About John G. Peters

State of the University Address 2006

President John G. Peters
October 5, 2006

Thank you, everyone. Thank you for your kind welcome, and for the time you’ve invested here today.

I particularly want to thank Ed, Heather, Michael and Anquiniece, the students we just heard from, who agreed to go on camera and tell us why they chose NIU. The thoughts they shared provide a wonderful backdrop for the subject of my remarks this afternoon, and that is the support, growth and maintenance of academic excellence at Northern Illinois University.

Academic excellence is what brought these students to NIU. It’s what has kept them here and allowed them to succeed. And if you think about what they had to say, you’ll notice they also defined academic excellence for us:

They talked about the reputation of great academic programs.

They talked about outstanding faculty, renowned scholars and researchers who make their classes come alive, and who know them by name.

They described a strong sense of being well-supported in their studies, and having people and programs to turn to for help.

They talked about tremendous learning opportunities outside the classroom, including what they’ve learned in their living experiences in the residence halls and through involvement in student organizations.

In short, they said life at NIU is good.

The best news is that the positive feelings these students expressed are consistent with the responses we see, year after year, on large-scale student satisfaction surveys.

Small wonder, then, that demand for the NIU Experience is stronger than ever. Applications continue to increase. This fall we welcomed the largest freshman class in more than a decade, with the highest entering ACT scores in our recent history.

Appreciation for the NIU Experience is also on the rise with growing numbers of alumni who want to reconnect with NIU and “give back” to their university.

We have much to be proud of, and at the top of my list is the irrepressible, “can-do” attitude of our people. It’s something I noticed when I first came here six years ago, and it’s one of the first observations I heard from our new provost, Ray Alden.

The “can-do” attitude that kept us going during an unprecedented state budget crisis is the same one that brings us new buildings without state funding, new programs without unnecessary delays and new partnerships without equal in Illinois.

We’ve done remarkable things in the face of adversity over the past few years, and so today I feel comfortable saying that it’s time to adjust our collective attitude from “can-do” to “can-do-BETTER.”

The call to “do better” is unmistakable, and it is everywhere:

It’s in the recommendations of the Spellings Commission in Washington last week issuing a report that calls for greater proof of educational outcomes.

It’s in the congressional debate over reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, where reasonable discussions about cost and accountability sometimes give way to unfocused and unjustified attacks on the academy.

We hear the call to “do better” from communities in our region that see education as key to economic development.

We hear it from K-12 schools that need better-prepared teachers, from parents who take on second mortgages or second jobs to send their kids to college, and from students who graduate with debts that may well follow them for years to come.

All those with great personal investment in public higher education want more for their money, as do those who represent them.

So what should be our response? What should NIU say to those who are paying more and thus expect more? What do we say to their elected representatives who ask how many of our students graduate, how many get jobs in their fields and how well have we prepared them for those jobs?

Well, I believe the rising expectations of all individuals and organizations converge at the point where I began my remarks – and that is at the commitment to academic excellence.

The students we heard from a few minutes ago defined the components that make up academic excellence, didn’t they? They talked about the reputation of our faculty; about the added value of learning from accomplished researchers, scholars and creative artists; and about how they benefit from NIU’s engagement with its region in the form of internships and other hands-on learning opportunities.

When asked what “academic excellence” means to them, our students often don’t distinguish between their classes and other experiences they have in campus organizations or internships or residential life.

We hear this from alumni as well.

Ask NIU graduates how well this university prepared them for their lives and careers, and you’ll hear a patchwork of memories about faculty and staff who helped them succeed, about how living with people of different backgrounds or studying abroad helped them understand the world where their own children now live, or about the chance encounter with a club or part-time campus job that helped them decide what they wanted to do with their lives.

There’s another thing we hear both from students and alumni, and that’s a recognition of value added to their experiences and their degrees by NIU’s identity as a research university.

To study with someone of national or international repute is inspiring: Their knowledge is current; their classes are infused with real-life examples; and their research interests often provide additional learning opportunities for motivated students.

