2011 State of the University Address
President John G. Peters
September 1, 2011
Let me begin today by thanking Denise Schoenbachler, David Changnon, Brigid Lusk, Laura Vazquez, and Greg Waas for their articulate and insightful comments regarding the topic of this speech, our Vision 2020 Initiative.
I hope you can see from their remarks, there’s a sense of gravity and urgency here.
Last year I stood at this podium and announced the Vision 2020 Initiative. Since then, the Steering Committee and seven working groups—comprised of faculty, staff, students and alumni—have worked tirelessly to bring our vision into focus.
This process is designed to ensure that we become the most student-centered public research university in the Midwest – an institution that you would wish for yourself or your children . . . a university that is successful, adaptable and sustainable in all aspects.
Although there are many issues I could address today, we need to focus specifically on Vision 2020, the progress we’ve made, and the direction it is taking us.
This was a fundamental and necessary process, one that will put us ahead of many of our peers, who are only now recognizing the need for similar assessments.
Vision 2020 made it abundantly clear that our university, in many respects, is indeed at a crossroads. And we need to take action now.
This is my 12th State of the University address. Throughout most of my presidency, NIU has faced one financial crisis after another as a result of the state’s steep and steady disinvestment in higher education.
For some time now, we have been forced to operate in survival mode.
Consider this: State-appropriated general revenue funding to NIU for this year is less than it was in 1999. To put that into perspective, at that time members of our new freshman class were in first grade.
What’s more, the state currently owes us $43 million dollars from the last fiscal year. And we don’t know when that check will be in the mail.
Furthermore, necessary cost-cutting measures have resulted in campus deferred maintenance that now approaches $400 million. You heard that right, $400 million dollars.
We also face growing numbers of unfunded mandates and excessive regulatory burdens, which have a crippling cumulative effect. In FY 2011 alone, these mandates cost roughly $20 million.
As an aside, think about what $20 million a year could do for NIU. That sum is comparable to our largest gift ever. We built the beautiful College of Business building with that gift. Consider that. Each year we spend enough money on unfunded mandates to build a building the caliber of Barsema Hall.
We cannot wait for the inevitable turnaround in the state's economy, nor the prospect that the state will reinvest in public higher education in this decade. Therefore, we must become more self-sufficient.
We face a mountain of a challenge, but the Vision 2020 process has helped us to identify great opportunities that lie ahead for NIU, even in this harsh economic climate.
Vision 2020 prompted us to undergo an invaluable self-assessment.
We compared ourselves to our peers, we established benchmarks, and we set specific goals for the coming decade in the areas of student, faculty and facility excellence.
Most importantly, your work provided us with a clear vision for NIU’s future.
Here is the picture you painted . . . By the year 2020:
- NIU will be known nationally as the university where students learn today to lead tomorrow. Building on our strengths, we will have substantially more opportunities for students to participate in academic-enrichment or engaged-learning opportunities.
- NIU will attract more top high school students, provide significantly more academic scholarships, and engage many more students in our honors program.
- NIU students will have even more support to guarantee they get the most out of their academic experience.
- Among the region’s employers and parents, the NIU degree will be the gold standard. Our students will be known as strong communicators who can think both critically and creatively.
- Our faculty will be appropriately rewarded and supported for their work in the classroom . . . for their research and artistry . . . for their engaged learning activities . . . and for their contributions toward reaching Vision 2020 goals.
- External support for NIU research will increase by 30 percent.
- Our grounds and facilities will be among the state’s most inviting, accessible, technologically advanced and easy to navigate.
- And we will have a total enrollment of 30,000 students.
- Finally, NIU will no longer be at the mercy of unpredictable and declining state funding.
This is your vision. It resulted from intense study and deliberations by the Vision 2020 working groups. And it’s one I fully share.
If you peruse the working group reports, you will see that they present an unvarnished assessment of where we stand today. They highlight our successes, as well as our shortcomings.
