NIU is growing and on the verge of even better times, President Lisa Freeman told College of Education leaders, faculty and staff Aug. 20 at the fall kickoff meeting.
“As usual, we have a lot of work to do, but we also have a lot to celebrate and a lot to be proud of,” Freeman said. “We accomplished a lot last year, and we can really be optimistic about the year to come. We finally, after a long time, have good news to talk about in terms of resource development from Springfield.”
That includes a state appropriation of $88 million for NIU operations, a “welcome increase” of 5 percent from Fiscal Year 2019.
Meanwhile, she added, the state appropriated $77 million for capital investments at NIU that include the construction of a new center for health, informatics and technology and the tear-down of an unusable building. Another $53 million was appropriated for facility improvements that will enable the modernization of the university’s teaching and learning environments.
Chief among those reasons, she said, is a marked difference in the mood within the statehouse compared to during the uncertain times of the nearly 800-day budget impasse from 2015 to 2017.
“Right now, when we got to Springfield, we hear that higher education is viewed as an investment. Our legislators feel bad about the damage that was inflicted,” she added. “There aren’t a lot of resources to fix everything quickly, but I believe there’s a real commitment to doing so over time. We’re in this together, we’re moving forward together, and I think that’s important.”
Her roadmap is, appropriately, a realistic one.
The university’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget is the first in a multiyear process to move NIU from “controlled deficits” to a balanced spending plan “that incorporates mission-critical investments” and “things we need to do to live our values.”
Looking five years into the future revealed “a gap between our ambitions and what we have to realize them,” she added.
“It’s a prosperity gap,” Freeman said. “We need to look hard at how we increase revenue, how we reduce expenses and how we figure out how to form partnerships and attract resources so that we can do the things we need to do and live within our means. Our long-term success and sustainability are contingent on us moving forward in that fashion.”
NIU administrators are excited to begin updating NIU’s teaching and learning facilities, and Freeman said that she and others in Altgeld Hall will solicit input from College of Education faculty to fulfill that.
“Modernizing our academic spaces isn’t just about paint and furniture. We need to deliver spaces that really foster connections between students, faculty and the world of learning – the larger world of learning,” she said.
“We want to be able to facilitate things that are academically oriented, driven by student interest and peer-supported,” she added. “Connecting students, retaining students and closing equity gaps means that we’re going to be teaching students differently, and we need spaces that will allow us to do that – and I’m counting on the experts in this room to help us with that.”
Freeman’s high regard for the college is evident.
The president praised the Strategic Action Planning Framework, highlighted the Educate Global and Engage Global programs for helping to elevate the university’s international reputation and expressed sincere gratitude for being invited to welcome K-12 educators each June to the Social Justice Summer Camp.
She also saluted NIU’s $1.6 million grant from the Illinois State Board of Education.
One hundred and sixty K-12 teachers from Rockford and the Sauk Valley area are receiving professional development in math pedagogy; the College of Education plays a major role in the delivery of the project, which developed from cross-campus discussions initiated by Dean Laurie Elish-Piper.
Universities always worry about high school graduates who choose not to go to college, Freeman said, but “we also worry about students who have to settle for what wasn’t their original ambition because of some choice made related to math or science early in their career.”
“The fact that you’re taking that head-on,” she said, “and the fact that you’re being funded by the state to do that, is very impressive.”
NIU’s new executive vice president and provost joined Freeman in addressing the College of Education audience.
Beth Fisher Ingram said she has heard great things about the college during her first few months on campus, calling Elish-Piper “an amazing advocate for what you do,” and is eager to learn more as she meets with faculty this year.
Ingram, the former provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at North Dakota State University, also spoke to what brought her to DeKalb in May.
“The mission, vision and values of NIU resonated with what I thought public higher education should do,” Ingram said, “which is to take students who may not even think about going to college, give them the support they need, provide an accessible and affordable education, support them through that, and then get to my favorite day on campus, which is commencement.
“You can watch them walk across the stage, shake the president’s hand, get a diploma – and everybody in the audience screams because it’s such a moment for those families. It changes the lives of those students and their families,” she added. “It’s really exciting to be here.”