Bold Futures

By Joe King

Bold Futures

Almost five months to the day after he arrived on campus, Doug Baker stood before the Northern Illinois University community at his inauguration and sounded a battle cry, urging the university to pursue a bold future. “We must now forge the New University of the 21st century. We owe it to our students today, and to their grandchildren tomorrow, so that they, too, will have the opportunity to be part of our Huskie family,” he told a packed house at the November 13 event in the  Sandburg Auditorium of the Holmes Student Center.

To those who had been paying attention, it came as no surprise. Since the day he rode onto campus on his Ducati motorcycle, Baker has been urging the university to be bold and attack problems head-on by finding new, creative, and  collaborative solutions. Not that he is out to reinvent the wheel. He has thoroughly studied the university’s Vision 2020 plan and has embraced its primary goal, “Transforming NIU into the most student-centered public research university in the Midwest,” with one small edit.

“I like that goal, except for the last three words,” he says. “I think that we should be the most student-centered public research university. Period.”

To get there, Baker is approaching every challenge with a singular focus on student career success. “It’s not enough to think simply in terms of student success. When you add in that word ‘career’ you have to start thinking about graduation not as the end, but as the beginning,” he says. “Success isn’t just taking the right classes and graduating in four years. It’s about helping students go through a set of experiences that prepare them to graduate equipped to succeed both in their careers and in their lives.”

To help the university focus on fostering that success, Baker used the occasion of his inauguration to announce three very ambitious goals.

A little help from a friend

Because college can be a turbulent time, Baker has set the university to work finding mentors for every student enrolled at NIU.

Student volunteers join President Baker in front of Gilbert Hall.

Student volunteers join President Baker in front of Gilbert Hall.

“We know that students thrive when they have mentors to guide them, so we want to provide every freshman with a peer mentor to help all of them find their way in college life. For upperclassmen and graduate students, we want to find an alumni mentor to help them get aligned with their career path before they leave campus,” he says.

With nearly 22,000 students enrolled, that is a tall order, but Baker believes it can be done. Efforts are already under way to make it a reality, with three new mentoring programs launched during the spring semester.

  • The NIU Alumni Association piloted a program that matched students with alumni mentors, who offer advice in person, online, and over the phone. Seventy students were paired with alumni mentors, with waiting lists on both sides of the equation.
  • The highly decorated NIU Forensics Team has begun matching members with alumni of the program. They talk about their collegiate forensics careers, discuss jobs, and help students establish networks.
  • The faculty in NIU’s First Year Composition Program answered Baker’s call to action by launching a peer-to-peer mentoring program this spring. The program placed 18 student mentors into various sections of the class to advise and guide freshmen.

To keep the process moving, an online clearinghouse has been created where students can find peer mentors or learn how to become mentors themselves.

“We know from existing efforts what a difference these programs can make,” Baker says, noting that students who are mentored are more likely to stay in school, graduate, and succeed. “We’d like to offer all of our students an opportunity to
improve their odds in those regards.”

Learning by doing

While having someone to help you navigate through college contributes to student career success, nothing helps more than a paid internship.

“Research tells us that the number one predictor of student career success isn’t a student’s major or grades. Rather, it comes down to this: Did the student complete an internship, preferably a paid internship, during college?” Baker says.

Such experiences familiarize students with the responsibilities of the work world, provide them opportunities to see real-world applications of classroom knowledge, and help them develop networks of contacts that can be invaluable after graduation. With that in mind, the president has vowed that NIU will strive to ensure that paid internships become one of the hallmarks of an NIU education.

NIU has a strong foundation upon which to build. Programs such as accountancy, nursing, education, and public administration already require internships or on-the-job training. Additionally, each year, about 500 students report to NIU Career Services that they have had an internship, with about half of those paid.

A fast start on the career path

Baker’s goals for students do not end at graduation. He wants them to walk away from campus and into the next productive stage of their lives, and to do so quickly. His goal is for every Huskie who graduates to have a job in his or her area of  interest within six months or to be pursuing some other path of choice.

“Some may want to go to graduate school, start families, or backpack across South America for a couple of years, but let’s ensure that those who want a job get one and that those who pursue other paths are equipped to succeed in those  endeavors,” he said in his inaugural comments.

Baker has no illusions about the amount of work it will take to achieve such goals. To help the university focus on those efforts, he has devised what he calls the three pillars—areas of emphasis where progress will support the keystone goal of student career success.

Strong finances

Forging the “New University” will take money, and Baker is realistic about the state of university and state finances. With that in mind, one of the three pillars is financial and program viability.