Most of all, the reports draw a road map that will enable NIU to become more prestigious and achieve its goals of being student centered, research intensive and more financially independent.
We must now turn our attention to finding resources for Vision 2020 goals that warrant immediate action. Our plan is a work in progress, but we already know where we are going . . . and in many cases the working groups tell us how to get there.
Student success: Academic enrichment and engaged learning
In this competitive era, filled with change and challenge, we must put ourselves in the shoes of future students and ask: Why choose NIU?
Ultimately, our Vision 2020 working groups point to the fact that we must strive to further increase and document the “value-added” associated with completing the baccalaureate experience at NIU.
So how are we going to increase and document the value-added? By leveraging, expanding and enhancing what are already NIU hallmarks—academic enrichment programs and engaged-learning opportunities.
Academic enrichment programs include such things as honors and study abroad. But it is more than that.
Enrichment also includes courses or activities that connect the classroom to real-world experiences, such as internships, undergraduate research, service learning and themed-living learning environments.
Toward this end, I’m recommending that we aggressively pursue the goals set out by Vision 2020 working groups. These goals include:
- Growing the number of students studying abroad by 25 percent.
- Growing the number of students graduating with honors by 50 percent! I’m thrilled to note that enrollment in Honors now approaches 1,000 students—an increase of 13 percent over last fall.
We further need to dedicate ourselves to enhancing the depth, breadth and quality of our honors program to make it more attractive to students, faculty and departments.
- The third crucial goal is to increase the number of students who participate in one or more academic enrichment programs or engaged learning opportunities -- to nearly 100 percent.
These experiences are directly linked to the baccalaureate learning outcomes we must strive for: critical thinking, creativity and communication skills.
What’s more, these programs provide the sort of life-changing experiences that set us apart from the online degree mills of the world.
Our students already crisscross the region exploring engaged learning opportunities. They work in schools, hospitals and federal laboratories, and intern with local, state and federal officials and with top firms in the Chicago region.
They unearth ancient artifacts worldwide, perform on stage in Moscow, probe the subatomic world at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland and literally go to the ends of the earth to study global warming.
Those experiences don’t just foster creativity and intensify learning – they change lives. They open students’ eyes to unimagined possibilities and help them achieve goals that they never dreamed possible.
We must engrain those opportunities into the NIU experience and make them available to even more students. Doing so will require creating a structure that will provide the time and rewards to permit our faculty to engage in these important learning activities. Not surprisingly, you are already answering the call.
Take our Research Rookies program, for example. Last year, we had 17 faculty mentors in the program. This year, with student applications surging, nearly 50 faculty mentors have stepped up to participate.
Our academic departments must continue to find ways to embed engaged-learning components into academic requirements—and to be serious about rewarding faculty who participate in those activities.
Let me be clear – enhancing engaged learning opportunities is important, but it is only one facet of what we must do to improve the academic quality of the institution.
We must also dedicate ourselves to transforming our curriculum and take a fresh look at our general education requirements, which form the bedrock of a Liberal Arts education.
Recruitment: Increasing the academic profile of the student body
As a university where the success of our students is paramount, we also must improve upon our student recruitment and retention outcomes.
Let me talk about recruitment and about elevating the academic profile of our student body. Some of the measures we’ve already highlighted will help us in our recruitment efforts. Top students demand a phenomenal honors program and outstanding internship, research and study-abroad opportunities.
Still, more will need to be done. And here’s what you have told me.
By 2020 we will:
- More than double the number of incoming freshmen who were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes;
- And boost the number of freshmen who were in the top quartile of their high school classes, to 40 percent.
One way to accomplish this is by increasing the number of merit-based scholarships that we give our students. And I’m thrilled to say we are already off and running on this effort.
Brand new merit scholarships this fall include the DeKalb County Scholarship, the Northern Pact Scholarship, the NIU Transfer Student Scholarship, and the 4 + 3 Pre-law Scholarship. In addition, the Centennial Scholarship and the VIP Access Grant have been expanded.
