Good afternoon and welcome! This is my eighth annual address to the university community, and I’d like to thank all of you who have taken the time to be here today.
This is a very special year in NIU’s history.
Fifty years ago, the people of Illinois told our predecessors that they needed more from our institution.
Students … community supporters … elected officials … business leaders – virtually every constituency interested in public higher education came together in a campaign that would forever change the mission and vision of this institution.
Fifty years ago this year, Northern Illinois State Teacher’s College became Northern Illinois University.
Today when we hear of institutions changing names or adopting the word “university,” it is usually in the context of a new marketing strategy or alumni campaign.
But in 1957, the move from “college” to “university” was entirely substantive. It meant nothing less than complete reinvention of institutional purpose and identity. Becoming a university meant building the capacity to serve a much wider range of needs.
And build we did – listen to this:
In 1957, the year we became a university, NIU had:
In 1967, just ten years after we became a university, NIU had
In just one decade, this institution more than tripled in size … scope … and commitment to access and regional responsiveness – and managed to do so without abandoning its historic commitment to teacher preparation and excellence in undergraduate education.
Fifty years ago, our predecessors had to define what it means to be a university.
Today, we are defining what it means to be the nation’s premier global-regional public university.
A year ago I announced the launch of our strategic planning process.
I told you I was charging our provost, Ray Alden, with leading the first phase of that project through an accelerated, six-month exploration of NIU’s mission and vision.
I asked the university community to engage in its best thinking about our purpose, our strengths, our challenges, and the needs of our global region.
Provost Alden asked the Strategic Planning Task Force to dream big, because, as he says, our goals tell the world what we value.
Fifty years ago, citizens of this region had no difficulty telling us what they valued:
Give us scientists, they said.
Give us artists and musicians.
Give us future leaders for our businesses and industries.
Give us nurses and therapists and every type of professional in the healing arts.
Give us writers and historians.
Give us lawyers and engineers.
Give us world experts in all those fields that drive the life of our region.
Give us new knowledge that lifts us up to the world – and helps us solve our problems.
Give all of our sons and daughters opportunities to become successful and productive citizens.
And yes, please – keep giving us teachers.
NIU’s growth in the 1950s and 60s was unmistakably driven by the needs of this region – and it still is.
But ladies and gentlemen – this is NOT the same region it was 50 years ago.
The Chicagoland area and the greater northern Illinois region that we serve today exists at the very heart of modern world trade … health care … international politics … technology … the arts and much more.
It is ethnically and culturally diverse, and its needs reflect that diversity. It is, in a word, a global region.
It is a global region, and recognition of that status and what it means for NIU consumed endless hours of discussion in the work of our Strategic Planning Task Force.
Some of the most interesting Task Force debates centered on the aspirations of a national university with an historic regional mission.
To say that there were differences of opinion on this issue would be to significantly understate the matter.
Yet, ultimately, I believe we reached new understanding about how our service to a global region – third largest in the U.S. and decidedly international in scope and influence – how service to that region can continue to propel NIU onto the national and international stage.
Today I can only summarize the report and hope I do justice to its full intent.
To more fully understand our planning context, I would ask that you visit the strategic planning website and read the task force report in detail. Use the e-mail response mechanism to send feedback and new ideas. Bookmark the page and visit it often for updates. We will be charting our progress in real terms that I’ll tell you about a little later.
But first, I want to give you an overview of how we are going to proceed with strategic planning from both the university level and in our individual colleges and departments:
The Strategic Planning Task Force gave us a template for both types of planning. They provided both universal context and specific recommendations.
For those issues that cross college and department lines, I am establishing university-level task forces to evaluate suggestions and create action plans.
Each of these groups … and I will describe them in more detail in a few minutes … each group will receive a very a specific charge and timeline, and will carry out their work in full accordance and consultation with our shared governance system.
When these groups have completed their work, they will be discharged and their recommendations integrated into a specific, university-level action plan.