Academic excellence is truly the child of many parents. It’s about student achievement and everything involved in helping students succeed. It’s about reputation, program recognition and the quality of our faculty.

When we commit ourselves to creating a campus culture based on academic excellence, we are promising to provide the best we can in all these areas.

I want to talk more specifically about achievements this year that support academic excellence, but first I’d like to recognize a few people who have been, and will continue to be, very important to NIU and its future.

For representing NIU and advancing its goals in Springfield, I’d like to acknowledge and thank our two local representatives, Sen. Brad Burzynski and Rep. Bob Pritchard.

For providing strong, independent governance that continually puts NIU in a position to succeed, I’d like to acknowledge our Board of Trustees, represented here today.

We are also very fortunate to enjoy an excellent relationship with our host communities, DeKalb and Sycamore, and I’m honored that the mayors of both cities are with us today. Please welcome DeKalb Mayor Frank Van Buer and Sycamore Mayor Ken Mundy. Another special guest who is here again this year is Barbara Peters.

This past weekend, in this very auditorium we participated in a very special event commemorating DeKalb’s 150th anniversary, and I believe next year our friends in Sycamore will be making plans for a similar celebration of that town’s sesquicentennial. Congratulations to both our host communities and their elected representatives and citizens.

This time last year, I took the opportunity to establish five guiding themes to help us prepare for the work ahead.

I said NIU must become an accountable university that benchmarks its performance and uses strategic planning to measure progress on institutional priorities.

I said we must work to become a sustainable university that uses resources efficiently, continually develops new sources of funding, invests strategically and capitalizes on the philanthropic commitment of our alumni and friends.

I said we must become a more global university by internationalizing our curriculum, encouraging faculty exchange programs and giving more students the chance to study abroad.

I said we must be an engaged university, identifying emerging needs in our region and responding quickly with new programs and partnerships to serve those needs.

And I said we must be a responsive university, meeting the needs of our students, and applying our expertise to the needs of our world, near and far.

These five themes are admittedly broad. They were chosen to stimulate thought, and to help us prepare for more extensive work on institutional priorities.

That work is about to begin in the form of a comprehensive, campus-wide strategic planning process led by our new provost, Dr. Ray Alden and aimed at helping us build and maintain academic excellence at NIU.

Many of you have already met Ray, or at least know that he was previously the chief academic officer at UNLV, an institution that added 10,000 students and 63 new programs in less than ten years! That university’s successful response to staggering new demand was made possible by very thoughtful, mission-driven strategic planning led by Ray Alden.

After just two months at NIU, Dr. Alden is ready to begin the same process here. Later this month, he’ll announce the formation of a campus-wide strategic planning team with members selected by each sector of our shared-governance system.

In the meantime, I’d like to share with you a portion of an interview we did with Provost Alden last week in preparation for the kick-off of his strategic planning initiative:

[Ray Alden: Strategic Planning video clip]  

One of the most important things about strategic planning is that the goals we set really communicate to the external world what it is that we value. It also represents a sort of “consensus roadmap” of where the university community feels the institution needs to go.  

Academic excellence is really a very broad range of infrastructure, programs and interests. It’s everything from the faculty to the academic programs to the facilities and technology that support learning and discovery. Opportunities such as international travel, service learning, research, internships – all of these complement what the student learns in the classroom by adding hands-on, real-world experience. All of these things can and should be components of academic excellence, and anything that supports those experiences should be as well.

One of the reasons I decided to come to NIU was the “can-do” attitude I found here, as well as the commitment to both research and undergraduate education. I felt that NIU was a unique institution, but when the new Carnegie classifications came out recently, it really brought home to me that we are truly a university without peer on a national level. We’re classified as a research university with high research activity, which is really a hard thing to do without a medical school. But when you look at all of the new classifications Carnegie is making, you really see the difference. We’re a large, public university with a large residential population, with selective admissions, a balance of arts and sciences and professional programs, and a high degree of coexistence of undergraduate and graduate programs. When you enter all of those characteristics into the Carnegie search engine to find similar institutions, none come up! So this really suggests that all of these things that we are, and we value, and that we should value, make us a rather unique institution. A good strategic plan will help us build on those characteristics.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome NIU Provost and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Ray Alden and his wife, Becky Alden.

