John G. Peters: Students first

By Joe King and Tom Parisi

At first, it drove Matthew Streb crazy.

In 2010 and 2011, the NIU political scientist served as a full-time adviser to President John Peters. The  president’s schedule was always packed, and the issues complex. But sometimes the biggest challenge was  getting Peters from one meeting to the next.

“When we went through crowds of students on campus, the president wanted to talk to each one of them,” Streb says. “We would never get anywhere on time.” Streb quickly came to realize the president had his priorities in perfect order. Indeed, Peters, who announced last fall that he would step down June 30, 2013, after 13 years at the helm of Northern Illinois University, prided himself on making NIU students his top concern.

He often was among the first faces they saw when they arrived on campus. At the start of each semester, the  president joined the army of volunteers who manned golf carts and helped students move into residence halls.  He often visited University 101 classes, introducing young people to the ins and outs of campus. And student  leaders were frequent guests at the president’s residence, where Peters flustered more than a few by insisting  that they dial up their mothers and hand him their cell phones.

“His sense of humor helped him relate to students, to cross both generational and cultural boundaries,” says  Jarvis Purnell, who served as president of the Student Association during the 2007–08 school year. “The first  time I saw him was at Move-in Day, and I thought, ‘That’s kind of cool,’” Purnell recalls. “Later, when I was in  student government, Dr. Peters came to one of our meetings and showed interest in our activities. It really said something. He puts students first.”

Students first.

It was a refrain often repeated during Peters’ tenure. And that guiding principle ultimately shaped his vision  and helped the university prosper and transform itself during what was arguably the most challenging period of its history.

The accidental president

No one grows up wanting to be a university president. “It just happened that I became an accidental administrator,” says Peters, who, as the longest serving of all current public university presidents in Illinois, is  considered the “dean” of that group.

A native of Strongsville, Ohio, Peters earned his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois at  Urbana-Champaign in 1975 and accepted a position teaching political science at the University of Nebraska. While he relished his time teaching and researching, he agreed in 1983 to serve as associate to the dean of the  College of Arts and Sciences. By 1988, he was the college dean. Five years later, he became the University of  Tennessee’s provost, or chief academic officer.

When search firms began approaching him about presidential openings, Peters showed little interest. But as  their son, Russell, prepared to depart for college himself, Peters and his wife, Barbara, began to wonder if they  had something to offer.

John Peters interviewed for the top post at three universities and had three offers. He chose NIU.

“NIU had all of the ingredients of a great regional university,” Peters says. “I liked the proximity to Chicago and the diversity of the student body. They were like me—first-generation college students.”

If Peters liked what he saw in NIU, the feeling was mutual. “His credentials, his composure, the way he carried  himself, the way he spoke. It all convinced me that he was the man for the job,” says NIU Trustee Robert Boey,  who co-chaired the search committee.

Executive Vice President and Chief of Operations Eddie Williams, who worked alongside the president from the very start, believes Peters was a perfect fit for NIU. “It wasn’t just one particular talent or experience, but the whole package,” Williams says. “In Nebraska, he dealt with budget issues; in Tennessee, he dealt with athletics  and student-life issues. All of his experiences provided him with skills he used to guide our institution through  the most challenging period in NIU history.”

Success in the face of adversity

When he took office in June 2000, Peters’ immediate focus was raising the university’s national profile, and he  enjoyed early success. NIU gained acceptance to the prestigious Association of Public and Land-grant  Universities and secured the highest possible research ranking from the Carnegie Foundation.

The president also recognized the need to look outside of state government for financial support, and he made  private fundraising a top priority. He wasted no time in helping secure a transformational gift—$20 million  from Dennis and Stacey Barsema to build a new home for the NIU College of Business.

“The paperwork was all but complete when we learned NIU was hiring a new president,” Dennis Barsema  recalls. “But I wanted to meet the new leader before I signed on the dotted line.” Two weeks after taking office,  Peters flew to California to meet the Barsemas, and the papers were signed. “We knew immediately that this  was a person we could trust,” Barsema says.

The importance of private fundraising would be underscored as recessions, first in 2001 and then the crippling  downturn of 2008, challenged Illinois’ public universities like never before. State support for public higher  education dwindled every year.

By 2013, state funding for operations at NIU had dropped to the same level as in 1995. Yet the university had still managed to significantly expand institutional support for students. During Peters’  first year in office, NIU gave out 489 scholarships totaling slightly less than $2 million. This past year, NIU  awarded nearly 10 times as many scholarships worth nearly $16 million.

