied music last summer in China. Cara went on an archaeological dig in Sicily. And Tom, a student in our College of Engineering and Engineering Technology and last year’s Co-op Ed Student of the Year, has done several internships at Fermilab. These young people represent just three of the talented students who are taking advantage of innovative new programs at NIU. Brent, Cara and Tom, would you please stand.

These students and many like them came to NIU because they had heard good things about specific academic programs here. And that’s no surprise – as our graduate surveys show time and time again, our students are exceedingly pleased with the education they receive at NIU.

Yet I know that few of us are satisfied with the way our overall reputation is portrayed in some of the commercial surveys like that in U.S. News and World Report. While I don’t put much stock in the methodology employed by these types of surveys, I recognize that many of our prospective students and parents do pay attention to them. It takes time to change something as elusive and intangible as “reputation,” but we must do what we can to ensure that excellence in key programs is recognized.

Last year at this time, I said that NIU was on the rise, and one year later, I am even more convinced that this is so. The challenge now is to nurture the excellence we have and to provide opportunities for new centers of excellence to develop. That takes, above all, a strong sense of institutional direction. We must, over the course of these next twelve months, clarify our focus. From that process will emerge, I believe, a much stronger message about NIU, and a much clearer image on which to base all of our external efforts.

The next 12 months will be a time of intense reflection and reassessment, both here at NIU and throughout our nation.

I will not attempt to sugarcoat this part of my message. Times will be tight financially, and we must be fiscally prudent. We have enjoyed much growth in recent years, but I do not expect that to continue this year. Continuing improvement in programs and stature, yes, but continuing growth in state support at the rate we have known in recent years, probably not.

We must be innovative and we must remain united. I will do everything in my power to continue to communicate and to listen during these challenging times ahead. We – NIU specifically and universities generally – have never been needed more than now. In times of great unrest, it is universities that have led the public discourse necessary to form consensus. Universities have shown that people of widely-varying backgrounds can indeed live and work together in close proximity and with respect and cooperation.

From universities come the great minds – the new knowledge – and the next leaders our society needs. And so it has been and will be at Northern Illinois University. We are fortunate to be in a position of strength just now, as we have no way of knowing how long our nation’s turmoil will continue, nor how long it will take for our economy to rebound.

I do know this, however: This is no time for us to retreat from the forward movement we have created. Neither the economy nor any other national event will be used as an excuse to slow our progress. This is the time to redouble our efforts on every front – I pledge to do so myself, and I call of each of you to join me in that promise.

It has been a wonderful first year at NIU, full of surprises, triumphs, challenges and moments of intense pride. I have tried in a very small way today to recognize a few of the people who have contributed to NIU’s success this year. What I really want to say in a larger way is that I am humbled by the tremendous talent, dedication and fortitude I have witnessed in our students, our faculty and our staff. You honor me with your attendance here today, and I pledge to continue working hard on your behalf.

Thank you.