Ray, you make a very compelling case when you say, “Our goals tell the world what we value.” On behalf of the entire NIU community, I thank you for taking on this challenge and helping us to become a more accountable university.

Setting measurable goals and having a plan to meet those goals is a basic first step that supports all other themes we might pursue.

A strong strategic plan certainly helps us become more accountable, but it is also the bedrock on which we build programs that will help NIU become a more self-supporting and sustainable university.

NIU has made great strides this year in efforts to preserve resources – human, financial and environmental – and to create new sources of revenue. I’d like to mention just a few:

One week from today, we will break ground on a new, state-of-the-art residential facility for adult students with families; international students; graduate, law and Ph.D. students; and others whose life needs we have been unable to accommodate in existing campus residential facilities.

As this project has made its way through various approval stages, you’ve probably heard it referred to by several different names, but today I can announce that our new residential facility on the far west campus will be known as Northern View Community.

With 120 units in six buildings surrounding an inviting green space, Northern View will provide safe, affordable housing for a variety of students who would like to live on campus but are not candidates for standard, undergraduate residence hall life.

Best of all, Northern View will be built through a public/private partnership in which the developer assumes all of its $20 million construction cost.

We have not built any new residential facilities at NIU for almost 40 years. Changes in lifestyles and student needs compel us to do whatever we can to upgrade existing facilities and plan new ones in ways that minimize the cost to students and maximize their NIU experience.

To that end, we are in the final stages of plan development for a comprehensive, 10-year renovation program that will bring all of NIU’s residence halls into the modern age with floor plans and amenities that equal or exceed standards set by the Stevenson Hall complex.

This will be a massive undertaking, on par with the West Campus Improvement Plan of the 1990s, which transformed a concrete jungle into a welcoming, living-learning community.

We’ll announce more details early next semester, but suffice it to say, this will be a major step forward for residential life and residential-based learning programs that support academic excellence at NIU.

Preserving and maintaining our human resources is perhaps the greatest challenge of a commitment to sustainability.

We have a tremendous need to rebuild our faculty ranks and attract new scholars who can fill the many voids left by recent retirements.

We have a strong commitment to improving faculty and staff salaries, and to rewarding those entrepreneurs, innovators and risk-takers who move us to new levels of achievement.

I think, for example, of the huge shoes that must be filled next year when our resident string ensemble, the Vermeer Quartet, retires. We cannot put a price on the international acclaim brought to our campus by the Vermeer, or the Jazz Band, or the Steelband. These are NIU treasures which we must preserve.

Fortunately, that view is shared by many of our alumni and friends. Today I am very happy to announce that we have received an anonymous gift of $1 million to preserve the Vermeer tradition by establishing a new resident string ensemble capable of achieving the same level of excellence and international renown. It is tremendously encouraging to realize that our performing arts programs mean as much to our alumni and friends as they do to our campus community.

When we look at universities that have become more self-sustaining, we see strong relationships with students, alumni and corporate partners.

Constrained in part by a system-based governance structure that discouraged individual university initiatives, NIU came late to professional management of the alumni and development functions.

I’m happy to say we’ve made up for lost time. As I speak, Northern Illinois University has raised more private money in the past six years than in its entire previous 107-year history.

The work we undertook six years ago was campaign-style fundraising without the expense or bells-and-whistles of a typical capital campaign.

It began with an academic building – Barsema Hall, the home of our College of Business. It continued on with special initiatives that raised funds for our new alumni and visitors center, and the new Academic and Athletic Performance Center for our 496 student athletes. Incidentally, the cumulative GPA for our student athletes hit an all-time high this past spring of 3.036. I’m very proud of that statistic and the way it underscores our commitment to putting the “student” part of “student athlete” first.

In all of these fundraising efforts to date, we have worked hard to build the foundation of a truly sustainable fundraising program.

