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NIU's new president focused on making NIU centered on students

Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 1:12 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 11:14 p.m. CDT

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DeKALB – Where others saw problems, Douglas Baker saw opportunity.

As Baker progressed further into the interview process that eventually led him to becoming Northern Illinois University's 12th president, he became more excited about joining an institution he believes has the untapped resources to become the national standard for a 21st century public university.

It is a potential some prospective candidates, such as Murray State University President Randy Dunn never saw, citing NIU's ongoing investigations as too troublesome to pursue the opportunity.

"Every university has its challenges," Baker said. "But the strengths at this university are just so big I had no hesitation coming here. ... It's a very positive opportunity."

Baker, who is executive vice president at the University of Idaho, in Moscow, Idaho, was unanimously selected Tuesday as the successor to NIU President John Peters by the NIU Board of Trustees. Baker was selected from an initial pool of about 48 candidates and four finalists for the position.

The board approved a five-year contract with Baker, according to NIU spokesman Brad Hoey, with a base salary of $450,000. Peters' salary for the 2012-2013 academic year is $337,491.12, according to NIU.

Cherilyn Murer, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, said the board looked at peer universities as well as those in the Mid-American Conference in determining compensation for Baker. She said the salary is what the board believed to be "fair and appropriate at this time and in this environment."

Baker had been a finalist for the president posts at two other public universities: The University of New Mexico in 2011, and the University of Wyoming in February of this year.

Trustee Robert Boey, who also participated in selecting Peters as president, said Baker gave him the same feeling he had when he met Peters in 2000. Boey said it was amazing to see the 28-member search committee and Board of Trustees gravitate toward Baker.

"I told [the committee] if you do your homework, I guarantee you will know when you see them," Boey said. "You have to rely on your own personal reaction."

Baker's primary goal of creating a student-centered university impressed many on the search committee, especially the students.

Elliot Echols, who helped select Baker from the four finalists as a student trustee, said it was evident Baker cared about students, and concerns and ideas from the student population would not fall on deaf ears.

Junior Mike Theodore, a member of the search committee, said Baker immediately stood out to him.

"From a student perspective, I couldn't be more excited. I think he really connects with everyone involved in the university," Theodore said. "I think he has the right traits at the right time."

Baker emphasized his focus on students, saying his top priority in his first year would be to focus on the student aspects of the Vision 2020 plan and modify the broad set of goals for the university's future to maximize its potential.

"Being a student-centered university is critical," Baker said. "I think the 2020 plan is on target. ... We're going to work hard to make it operational."

The Vision 2020 Initiative was one of Peters' major goals for the university and will progress in some form under Baker when he officially takes over July 1. The plan aims to increase enrollment, raise academic standards and make NIU the leading research university in the region.

Murer said Peters and Baker would work together during a transition period over the summer. She said Peters, who was not at Tuesday's announcement because he was out of town at a conference, is supportive of Baker's vision for the university and she believes the initial assistance will help the university.

"[Peters] will be there to give support, but he understands it's a new day for a new person," Murer said. "It is in his character to be supportive and in his heart to do what is best for NIU."

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