“He is a president who understands that our mission is to the students of Illinois.” —Elaine P. Maimon, president, Governors State University

Undeterred by the sputtering  economy, the university launched NIU’s first-ever capital campaign, True North. The effort dramatically  expanded the university’s donor base, allowed for the construction of several new buildings, and significantly increased support for academic programs and student scholarships.

Key to that success, says Barsema, was the confidence donors had in Peters’ leadership. “Donors have many  options for their giving, and if they don’t trust the leader of an organization, they will go elsewhere,” says Barsema, who now chairs the NIU Foundation. “Benefactors have shown that they believe in John Peters and  NIU.”

That confidence in Peters helped the university take fundraising to historic levels. In the decade before he arrived, NIU received $37 million in private gifts—compared to more than $200 million in the 13 years Peters  was on the job.

A shared passion for young people

Peters’ wife, Barbara, also played a significant role in fundraising efforts. “She is so charming,” Barsema says.  “You could put her in a room with anyone—she just connects with people.”

Barbara Cole and John Peters have long made a good team. They were high school sweethearts, having met back in Strongsville at age 14. Both went on to earn advanced degrees, and both believe in the intrinsic value of higher education.

At NIU, Barbara Peters made her own mark. A lifelong student of the history of 20th century fashion, she  curated numerous exhibitions on campus and is writing a book on the early women of NIU that is scheduled to  be published in spring 2013. She also has been her husband’s confidante, closest adviser, editor, and ultimate  arbiter.

“She has defined herself independent of me,” the president says, “but we share the same values, the same  commitment to, and fascination with, young people.”

That commitment is evident in their personal sacrifice. As NIU president, John Peters’ schedule is rarely his  own. He often works well into the night, and on weekends. He never goes to bed without two cell phones and a  landline within reach.

“He and Barbara sacrificed a great deal for our NIU community,” says Kathy Buettner,  NIU’s vice president of University Relations.

From campus to Capitol Hill

Often, university business takes Peters into the halls of government in Springfield and Washington, D.C., where the deft touch he displays with donors also serves him well.

Peters helped NIU bring in more than $200 million in federal and state grants for research, equipment, and  facilities, and for outreach and service projects throughout the region. Of particular note was the bond he  established with former Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, an NIU alumnus who helped the university  secure significant federal funding for research and scientific facilities.

“So many of John Peters’ accomplishments are behind the scenes,” Buettner says. “He builds relationships, and  Illinois’ elected representatives respond to him. It is clear that he has earned their respect.”

Peters also  commands the respect of his peers across the state. “John’s leadership is one that emphasizes the  power of cooperation,” says Governors State University President Elaine P. Maimon. She succeeded Peters as  elected convener of the Illinois Public University Presidents and Chancellors group, which brings together  university leaders statewide to work on issues facing higher education. “He is my go-to person when I need  advice from another president on how to manage tricky situations,” Maimon says, adding that she and Peters have worked side-by-side on many issues.

“What he fights for politically are issues that are going to promote higher education in Illinois, and he always  puts students first,” she adds. “He is a president who understands that our mission is to the students of  Illinois.”

While Peters professes a love for politics and worked with everyone from Gov. Quinn to President Obama, it’s  not what he enjoys most. “My favorite thing is shaking hands with students as they’re receiving their diplomas,” he says. “That is what it’s all about.”

Finding sources of strength

While that love for students resulted in many of Peters’ greatest NIU triumphs, it also buoyed him during a  tragedy that shook the university to its core. Shortly after 3 p.m. on Thursday, February 14, 2008, a gunman  stormed Cole Hall, taking the lives of five students and injuring 21 others before taking his own life. The tragedy left the campus in shock and required swift action.

Peters convened the crisis team within minutes of the shooting. Campus was shut down. Student and parent  hotlines were established. Counseling services were set up. The president spoke at two press conferences, and  Altgeld Hall became the media staging area.

Away from the cameras, Peters joined students and family members who had assembled at Kishwaukee  Community Hospital, holding hands and saying prayers. Eric and Mary Kay Mace lost their daughter, Ryanne,  that day. Eric recalled that, in the aftermath, it was as if President Peters had lost a child, too.

“I don’t know how  to express what that meant to me, but it was important and significantly positive,” Mace says. John and Barbara Peters attended Ryanne’s funeral—they attended the funerals of each of the five slain students—and in the ensuing months, the president called personally to check in on the families’ well-being.