By the end of this year, we will have raised $100 million dollars for NIU in less than six years. Early next year, we will officially end the “quiet phase” of our campaign with the announcement of a final goal and a kickoff for the public phase of NIU’s first ever capital campaign.

With that kickoff, will come a focused direction for our fundraising efforts going forward and that is, as you may have guessed, academic excellence. I have directed our development team to focus all our efforts for the foreseeable future on increasing NIU’s endowment for scholarships, sponsored faculty chairs, program support and other academic quality indicators.

University endowments are institutional savings accounts where earnings are used to support key programs. A university endowment is also a key indicator of institutional health, both because of what it supports and because of what it says about who supports the university.

One of the most exciting ideas to emerge from our campaign planning discussions is the development of a comprehensive honors college and related honors-style programs that feature enhanced educational opportunities for students of all backgrounds and all levels of academic preparedness.

Details are still under discussion, and throughout the coming year our academic community will continue to give shape to this initiative as part of our new strategic planning process. Suffice it to say, however, that the campaign for academic excellence will provide our alumni and friends with their best reasons yet to invest in NIU.

Last year, I called on our campus community to embrace a vision of NIU as a global university.

I was privileged to serve on the Abraham Lincoln Commission on Study Abroad, and last year I previewed for you the commission’s campaign to have one million students studying abroad by 2011.

This December, in conjunction with the Lincoln Commission, I am convening a meeting of Illinois university presidents and chancellors – both public and private – to discuss our state’s response to this challenge.

Currently, about 250 of our students study abroad each year. By the end of this decade, I hope to be well on our way to at least quadrupling that number. Given the breadth and depth of our academic programs, there is no reason why at least 1,000 of our students can’t be having educational experiences in other countries.

In addition to increasing the number of students who study abroad, many universities are being urged to diversify the countries to which students are sent. I’m proud to note that NIU is ahead of the curve in this regard, sending students to more 60 different countries each year, including China, Australia, Ireland, Russia and Poland.

Of course, becoming a more global university isn’t just about study abroad programs. It’s also about welcoming more international students and faculty to our campus, and

internationalizing our curriculum. Currently we have about 60 foreign scholars and faculty on campus, and close to 700 international students, and I have every reason to believe that as many of our new global university initiatives will increase those numbers in the future.

Over the course of the past year, I’ve taken note of many new efforts to infuse a global perspective into our academic programs. I’ll mention just a few:

  • development of an international sales exchange program
  • creation of new programs in global marketing
  • new emphasis on foreign language skills and sponsorship by international corporations of student projects in engineering
  • continuation of a program that takes theater students to Russia for study at the prestigious Moscow Art Theater
  • growth of an education program in Kenya where NIU professors and graduate students are improving educational attainment in a single village
  • Similar developments are underway across campus, and I applaud all of your efforts in this regard.

NIU’s Multicultural Curriculum Transformation Institute has been improving teaching here for nearly a decade, and faculty who have participated over the past 12 years are enthusiastic about new techniques and approaches they’ve learned in those summer sessions.

Since it began, nearly 200 faculty and other teaching staff have participated in these week-long sessions, learning a variety of ways to infuse their classes with international and multicultural perspectives.

All of these programs and initiatives are evidence of renewed efforts to become a more global university. They also advance the cause of academic excellence by creating a much broader and much better-informed world view for all members of our university community.

The fourth theme I established last year was that of the engaged university. Engagement is not simply another term for “public service.” The engaged institution really exists as part of its community and region, not as an Ivory Tower.

We have made tremendous progress on this front, and I’d like to mention just a few examples from this past year:

In Rockford, faculty and students are working with small- and medium-size manufacturers to retool and retrain for a new century. Our R.O.C.K. program – that’s Rapid Optimization of Commercial Knowledge – gets companies ready to compete for government grants.

The R.O.C.K. program attracted $2.25 million in start-up money when it began in 2004, and received another $3.5 million in 2005. This year I’m happy to announce that we’ve received another $3 million for the R.O.C.K. program to continue its important work in revitalizing the Rockford economy.