And here’s the bottom line: Nearly 1,700 new students enrolled this fall with an NIU merit-based scholarship! That’s an increase of 35 percent over last fall. We can say with certainty that for many of these students, the scholarship was the deciding factor in choosing NIU.
The best news is that we’re not done.
There are plans to further expand merit scholarships next fall, so that we continue to enhance our academic profile.
One key to accomplishing this goal is private giving. We can leverage the success of the True North capital campaign and raise the bar even higher. Vision 2020 working groups identified private giving as one of the only NIU revenue sources with an almost unlimited capacity for growth.
With this in mind, I’ve spoken with representatives of the NIU Foundation, and they have agreed to make merit-based scholarships a top priority as the foundation moves forward with its fundraising efforts.
The increase in private support will help provide some of the funding necessary to achieve another goal, which is to double, yes double, the amount of our scholarship offerings -- to $10 million annually.
Improving student retention
Another Vision 2020 priority is improving retention. Addressing this issue was identified as absolutely imperative by just about everyone involved in the process.
Consider this troubling statistic: Each year, 16 percent of our undergraduates leave the university with no degree. Half of those, or roughly 1,400 students, leave despite being in good academic standing.
This is a tragedy, both on individual and institutional levels.
Some of these students have difficulty with the transition to college and others have a hard time juggling the obligations of school, work and family.
Still, many others simply cannot afford to continue. It is a heartbreaking matter of finances, and reinforces my hope that state MAP funding and the federal Pell grant program will not be decimated because of the current economic situation.
On the institutional level, the loss of students negatively impacts most of the measures of success that define this institution. And more is at stake than just our reputation.
To keep our enrollment at optimal levels we must replace those students, and that is an expensive proposition. Research shows that it costs 3 to 5 times more to recruit a student than it does to retain one.
Therefore, I believe it is imperative that we meet the goal set out by the Vision 2020 working committees to reduce the number of undergraduates leaving without a degree by 50 percent over the next five years.
That is an ambitious objective; however, we are already making progress.
As endorsed by the Vision 2020 Working Groups, we are already using strategies laid out by the Great Journeys Strategic Plan; we created the Office of Student Academic Success and are establishing an enhanced campus-wide process for identifying and intervening with students who have veered off the path toward graduation.
These efforts will help guarantee that we don’t lose students who have the ability and who are willing to make the extra effort to succeed at NIU.
Recruiting, retaining and rewarding top faculty
I also want to talk about another group that we must strive to recruit and retain if we are to secure the prestige to which we aspire. That group is you, the faculty.
We must continue to foster a culture at NIU that celebrates the abilities of faculty who are both research intensive and student focused.
After all, the international reputation of our university – and the success of our students – depends on the time, talents and energy of our accomplished faculty.
NIU’s history is filled with talented professors who have inspired generations of students and contributed significantly to knowledge in their fields. That legacy must live on through new faculty who share our vision.
Therefore, we must place a premium on the three R’s – recruiting, retaining and rewarding faculty who are held in high regard throughout the academy.
More than one of the working groups noted the need to develop innovative ways to reward the time you spend supporting and directing the engaged learning activities we discussed earlier. Such activities need to be integrated into the hiring, tenure, promotion and salary-increment processes, and recognized as being a component of teaching, research and service. I strongly support this goal.
Additionally, we must continue to pursue externally-funded research and economic development opportunities. Vision 2020 has laid out ambitious goals on both of these counts. It is clear that, going forward, we must provide the infrastructure faculty need in their pursuit of external funding.
External funding grants are not an end in and of themselves, but lead to discovery, and educational training opportunities for post-docs and graduate and undergraduate students.
To help meet the research goals stated in Vision 2020, we will establish $1 million in seed money over the next two years for innovative research and economic development proposals, with priority given to those that result in additional opportunities for competitive grants and increased graduate enrollment.
There is one additional subject that I must address—and that’s faculty and staff salaries. As you know, faculty and staff salaries have been my top priority during my tenure as President.