At the college and department levels, Provost Alden has established a planning process that includes opportunities for all members of the university community to submit ideas and proposals in support of our strategic plan.
That process begins next week and will continue through the fall and spring semesters.
College- and department-level plans will be developed through planning templates and will include performance metrics to gauge the effectiveness of new programs and approaches.
Again, all of these processes are outlined in detail on our Strategic Planning website.
I urge all of you to educate yourselves about this plan. Beyond that, I am asking the heads of every university division and department to review the plan with their units and develop responses on how they will be supporting our strategic plan.
Every strategic planning effort I’ve been involved with begins with a massive outpouring of ideas … opinions … and dreams.
This one is no different, but I have been impressed with the degree of focus contained in our Task Force report. For the next ten or fifteen minutes I want to share my reaction to the report in a way that replicates that focus.
One caveat: This report contains what I would characterize as major findings and critical imperatives that absolutely will guide our work in the years ahead.
It also contains many, many ideas and suggestions. Before we’re done, it will include many more ideas and suggestions that we will solicit from the campus.
My use of examples throughout this address should not be interpreted as exclusionary or representing decisions that have already been made. In that sense, some of what you’re about to hear is one person’s impression.
And when I am talking about those aspects of strategic planning that have been accepted … on which decisions have been made … or can be thought of as “official” … believe me, you’ll know it.
First of all, I was gratified to see our five key themes articulated again and again throughout the strategic plan document. As guiding principles, they have only gained in importance in the two years since I introduced them in this address.
In fact, with every passing day and every new report on the performance of American higher education, we hear the volume increasing on calls for us to become ever more accountable … engaged … global … responsive … and sustainable.
These themes really describe societal mandates – they’re not optional. They define the time in which we work just as clearly as did public demands in the 1950s.
The Strategic Planning Task Force said we must do four things in order to become an accountable, engaged, global, responsive and sustainable university:
Our first planning imperative: We must preserve, strengthen and extend NIU’s teaching and learning environment.
We have many strengths on which to build in this area.
We have a solid reputation for great teaching and for experiential learning that includes students in faculty research.
We also have a demonstrable record of achievement in building and supporting racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in our student body and among our faculty and staff.
Increasingly, our campus community looks like the region we serve – and that is a significant advantage in terms of the type of educational experiences we are able to offer.
All of our strategic planning must affirm our commitment to diversity in all of its forms. I am pleased to report that the planning context produced by our task force takes as a given and explicitly reinforces our historic commitment to access, diversity and service to first-generation college students.
Third, we have taken strong advantage of our location to develop relationships and programs that use this global region as a “living laboratory” that enhances the educational experience.
Building on all of the strengths I have just mentioned, we will be investing more resources in programs that support what the task force has called engaged learning:
I was particularly intrigued about the task force suggestion that we establish a “themed year” in which dialogue about a single “big issue” is infused into classes, performances, broadcasts, alumni presentations, capstone projects, research topics and so on, and is reinforced by guest speakers, panel discussions and colloquia.
Rather than give examples of the types of issues we might consider for a themed year, I’d rather point to a grassroots faculty initiative that took root here last spring:
In response to a federal report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NIU faculty from Geography, Biology, Political Science, History, Geology and Philosophy organized and presented a six-week series of panel discussions on global climate change.
A number of faculty assigned classes to attend the discussions and incorporated series content into their classes.
This initiative generated a lot of excitement on campus, and I hold it up as an example of what I think our Strategic Planning Task Force was trying to get at with the suggestion of a “themed year:” a concentrated, purposeful effort to establish conversations about big ideas and enhance the overall intellectual climate here at NIU.
I’ve been looking for examples from other institutions that might help me describe the potential impact of a themed year. I found one such description on the website of Ohio Wesleyan University that I’d like to paraphrase here:
“The purpose of an engaging and reflective undergraduate experience is to allow students to understand and appreciate what great artists have created … what great minds have thought … and what great leaders have done.”
