Thank you, Jerry.
The stories you’ve shared demonstrate the essence of our communiversity. NIU and DeKalb are partners. We combine our expertise, energy and resources to confront challenges and achieve mutual goals. In many ways, our individual success depends on our shared success.
I want to thank you for your partnership and your support of NIU not only during your term as mayor of DeKalb, but for decades before that. You are a Huskie through and through – from your days as a student-journalist with the Northern Star to your many years as a generous alum. As you and Ging transition to your well-earned retirement, we are grateful for the many contributions you have made to your community and your alma mater.
We have always known that DeKalb and NIU are at our best when we come together. Over the past several months, we have seen the truth in this sentiment many times over.
Managing our way through the pandemic has required us to be collaborative, innovative and resilient. I am filled with pride as I look around the university and the community and see what we have accomplished together in the face of the biggest public health challenge of our lifetimes.
Protecting the pack is a team effort. The tremendous shifts we have made at the university simply wouldn’t have been possible without the support of many people in the community. Our colleagues at the DeKalb County Health Department and Northwestern Medicine have been at our side from the beginning of the pandemic, helping us develop and implement countless processes to ensure the health and well-being of our students, faculty and staff. We are grateful for their leadership and their unwavering dedication to the community. As has been said many times throughout this pandemic, the caregivers and support workers on the front lines of this pandemic are true heroes.
As we have navigated the pandemic on campus, we have been keenly aware of the economic impact on DeKalb. We recognize the university’s role as a regional economic engine and understand that our move to mostly remote operations has touched local businesses that count on a steady stream of NIU students, employees and visitors as customers. We have been very intentional about keeping our purchasing close to home within the confines of state procurement rules.
Mayor Smith mentioned DeKalb County UNITES and its important work on behalf of the small business sector. Last spring, any time I needed a bit of good news, I would ask for an update on UNITES. It was always uplifting to hear about the creative and meaningful work the team was doing. Today, it puts a smile on my face when I hear the latest about 40TUDE, a program that was created by UNITES and developed with a new set of partners.
40TUDE was designed to help local small businesses develop online commerce and improve their social media presence. The work is done by NIU students under the guidance of College of Business faculty and marketing experts from OC Creative. Funding and additional support for the program have been provided by Jobs PLUS, the NIU Foundation and NIU’s Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development.
As the team began building the program 40TUDE, they realized that small nonprofits in the area had similar needs for assistance. Cut off from their regular fundraising activities and faced with increasing demand for services, nonprofits need new ways to reach out to donors and identify other resources. So, 40TUDE Nonprofit was born and NIU’s Center for Nonprofit and NGO Studies and the DeKalb County Nonprofit Partnership came on board to provide leadership and support.
I can’t wait to see what our students and their business and nonprofit clients create together. Like UNITES, 40TUDE represents the best type of engagement and collective impact: a group of dedicated people from the university and the community creating solutions to local challenges, with talented students benefiting from experiential learning, mentorship and employment. Talk about a win-win!
In a year full of challenges, our students continue to amaze me with their grit, hard work and optimism.
They are helping to lead the change they want to see, and this includes creating a more equitable and inclusive community where they can build their lives. It’s hard – even heartbreaking – work at times to do that. And in my perspective, what we witnessed this summer – the pain of men, women and children of color across our nation and in our community – expressing how they don’t feel heard, seen or safe, shows just how much work we all need to do to create a truly inclusive university and community.
I want you to know that NIU is committed to doing our part to work against prejudice and inequities on our campus, and we are pleased to see the work happening by the city, community and business leaders to build an inclusive DeKalb.
The amazing Belonging event held earlier this fall is a great example. If you weren’t able to participate in the event that night, please go to the city’s website and watch the recording of Dr. john powell’s remarks and the Q-and-A with members of the community. Dr. powell has provided us with a shared language and helped point us in a direction that – with a lot of work by people who care – will help us create a community rooted in the idea of not only being welcoming to all but being one that truly embraces one another and fosters the feeling of belonging. That’s the type of desirable community that attracts and retains students, employees, businesses and resources. If we can achieve the goal of being a “belonging” community, imagine the impact on our daily lives and for generations to come. I believe we are up to the challenge.
I also want to share with you today about the progress we’re making with implementing our 5-year Strategic Enrollment Plan. We have taken a new approach to bringing students to NIU and ensuring their success while they are here. I am happy to report that our strategies are working.
- Total fall enrollment climbed to 16,769, driven by an 8% increase in freshmen and a 6% improvement in retention of first-year students.
- What are we doing differently? We are identifying potential Huskies earlier in the high school careers, communicating with them more frequently and raising our profile through more aggressive and targeted advertising.
- The Huskie Pledge helped break down financial barriers, ensuring that qualified students whose families earn less than $75,000 would have their tuition and fees covered by grants and scholarships.
- We have also improved our outreach right here at home. We were glad to welcome 110 new first-year students from DeKalb County this year, an increase of 43% over last year.
We are proud of these enrollment gains and our tremendously talented and diverse student body. Our faculty and staff continue to give us plenty of reasons to be proud, and I’d like to share a few highlights with you.
- We achieved our highest level of sponsored research funding in five years, receiving 325 awards totaling $44 million.
- The NIU Foundation’s traditional annual fundraising gala was transformed into a multi-day virtual event titled “Thousands Strong,” which raised more than $2 million from alumni and friends.
- NIU was designated an Engaged Institution for the second time by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for our excellent alignment of campus mission, culture, leadership, resources, and practices that support dynamic and noteworthy community engagement.
- Dozens of faculty members pivoted aspects of their research and artistry to issues surrounding COVID-19. (By the way, if you were one of the hundreds of people who volunteered to help evaluate Dr. Beth Gailliard’s new COVID test during the drive-through testing on campus recently, thank you!)
All of these accomplishments are noteworthy under the best of circumstances, but seeing how our Huskies are driving innovation, engagement and excellence despite the incredible challenges of 2020 only affirms that not only do Huskies never quit, but they rise to every occasion. COVID-19 will continue to present the university with myriad challenges in the weeks, months and even years ahead. The impact to date has been staggering, but we remain fully committed to our mission, vision and values and, importantly, to transforming lives through education.
As NIU celebrates its 125th year, it is a time for reflection and celebration. I have appreciated hearing from alumni and community members who have taken the time to share their stories and memories with me. I always love the stories about ice skating on the lagoon, marriage proposals at the kissing bench and the flash of recognition when a student stumbles upon the subject that will become their life’s work. I have also enjoyed hearing from people who came here to go to school at NIU, fell in love with DeKalb and established their businesses and families here. In many ways, the university and the community have grown together.
We are excited about next steps for the Northern Illinois Center for Community Sustainability and other emerging ideas for development of our west campus. We are creating linkages to the businesses that have recently been attracted to DeKalb County and helping to maximize the economic development impact of these wins. We are optimistic about the planning underway to revitalize neighborhoods around the university and are eager to help.
We will emerge from this period of uncertainty strong and united, proving once again that we are better together.