This issue is a central focus of the Vision 2020 reports and an area that the Steering Committee identified as being of utmost importance.
I want you to know that I have in no way lessened my commitment to obtaining competitive salaries for our dedicated and talented faculty and staff.
Even within the context of a host of other pressing issues, the investment we make in you, the heart of our university, remains my highest priority.
You have my pledge that, as in years past, I will seek to find ways to address faculty and staff compensation as we progress through this academic year. My commitment to a salary increase remains contingent upon the state meeting its financial obligations and our overall enrollment.
Improving, maintaining buildings and grounds
As you arrived back on campus this semester, I’m sure that you couldn’t help but notice that our building and grounds crews have been hard at work:
- They replaced nearly 30,000 square feet of concrete;
- Scrubbed every inch of 30 building exteriors;
- Revitalized dozens of neglected flowerbeds, now bursting with color;
- And painted 13 buildings.
We learned though the Vision 2020 process—and unofficially through the Complaint Department on the third floor of Altgeld Hall—that appearances matter. More than one third of the Vision 2020 public comments were related to building and grounds.
That should not be surprising. The quality of our buildings and grounds relates directly to our recruiting efforts. We simply cannot afford to lose prospective students or faculty because they think our campus does not measure up aesthetically.
But it goes beyond appearance. It’s a quality-of-life issue. Our campus should make you comfortable—and make you proud. Most importantly, it must be conducive to learning, and scholarly and artistic endeavors.
I believe we have made some important strides—and in some cases giant strides.
A year ago, I announced our Residential Renaissance. The effort aims to revitalize or replace one-third of our existing housing stock by the end of 2013, and improve student-life facilities.
I am proud to report that just one year later:
- Work is proceeding on a new 1,000-bed undergraduate residence hall.
- We reopened the newly remodeled Grant Tower C, and have begun a similar transformation in Grant D.
- Preparations are underway to bring Gilbert Hall back online as a residence hall.
- We have begun improvements to the Holmes Student Center and a new complex of intramural athletic fields that will dramatically improve facilities important to thousands of students.
- Cole Hall will be officially reopened in the spring of 2012.
- We have received authorization from the state for the Stevens renovation, which will include a new state-of-the-art lecture hall. That planning process has commenced.
- Finally, the legislature has appropriated planning funds for the construction of the Computer Science & Technology Emporium.
Vision 2020 working groups also set a goal of making wireless Internet available throughout our campus by 2015.
I have good news to report here—we’re accelerating that timeline.
- By the fall 2012, over half of our residence halls will feature 100 percent wireless coverage.
- And by spring of 2013, as many as 35 of our major campus buildings and many outdoor venues, including Martin Luther King Commons, will be 100 percent wireless.
Those improvements will be obvious. But there are other needs that are just as important. The Vision 2020 Steering Committee identified our deferred maintenance backlog, which nears $400 million, as one of its top concerns, and I concur.
Our campus electrical system is outdated, our steam tunnels are crumbling and many buildings across campus need major repairs. These issues must be addressed by the state.
Of course, we can’t wait forever. I am announcing that over the next two years we will dedicate $4 million of our own resources to address technology needs, campus appearance and serious infrastructure problems. This investment will include improved campus signage and way-finding.
After years of neglect by the state and a failure to meet its obligations, we are forced to move forward on our own to protect our infrastructure and revitalize our campus.
Sustainability: Growing enrollment
To accomplish all of the things we have discussed, there is one more goal that is imperative.
By 2020, NIU’s total enrollment must approach, or even exceed, 30,000 students.
I’ll pause for a moment to let that sink in. 30,000 students. That’s a dramatic increase – more than 25 percent greater than our expected enrollment this fall.
This is an aggressive goal, but one that is necessary and achievable.
An enrollment growth model represents the only effective avenue to maintain the financial resources necessary to fund the human capital, which includes salary increments, and academic investments needed to reach Vision 2020 objectives.