To that traditional liberal arts definition and its reverence for the great voices of the past, I would add great voices from the present and a focus on those issues of most importance for our future.
This campus-wide conversation about ideas has tremendous potential for enhancing the student experience and the intellectual climate of our university, and I will be very interested to see how this idea unfolds in the months ahead.
The themed year is just one of many intriguing suggestions for enhancing our teaching and learning environment.
To fast-track our selection of specific investments in this area, I have asked Provost Alden to create a focused Task Force on Curricular Innovation.
This group will evaluate all curricular suggestions in the strategic plan, and they will solicit additional proposals from the university community and beyond.
And, as I said before, this task force and all of the others I will be naming will work with and through all of our established components of shared governance.
The Task Force on Curricular Innovation will submit its recommendations by April 15th, and its best ideas will be selected through our shared governance system for the earliest possible implementation.
The Strategic Planning Task Force said that preserving, strengthening and extending NIU’s teaching and learning environment also means improving basic services that support student success.
To that end, I am asking Provost Ray Alden to create The Task Force on Student Success to identify those factors that most heavily influence our students’ abilities to remain enrolled, declare and complete a major, and graduate with degrees from Northern Illinois University.
As outlined by the Strategic Planning Task Force, this group will be looking at ways to:
Part of their work will involve completion of a student climate survey. We need to understand what our students think of their experiences here, and how they think key investments might improve that experience.
And while they’re gathering all of this information, the Task Force on Student Success will also be developing benchmarks by which we can measure our progress.
I want to pause here for a moment and expand a bit on the subject of benchmarking:
All of us understand the growing interest of policymakers at all levels in the performance of our nation’s colleges and universities.
That interest goes by many names – assessment … benchmarking … accountability … return-on-investment … and so on.
Some of our professional associations have taken the initiative to define accountability and suggest reporting mechanisms in hopes of forestalling intrusion into university operations by various government entities.
The NIU strategic plan provides us an opportunity to proactively develop our own standards and structures for measuring institutional progress.
We must take that opportunity.
NIU already invests considerable effort in measuring our performance in a variety of ways. However, I think it’s fair to say that much of what we do in this data-rich environment could be better organized … more easily accessed … and more meaningfully applied to performance improvement efforts.
Two of the accountability measures of most interest to policymakers are freshman retention rates and six-year persistence-to-graduation rates.
NIU compares favorably to IBHE and MAC peer groups in the area of retention. At 79 percent, we’re just one point behind the 80 percent rate reported by the IBHE-identified peer group, and three points ahead of the 76 percent average reported by institutions in the Mid-American Conference. This is an excellent rate, and many people have worked very hard to achieve it.
But what does this mean? When we say that ‘we can always do better,’ to what standard should we aspire?
Looking at six-year graduation rates as they appear in the federal IPEDS report, we can see NIU lagging both the IBHE and MAC comparators.
Six-year graduation rates for the last NIU cohort tracked in the IPEDS report – the 1999 entering class – stood at 53 percent. IBHE-defined peer institutions were at 58 percent and MAC schools at 55 percent.
These are just two examples of data we can and must use to inform our decision-making and track our progress.
Benchmarking studies will help us determine who sets the standard and what that standard is. They will be critical to our work on student success and every other aspect of our strategic plan.
The second major imperative outlined in the Task Force report is the call for an investment strategy in support of multi-disciplinary scholarship that complements individual scholarly and artistic achievement.
Can you imagine putting a dozen or so of our top researchers in a room and getting them to agree on the most important areas for future research investment?
Neither can I.
But they did something I think was more important:
First of all, they acknowledged the growing importance of multidisciplinary research and they championed its growth at NIU. That was key.
And second, they developed a set of criteria by which we will make future decisions about research priorities.
Multidisciplinary scholarship or artistic clusters that receive institutional investment must do the following: They must
The task force recommended that the selection of research clusters be made through open competition … that successful proposals not duplicate work being done at other institutions ... and that all ideas must be tested and validated externally.