“It was helpful to hear from him each time,” Mace says. “You think of the head of a university as a political bureaucrat. What I truly saw was a person.”

The days and weeks that followed the shooting were chaotic. The university’s media relations office was flooded with thousands of calls from news outlets worldwide. In the president’s office, the phones rang nonstop with  calls from journalists, well-wishers, law enforcement officials, concerned parents, and even then-President  George W. Bush. Bags of letters and cards poured in from people expressing sympathy.

“John wanted to answer every single correspondence,” recalls Dori Hooker, executive assistant to Peters.  “Somehow, we did.”

Peters remained highly visible throughout the crisis. “I gained strength by going out and meeting with  students,” Peters said. “They wanted me to express to the world what they felt. I told them to be strong, and I  could see in their eyes, they were telling me to be strong.”

Before campus could reopen, much had to be accomplished. Memorials, a candlelight vigil, a one-week  remembrance, and a massive, televised memorial service were planned. Six hundred counselors from across the country were recruited to be on-hand to assist when students returned.

Meanwhile, there were the mind-boggling logistics of trying to find alternative teaching space for about 6,000  students who had attended classes in Cole Hall’s twin lecture halls.

Forward, Together Forward

In the midst of his own grief, Peters found words that would help begin the healing process. “Let us continue to  show the world,” he said in a message to the campus community, “that a single act of violence does not define  us.”

A theme emerged in those days shortly after the tragedy, a phrase from the university fight song: “Forward,  Together Forward.” It set the tone for much of what followed.

Ten days after the shooting, 12,000 people, many  dressed in Huskie cardinal and black, packed the Convocation Center for the televised memorial service. The  emotional outpouring of support honored those who were wounded and shaken, and those five who had lost  their lives: Gayle Dubowski, Catalina Garcia, Julianna Gehant, Ryanne Mace, and Daniel Parmenter.

When classes resumed the following day, there was a new sense of what it meant to be Huskie family. “In the  midst of the darkest moment in the history of NIU, John Peters stood strong for the five families, for the other victims, and for the community,” says West Virginia State University President Brian Hemphill, who was vice president for student affairs at NIU when the shooting happened on campus. “On so many levels,” Hemphill says, “John Peters is the person that really held all of us together.”

“John Peters is the person that really held all of us together.” —Brian Hemphill, president, West Virginia State University

Peters also led the university through deliberations over what to do with Cole Hall. Some people, including Peters himself, wanted it demolished. But true to his reputation as a consensus builder, the president sought  input from the entire  NIU community and discovered an overwhelming desire for the building to remain standing.

Four years later, a completely renovated Cole Hall reopened as a model learning facility for the 21st century. “Once a symbol of tragedy,” the NIU president says, “Cole Hall is now a symbol of rebirth, resolve, and  resilience.”

A vision for the future

Peters revealed only recently that the tragedy had extended his stay at NIU. He had been considering stepping  down as early as 2007 because he never viewed the presidency “as a long-term appointment.”

After 2/14, he knew he couldn’t walk away. “I had to become a different kind of president, more pastoral,” he  says. “At times, it was very intense, but it also was very rewarding.”

As the university community healed, Peters  spent time setting a course for the future. In 2010, he unveiled the Vision 2020 Initiative to help NIU take stock of itself and navigate the changing landscape of higher education.

Not surprisingly, the plan is “student-centered.” It sets ambitious goals in such areas as graduation rates,  fundraising, and engaged-learning opportunities.

At the same time, the university launched an overhaul of student housing. Dubbed the “residential  renaissance,” it includes the renovation of major residence halls, the redeployment of Gilbert Hall from office  use back to student housing, and the construction of a modern, high-tech 1,000-bed residence hall—the first  new undergraduate housing on campus in more than 40 years.

“When we hired John Peters, it was our objective to find someone who could take NIU to the next level—and he  did just that,” says alumnus Manny Sanchez, who stepped down in 2012 after 15 years as a university trustee.  “He elevated the university’s academic profile, improved our campus, and inspired alumni to re-engage with  their alma mater. He succeeded at all of those things, and in many other areas that will benefit NIU for decades  to come.”

Peters believes that NIU has become a stronger, more resilient university. “It’s a different institution now than  when I arrived,” he says. “I had just a small part in that. Really, it is a credit to the very good people here at  NIU.”

After Peters steps down, he has several writing projects in mind focused around what it was like being president of NIU and the many lessons he learned.

“As hard as this job was,” Peters says, “I would do it all over again in a minute.”