Without more state support, enrollment growth is the best, and perhaps only alternative available to us, one that will allow us to move beyond the current survival mode.
Much of that growth will be achieved by focusing on the traditional, on-campus college experience. That’s our historic role, and according to the goals laid out in the plan, by 2020 we should have an on-campus enrollment of 27,500.
However, to attain our goal of 30,000 we must also increase off-campus enrollment.
According to current estimates, there are 300,000 non-traditional students throughout our service region who are enrolled in higher education programs.
Currently only 3,000 of those students—or 1 percent – are enrolled at NIU.
We must do a better job.
Serving those students has been an important part of our mission, and we have made a substantial investment in our Outreach Centers to help us do so. It is clear that this is an area ripe for growth. Therefore, I am endorsing the recommendation calling for growing our share of that population to 3 percent, or 9,000 students.
In a similar vein, we can no longer afford to lag behind competitors in the area of online learning. Students are turning to virtual universities, and frankly, we have so much more to offer.
We must pursue the working group recommendations to add up to 42 additional online degree programs and certificates – prioritized according to student demand. To put that in proper perspective, we currently offer eight online degree programs.
To set us on the path toward reaching our overall enrollment goals, I am announcing today that:
Over the next two fiscal years, the university will provide $3 million dollars for new academic initiatives designed to enhance programs that attract more students. From this pool of funds, we will offer grants to faculty developing online courses and degree programs that appeal to both traditional and non-traditional students.
These efforts will be important first steps toward meeting enrollment goals – which is crucial. Reaching our goals will not only allow us to sustain and expand degree programs, it will also provide revenues to support on- and off-campus activities.
Moving forward requires taking considerable risks. Our university will not progress without the courage to take a stand and to make necessary changes based upon our guiding vision.
Of course, our success also depends on the support of our Board of Trustees and the faith that they place in us that we will be able to achieve these goals.
They have monitored the Vision 2020 process closely and asked penetrating and insightful questions. They share our hopes and aspirations for the university.
At the Board of Trustees meeting later this month, I hope to receive a formal endorsement of the Vision 2020 goals. That action would empower us to create the policies, plans, implementation structures, reporting mechanisms and timelines to ensure success.
With that power comes a mandate to succeed. The board will follow our progress, and they will expect results. All of us will be held accountable.
Accomplishing our vision from the ground up
As we noted at the outset today, we’re at a crossroads. This is a turning point in our history.
We are in the midst of a tremendously challenging era, but it also presents us with a tremendous opportunity.
We must take destiny into our own hands; otherwise events and institutions beyond our community will determine our fate for us.
I want to stress, this vision does not belong to me. I did not dream up the strategic goals.
A total of 110 very talented faculty, staff, students and alumni put in thousands of hours during this process. Hundreds more participated in the Great Journeys Strategic Plan, which served as the springboard for Vision 2020.
Our vision was built from the ground up.
It puts the future – indeed a very bright one – within our grasp.
Today, we have highlighted what needs to be done.
- We must recruit, retain and reward top faculty.
- We must recruit, retain and reward strong students.
- We must work harder to help our students succeed.
- We must do even more to connect classroom learning to real-world experiences.
- We must expand our externally-funded research and economic development activities.
- We must provide an inviting living-learning environment.
- We must better serve the region by meeting the needs of growing numbers of non-traditional students.
- We must strategically grow.
- And we must be sustainable and more self-sufficient.
On all counts, check the box—we have a vision and a plan of action.
On most counts, we’re already taking action.
After 12 years on this campus, I know NIU and our community, and I am certain that we can do this.
But our success hinges on this: Our goals must be accomplished in the same way they were created–from the ground up.
The Vision 2020 Initiative requires that the full force of our university’s 4,000 employees, our 225,000 alumni and all of our friends and supporters across the region join us in this effort.
Our NIU community has faced hardships and weathered great crises in the past. These events test the souls of institutions – and of individuals.
In hardship, you either shrink—or grow.
We choose to grow.