Within the parameters of these excellent criteria, I am today asking our provost to create The Dean’s Council Task Force on Multidisciplinary Programs to solicit and evaluate proposals and make funding recommendations.
In my experience, deans are those university leaders most knowledgeable about the broad array of academic activities in their colleges … best able to work across colleges … and most empowered to direct and re-direct resources.
Beyond that, this task force must address all of the internal disincentives associated with multidisciplinary programs, as well as creation of rewards and incentives that encourage cross-college and cross-discipline collaboration.
The call for multidisciplinary programs and research is as clear a mandate today as was the call for comprehensive university programming in 1957. It is an imperative in the strongest possible interpretation of that word.
The third strategic planning imperative in the Task Force report says that we must strengthen and extend NIU’s regional and global impact.
University engagement in a global region connects NIU to national and international audiences, initiatives and agendas.
That engagement takes many forms. We see it in:
The two-way communication produced by all these regional partnerships improves our ability to offer relevant programs and experiential learning opportunities.
It teaches us how to leverage our resources and where to invest for greatest impact.
And it infuses multicultural perspectives into all our work.
During our discussions with the Strategic Planning Task Force, we asked the group to identify two examples of programs that would illustrate the type of engagement we hope to achieve.
The models they chose included one initiative already underway and one we might explore in future strategic planning conversations.
The first example was a strategic health care and technology initiative centered on proton cancer therapy.
As all of you know, we are currently involved in an effort to build and operate a proton therapy center in the DuPage tech park near Fermilab.
The Strategic Planning Task Force used proton therapy to illustrate how a single project can become the centerpiece for a series of research, instruction and public engagement initiatives.
Embraced by the entire university, they said, our proton project can
The second example the task force provided was the idea of a World Education Center.
Existing either as a concept or a physical place, the Center envisioned by our task force would capitalize on the diversity, multicultural complexity and global importance of our region.
By applying the multidisciplinary cluster model to this idea, the task force envisioned a program that could
Both of these examples – proton therapy and world education – illustrate the type of thinking we must undertake to fully realize the promise of our strategic plan.
Every investment we make must have demonstrable value to students … to the scholarly work of our faculty … and to the citizens of our region. Those proposals that best demonstrate regional impact will receive priority in all future funding requests.
Regional engagement is so key to our success that I am asking everyone involved in strategic planning to integrate its principles into their work. I am also asking Provost Alden to develop guidelines that will ensure these activities are valued and given consideration in merit, promotion and tenure decisions.
I urge all of you to study the engagement section of our strategic plan to see how e
merging regional needs create opportunities for new programs, specializations, research and learning.
The fourth and final strategic planning imperative is to make NIU an institution of first choice for students, faculty and staff.
This imperative captures a theme that pervaded nearly every discussion in every Strategic Planning Task Force work group:
Make NIU an incredibly desirable place to work, live and study.
As you might guess, there are about as many different suggestions on how to accomplish that goal as there were people involved in the discussion … but they all seemed to come down to three things:
Salary improvement has been my number one priority since coming to NIU.
I was particularly gratified to receive Board approval last week for a salary increment package of 4.5 percent for this fiscal year …
Looking around the state, it appears that this is the highest increment level provided at a public university in Illinois this year.
We must pay competitive salaries to attract the best faculty and staff, and we must provide incentives for outstanding achievement that keep our best and brightest here.
To that end, in December I will present for final approval to the Board of Trustees a Faculty Reward and Regard program with the following elements:
First is creation of fifteen Board of Trustees Professorships – three per year for the next five years. Each professorship will carry an annual stipend of $10,000, and will be reviewed every five years.
I will be asking Provost Alden to design a rigorous competitive process for selecting these individuals using criteria I will generally describe as a record of outstanding achievement in research and artistry that has included the engagement of students in scholarly pursuits.
