Northern Illinois University defensive end Joe Windsor was wearing a T-shirt that said “Believe the Hype” when I met him during an exercise program for seniors last week.
He explained that the shirt and slogan were from Nike, but I think it represents what is happening with a new leader today at Northern Illinois University.
The campus has experienced corruption, shootings, administrative turmoil and a loss of morale in recent years, plus an enrollment downturn that affects the bottom line. But with the arrival of a new president, there seems to be an air of optimism around the institution. I have spent more time on campus the past three months in meetings, Lifelong Learning Institute classes, at rallies and even Homecoming than any time over the past five years. While there, one picks up a lot of scuttlebutt about the atmosphere and “communiversity” attitude.
President Douglas Baker has jumped into his new position with a fervor and enthusiasm not seen in many years, but since he has just passed his first 100 days, it remains to be seen if he can make a lasting course change on the “Titanic,” as some called the university headed for the proverbial iceberg a year ago.
The newspapers are reporting “sweeping changes” underway, with some new appointments and shifts in the upper echelon. When I was a student there 50 years ago, we had a very paternalistic administration of “suits” that ran things its way with little “shared governance” with faculty or student groups. I hope that has changed over the years.
The community is mostly interested in three things when it comes to town and gown:
Primary in people’s minds is the economic impact of this major employer, which has a total operating budget of $446 million and personnel costs of $225 million. The university employs about 3,800 people, not including students. Of course, the income for retail businesses, service providers and rental housing also is an outcome.
Probably second is the safety and security of the surrounding neighborhoods. The hiring of a new police chief, who actually cooperates with other law enforcement agencies, is a big step. But the incidence of crime, including drug dealing and random shootings, still haunts the area.
Then in third place, but equally significant, are the educational opportunities, cultural events and prestige of a first-class football program.
How much of this can be placed on the back of a college president is hard to measure, but the buck stops at his desk, and his leadership during his first year will set the tone. The entrenched fiefdoms, political nepotism and “good old boys” network will be challenges that haven’t been tackled successfully by recent administrations.
I see some positive signs that should help Baker succeed. One of the newest vice presidents, Bill Nicklas, comes from our surrounding municipalities with a thorough background in community relations. DeKalb’s new Mayor John Rey wants very much to be a partner with the university and not have an adversarial relationship. Over the years other mayors may have only seen the NIU president a scant few times a year, but Rey and Baker are in touch on almost a weekly basis so far.
So the megaship is slowly turning a few degrees. Being an alumnus of NIU, I can only stand on the sidelines and hope for a win-win in the coming months.
• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL. 60115. His column appears every other Tuesday on this page.