DeKALB – Touting a list of the university’s achievements since his tenure began in 2000, Northern Illinois University President John Peters said Thursday that he will step down from his position June 30.
Peters, who led NIU through a tragic shooting in which five students were killed in 2008, said in his State of the University address that he still has the energy for the job, but that he thinks it’s time for someone else to play the role.
“In recent months, after several discussions with [my wife] Barbara and my son, Russell, I have decided that this is the time,” Peters said. “This is the time for me to pass the torch to another who will carry out the noble mission of leading this great university.”
CHANGES SINCE 2000
The university has changed considerably since Peters took over in 2000. Under Peters, the university reached higher student enrollment numbers, peaking at 25,313 students in fall 2006. However, enrollment has dropped steadily since – fall 2012’s enrollment of 21,869 students is a 4.9 percent drop from the previous year.
State support to higher education has shrunk as well. In the outset of his speech, Peters highlighted the “bleak” landscape facing NIU and other public universities. The Illinois General Assembly has cut the university’s appropriations in six of the past 13 years, Peters said.
“And this year’s state funding was the same as what we received in 1995,” Peters said.
Peters took on perhaps a greater leadership role after the 2008 shooting, in which a former NIU student walked into Room 101 in Cole Hall shortly after 3 p.m. Feb. 14, 2008, and opened fire, killing five students, injuring at least 16 others, before turning the gun on himself.
Cole Hall was closed until its reopening in January. Peters took special note of the building in his speech. He said he wanted the building torn down before seeking state support to renovate it so that it could “rise again.”
“It is personally inspiring for me to know that this building will now foster learning for tens of thousands of 21st century students,” Peters said. “Once a symbol of tragedy, Cole Hall is now a symbol of rebirth, resolve and resilience.”
State Sen. Christine Johnson, R-Shabbona, said Peters’ leadership after the Feb. 14 shooting was one of the highlights of his legacy.
“[Cole Hall] took on a new meaning for the students, the faculty, and the people in the community,” Johnson said.
In September 2010, Peters outlined his Vision 2020 initiative, an all-encompassing plan to make NIU “the most student-centered public research university in the Midwest.”
Some of those goals were met faster than others. Peters announced an enrollment goal of 30,000 students by 2020. This goal was not referenced during his speech, but other challenges to NIU include for-profit schools competing for students, as well as top universities allowing students to access their online resources for free.
One of the goals the university has met was through its University Honors program. Referenced several times throughout the speech, Peters noted how the program accepted 226 freshmen and 102 transfers this fall.
“The last time our freshman class of University Honors was that large was 1987, when most of our students were not even born yet,” Peters said.
Peters also cited Christopher Jones, the associate vice provost for University Honors, as an inspiration for one of NIU’s newer initiatives. Jones said he and others streamlined the process in which honors scholarships are awarded to students, and that “small tweak” is leading to a wider initiative.
“What stands in the way of becoming the best instructor you can be?” Peters said. “What barriers prevent you from doing the caliber of research you are capable of? What impediment reduces efficiency and undermines our efforts to best meet the needs of our students? So today I am calling upon you to identify these obstacles.”
FINDING A REPLACEMENT
NIU Trustee Marc Strauss said the Board of Trustees will have to form a search committee to find Peters’ successor. Strauss said they will talk about the committee at their Nov. 8 meeting, but he was uncertain if the committee would get off the ground so soon.
Strauss predicted there would be a “great pool of candidates” for the committee to choose from, and that he felt that there was plenty of time for the committee and board to do its job.
A number of school officials and community leaders who were present for the speech described Peters’ announcement as bittersweet.
Jones described Peters as being student-centric in his leadership.
“I think he truly cares about the students,” Jones said. “Some university professors talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. ... He does walk the walk.”
Mayor Kris Povlsen said he hoped the partnership between the city and the university would continue under the Peters’ successor. Povlsen pointed to the cooperation between the respective police departments and university involvement in the city’s housing task force as examples.
It hasn’t always been a smooth partnership. Povlsen was very critical of the university in the public hearing on the housing task force recommendations for not sending any representatives to it.
“I was disappointed there was not representation at that meeting,” Povlsen said. “But I think overall...we’ve seen necessary cooperation between NIU and the community.”
Austin Quick, who leads NIU student government’s legislature, said he disagreed with some of Peters’ decisions and leadership style, but described Peters as being someone to emulate both as a leader and a person.
“I’m happy he’s leaving at the same time I’m leaving so I won’t really be affected by it,” Quick said. Whoever Peters’ successor, Quick said he hopes that he or she will infuse some new energy and change into the NIU administration.
Peters said he would provide support to his successor during the transition process.
In an interview after the meeting, Peters said he would remain involved with raising money for the university.