Many of the challenges we face as a university and a society have to do with an increasingly competitive global economy. That dynamic affects everything we do, from preparing our students to meeting the expectations of employers to participating in our region’s ongoing economic development.

We can and must play a role in rekindling the entrepreneurial spirit embodied by people like Cyrus McCormick, Marshall Field, Daniel Burnham and others who lifted Illinois onto the national stage in the last two centuries.

We need to harness the creativity of our faculty, staff and students, and to nurture that creative spark through new, multidisciplinary programs and learning opportunities. We also need to be creative and entrepreneurial in positioning the university to be a partner with businesses and communities.

With all that in mind, today I want to announce my intention to create a group I’m calling the President’s Innovation and Competitiveness Council. Comprised of representatives from across our campus and business leaders, this council will help develop a roadmap to position NIU as a regional center of innovation. I’m excited about this new initiative and look forward in the months ahead to telling you much more about it.

NIU is deeply engaged with its region through the health sciences and, over the course of the last year, we’ve expanded that involvement.

We’ve partnered with community colleges to offer 4-year nursing degrees throughout the region. We’ve done studies that underscore the value of Illinois’ network of rural “critical access” hospitals. We’ve revived a program at Fermilab that treats several forms of cancer with concentrated neutron beams.

And I’m happy to announce that just last week Congress approved a bill that includes $3.3 million in planning money for NIU to begin work on a new particle therapy treatment and research program.

Through our involvement with Argonne and Fermi national laboratories, NIU has been quietly building a multidisciplinary program in medical physics and related health practices.

The new program we’ve proposed, and for which we’ve just received planning dollars, would greatly expand the number of people who could benefit from particle therapy with the addition of proton treatment options.

Proton therapy is the most advanced form of radiation treatment available. It is non-invasive, painless, and is highly effective on many types of malignant tumors throughout the body.

In spite of the effectiveness of proton therapy, there are only five places in the country that offer it. Even at this very early stage of discussion, the program we’re exploring has attracted the interest of countless potential partners, both public and private.

Internally, no fewer than four of our colleges currently offer programs for which proton therapy could provide important new research and learning opportunities for faculty and students. This is another exciting project that I hope to tell you much more about in the weeks and months ahead.

NIU’s engagement with K-12 schools continues to grow, and our leadership in key, national issues has grown this year as well.

Our preschool-through-graduate-school, or P-20 initiative, involves faculty and staff experts from five of our colleges. This year I asked the P-20 group to concentrate on issues related to STEM education – that’s science, technology, engineering and math – and on student performance in middle school.

Today, I’m happy to announce that we are forming the NIU Middle Grades Teacher Preparation Center. This middle school initiative will coordinate and focus an impressive array of partnership activities related to middle school students.

I want to add to this announcement my own personal view that middle school intervention may be the most important thing we can do to improve overall school performance and readiness for college. We need our very best teachers working at the middle school level, and our very best thinking focused on this critical stage.

I also charged the P-20 task force this year with conducting a study on the status of STEM education in Illinois. The result was a document that’s being used across the state, called “Keeping Illinois Competitive.” In addition to documenting the need for more attention to math-science education in our state, “Keeping Illinois Competitive” makes a compelling case for making math-science education a stronger focus of our P-20 efforts and a bigger part of all our programs that prepare the teachers who prepare our children for life in a new, global economy.

Speaking of global, we quietly marked a very significant move forward this year in our global teaching and research connections: In January of this year, NIU officially hooked into the ultra-fast Internet2 network of the world’s top research institutions.

Students, faculty and staff can now send and receive enormous amounts of information in an infinite variety of forms via NIUNet’s lightening-fast fiber optic network. An example of the difference this connection will make – a 4-terabyte database that would take 23 days to download over the regular Internet would take about one hour using Internet2.

Some Internet2 uses require only simple modifications to existing desktops, while others will be available later this year at two new, specially-equipped locations on this campus and at NIU-Naperville. Those dedicated facilities will create high quality multi-media environments far beyond anything we’ve seen before on this campus.