I have presented this concept to our trustees and they are very supportive. We are extremely fortunate to have a governing board that not only recognizes the need to reward talented faculty and staff, but actually champions that imperative.
Pending their final approval in December, I hope to announce the first class of Board of Trustees Professors this coming June.
Secondly, I am proposing new guidelines for the recognition of promotions in academic rank from Assistant to Associate Professor and Associate to Full Professor.
This new, phased plan includes doubling the current promotional rates effective for the 2008-2009 academic year, as well as providing prorated retroactive adjustments for those promoted in rank in the 2007-2008 and 2006-2007 academic years.
This move will make faculty promotional salary increases among the most competitive in this state and in the entire United States.
Taken together, our university-wide salary increment plan … the faculty promotional increase package … and the Board of Trustees Professorships make a strong statement about the priority we are placing on programs that reward our employees and recognize outstanding service.
And it’s time to do one more thing:
Just as we will be conducting a student climate survey as part of our Task Force on Student Success, I want to plot out the next steps in our Reward and Regard program by commissioning a similar survey of our faculty and staff.
Every year I talk about new imperatives and new mandates and new pressures to do more and better – and often with less.
We need to know how faculty and staff feel about working at NIU … where they feel supported (or not) … and what they would identify as obstacles to achieving success in their NIU careers.
I’m putting that survey on my own ‘to-do’ list, and will be working with the vice presidents over the next several months to clarify our goals and develop a timetable.
The second category of suggestions on making NIU a ‘first choice’ institution includes a wide variety of issues ranging from building repair and technology resources to safety planning and environmentally-friendly practices and design.
I would like to talk about two of these issues:
Global environmental consciousness has and will continue to be a major concern on all college campuses.
In many ways, NIU has demonstrated leadership in reducing energy consumption, recycling office waste and being an early adopter of new and more efficient technologies.
As we move forward with implementing our campus master plan, we will be challenged to make sustainability and the commitment to reduce environmental impact part of our guiding principles on every project.
To that end, today I am asking Executive Vice President Eddie Williams to empanel a Task Force on a Sustainable Campus Environment that includes a wide range of campus experts from our faculty and staff and student body.
Our commitment to becoming a sustainable university has wide-ranging implications for every aspect of university life.
It’s more than energy-efficient buildings and hybrid-fuel motor pools.
In fact, the most important responsibility we have in the area of sustainability is educating a generation of citizens to see the interconnectedness of global actions and effects on our environment.
I thought of this recently when I read that the latest funding proposal request from our Student Association calls for greater fuel efficiency from vehicles used on the Huskie Bus Line.
These students have made the connection between their actions and the environment, and they have identified a way to make a difference with decisions that are in their purview. I applaud the SA for that action, and encourage other campus groups to follow suit.
The second issue I’d like to highlight from the broad category of campus environment is safety, security and emergency response.
None of us need to be reminded of the many incidents we have seen this past year that underscore our need to be prepared for crisis.
Our new Emergency Response Guide that each of you received earlier this month is just one manifestation of our increased attention to issues of preparedness. In addition to the personal copies you all received, the guide will be posted in all classrooms and laboratories on campus, thanks to our building service personnel.
Along the same lines, I have asked our Police Chief, Don Grady, to lead a group in review of the commission report on Virginia Tech.
The scope of that university tragedy and the lessons to be taken from it compel all of higher education to study this report and incorporate its findings into our own emergency response procedures.
Knowing that emergencies take many forms, I have also asked Executive Vice President Eddie Williams to oversee continuing development of our Emergency Operations Plan.
As last month’s floods so clearly illustrated, we must be prepared for all manner of crises and interruptions, and that preparedness must extend to protection of property as well as individuals.
The final category of recommendations on making NIU a university of first choice for students, faculty and staff has to do with a subject you’ve heard me talk about many times, and that is branding.
I was not surprised to see this issue articulated throughout the Strategic Planning report.