“The amount of money the state appropriates to  NIU has declined 15 percent over the last decade (and that doesn’t take into account inflation), and we anticipate further cuts this year,” he says. The university’s other primary source of funding, tuition, is also a limited resource, he says, because costs are already starting to price students out of the market. Undertaking any new initiatives in such an atmosphere will require setting priorities and aligning spending to support those areas deemed most important. “If we decide that programs like finding mentors for every student and finding paid internships for every student who wants one are vital, then we have to allocate our resources to support those things,” he says.

To aid in that process, one of Baker’s early acts was to reorganize the university’s financial operations and embark on a complete overhaul of the way the university handles budgeting. He also created a new chief financial officer position to  oversee those efforts.

President Baker speaks about NIU advancements at the City Club of Chicago on February 20, 2014.

President Baker speaks about NIU advancements at the City Club of Chicago on February 20, 2014.

In a similar vein, all of the university’s marketing and public relations efforts have been centralized and the areas devoted to recruiting and retaining students reorganized. Baker has also created a new Division of International Affairs to dramatically increase efforts to attract students from across the globe to NIU.

“All of those things are aimed at helping us better utilize the resources we have at our command to attract and retain students—which has a critical impact on the bottom line for the university,” he says.

However, financial stability will not be attained at the expense of the university’s primary missions of teaching, research, and service. Faculty members are already working to overhaul the general education curriculum to make it more relevant. Efforts are also under way—both inside and outside of the classroom—to expand opportunities for hands-on learning and community service.

As for research, Baker says it will remain vital. “We have to have cutting-edge faculty and students doing research that’s not just rehashing what we’ve got, but also creating the future. We’ve got to be on that leading edge. We have to have research-active faculty in the sciences and the creative and artistic areas as well.”

Thriving communities

The second pillar is building thriving communities, and Baker has already begun those efforts in the university’s own backyard.

“If we are going to recruit and retain faculty, staff, and students here, we need a great living and learning environment. We need a campus and a town filled with interesting shops, galleries, performance spaces, and places for students to hang out,” Baker says. “We are a little short of that right now, but we have community leaders who want that. We have students, faculty, and staff who want that. And we have investors in the community who want that.”

Earlier this spring, Baker pulled together some of those stakeholders to meet with experts in campus planning to ponder the question, “How can the campus of NIU be re-envisioned to support the goal of student career success?” The resulting Master Plan Thesis (which is not a plan, but rather a document intended to stimulate discussion) offered some eye-popping ideas:

  • Turn Lucinda Avenue into a new campus Main Street featuring shops, expanded residential options (including, perhaps, Greek houses), and an electric tram line connecting the east and west sides of campus.
  • Create a revitalized campus “spine” running east to west from Altgeld Hall to Huskie Stadium, lined with trees and gardens and highlighted by a more engaging Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commons.
  • Forge stronger links—physically and culturally—to downtown DeKalb.
  • Develop community gardens, a solar farm for power generation, and several new buildings.

Ethically inspired leadership

Achieving such things will require leadership at every level, specifically “ethically inspired leadership,” says Baker. “To get where we want to go is going to require all three of those things. Certainly, it will require all of us to step up and lead when the opportunity presents itself. Furthermore, because the old solutions are not going to work anymore, that leadership will have to be inspired and open to new ideas; willing to build consensus, knock down barriers, and work across disciplines.

Finally, if we are truly going to succeed, all of our decisions must be ethical. There can be no cutting corners.” Ensuring that NIU remains a relevant player on the Illinois education and economic scene is an ethical responsibility in and of itself, Baker says. “If we aren’t doing those things, we aren’t fulfilling our mission. We’re not helping people come up and make their lives better, to make their communities and state better, to make the world better at the pace we should,” he says.

Bold futures

Bringing such visions to life is a job too big for one person, says Baker, which is why he convened a series of 10 “Bold Futures” workshops last fall. In those sessions, nearly 800 people—including students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community
members—sat down to discuss how to address the university’s problems and how to build upon its strengths. A second set of sessions will be held later this spring to focus specifically on ways to improve student retention.

The sessions also marked what Baker hopes will be a change in culture, one in which all members of the NIU community are empowered to pursue bold change.

“We have the wisdom in our students, in our staff, in our faculty, in our alumni, in our communities to make this an incredible place,” Baker says. “Culturally, physically, intellectually, socially, economically—we can do it all. We can control our own destiny. It’s us coming together, working together, and creating that culture.”