The implications for teaching, research and outreach are limitless, and I urge all of you to find out more about its possibilities in the weeks and months ahead.

Because we are an engaged university, we didn’t stop with our own needs. NIUNet has now connected the DeKalb District 428 schools to Internet 2, and is working in partnership with local health providers to extend I-2 capabilities up Sycamore Road to Kishwaukee Hospital, our new Monsanto Building health facility and to other health-related partners on the Route 23 “health corridor.”

Finally, last year I asked our campus community to work toward making NIU a more responsive university. A responsive university is one that constantly evolves to meet changing needs. That university-wide commitment extends to students, faculty and staff as well as to the wider region that we serve.

Many of the new initiatives I’ve already mentioned in other categories are also an outgrowth of NIU responsiveness. In addition to those, I would like to describe three new initiatives undertaken this year in response to emerging needs:

First, I want to congratulate all of the departments and divisions involved in NIU’s Web Presence Project – a comprehensive overhaul and redesign of the NIU Web site.

More than a year in the making, the first phase of our new Web Presence will launch tomorrow. It is very much in keeping with my request last year that we step up our work in telling the NIU story, and that we do so by speaking with one voice.

Our Web presence is the new “front door” to NIU for literally millions of visitors. The image it conveys must match our commitment to academic excellence, and that includes making access to information and functions more easily accessible.

Several departments and divisions have redeployed staff to a new Web team that will help the rest of the university update and manage websites. I urge all of you to take advantage of this new service, and to evaluate your web presence, as this group did, with a clear focus on the needs of users – particularly our students and prospective students

Another web-related development with huge potential for changing campus culture is NIUConnect, the self-service program that will give students, faculty and staff much more convenient, secure and comprehensive access to all types of campus resources.

By this time next year, students will be able to follow the status of their applications for admission and financial aid online, pay bills, check their grades, create new schedules, and perform many other functions from their computers.

The Web Presence Initiative and the NIUConnect program have in common a focus on how the user experiences NIU. They are also firmly rooted in data-based decision making. We are asking people what they want, and we are testing our responses to make sure new products are effective.

This approach is important in all our decision-making, but particularly so when it comes to technology.

Last year we asked students which upgrades would make the biggest difference to them, and they told us. In August, we completed the upgrade from DSL to high-speed Ethernet connectivity in all our residence halls, added a couple of new television channels that are delivered directly to students’ PCs, and upgraded all of the general access computer labs to include newer, flat-screen technology.

Being a responsive university certainly means responding to the needs of our campus community; but, of course, we also respond to emerging needs in our region. One of the best examples of regional responsiveness we saw this past year was in the speed with which we developed new certificate programs in homeland security.

With financial support from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, a cross-college, cross-disciplinary team has developed a foundations course to be used by universities across the state. The introductory homeland security program educates a wide range of emergency “first responders” on how to prepare for and respond to any type of natural or man-made disaster.

Since winning the right to create Illinois’ most widely-used disaster-planning foundations course, NIU has also geared up to offer several targeted programs that focus on biochemical sciences, environment and hazard risk assessment, health sciences and manufacturing and industrial technology.

There is never enough time to talk about all of the accomplishments we’ve seen in the course of a year at NIU.

Across the university, we’ve seen a focused effort to improve service for students and to help them succeed.

In every corner of our campus, we are experiencing greater emphasis on connecting what we teach, learn and study to the world in which our students must work and live.

In every college and department, we are seeing new efforts to make enhanced learning opportunities available to more students.

In all our partnerships and relationships with external groups, we are integrating the concepts of engagement and service learning.

And in all our communications, we are building on NIU’s successful integration of research university status with a reputation for excellence in undergraduate education.

In short, we have made a great deal of progress toward becoming a more accountable, sustainable, global, engaged and responsive university.

Our challenges going forward have to do primarily with focus and collaboration: focus on building and maintaining academic excellence in all our endeavors, and collaboration – both internally and with external partners – that builds excellence into all we do.

I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for your time and attention, and as always, for your loyalty and service to Northern Illinois University.