So much depends on our ability to establish and maintain a clear identity: student recruitment … alumni affiliation … corporate and private investment … the ability to attract top faculty … even the workplace value of an NIU degree. All of these imperatives depend on our ability to establish a clear institutional identity in the marketplace.
We have made remarkable progress on this issue over the past 12 months:
Our Web Presence project has voluntarily brought more than 60 percent of NIU websites into the branded template with dozens more waiting in the queue.
With electronic communications now at the forefront of institutional identity and transactions, the need for a higher-quality online presence is beyond debate.
A matching set of standards for printed materials is also in the works, along with new, online design programs that will help present a united NIU visual image to the world.
Partnerships between and among dozens of campus offices are leveraging every available resource to convey an NIU message that supports our strategic plan.
Here, for example, is what viewers in the 4.8 million households receiving Comcast Sportsnet are seeing about NIU during football games broadcast across the Midwest:
Discover your genius … It’s no coincidence that we’re showing students and faculty working together in pursuit of new knowledge … This trademark NIU experience is one we need to celebrate in every possible venue.
As we move forward with strategic planning, I am asking all participants to place a high priority on the ability of new programs to enhance the public visibility of this institution.
It is not enough to be known as an individual achiever in a narrow discipline – to receive priority funding and recognition, all our work must contribute to the powerful composite image that is Northern Illinois University.
The Strategic Planning Task Force has called for “relentless promotion” of that image in multiple venues and media. I strongly endorse that recommendation and the excellent progress we have made over the past twelve months.
Each of the initiatives and investment plans I’ve outlined this afternoon require new resources.
Preliminary funding for the key initiatives I’ve mentioned, as well as other initiatives under discussion, has been identified, and over the next several months I will be exploring other sources with our Board of Trustees and each of our vice presidents.
In addition and where appropriate, private donations will also be applied to key initiatives, and donors will be made aware of specific ways in which their dollars can support our strategic planning initiatives.
All told, I am confident that we can, over the next five years, identify and direct as much as $60 million in reallocated funds, gifts and contracts and new dollars to implementation of our strategic plan.
Yes, I said $60 million … and with the addition of targeted donations from our True North capital campaign, that number could go higher.
I’d like to talk for just a minute about that private fundraising effort:
True North is NIU’s first-ever comprehensive capital campaign, and I believe it can make a significant difference in our pursuit of academic excellence.
True North celebrates the remarkable generosity of our alumni and friends with a $150 million campaign goal … and as I stand before you today, I’m proud to announce that we have raised $112 million toward that $150 million goal.
Listen to some of our most recent leadership gifts:
The nature of this gift allows us to put it to work immediately in service to our strategic plan’s top academic initiatives. I am excited about that precedent and the way it invites our donors to get behind our strategic plan with their dollars.
These are big plans. NIU’s strategic planning initiative is sweeping in scope and transformational in nature.
It enjoys the support of both our shared governance system and our governing board.
Given its high profile and sizeable price tag, I feel a personal responsibility to keep the plan’s benchmarks and milestones in front of our campus community.
To that end, I want to invoke a moment of presidential privilege:
So that our entire campus community can more readily track our progress, all programs and initiatives created and funded through the NIU Strategic Planning process will bear the name of the NIU “Great Journeys” program.
For students seeking a start in life … for faculty seeking answers to enduring mysteries … for all who seek an intellectual home, NIU is where great journeys begin.
The Great Journeys strategic planning website will track our progress by charting the plan’s recommendations into a five-year calendar and listing the landmark investments made in support of each imperative.
Every major recommendation will include contextual benchmarking information to explain specific goals and targets.
In the end, we will have made investments that matter, and that have a measureable impact on the life of our institution and the people it serves.
Fifty years after becoming a university, we are once again defining what that means. The work we have done over the past twelve months, and the work we will continue in the coming year will define Northern Illinois University for decades to come.
It will indeed be a great journey, and one that I am honored to take with all of you.