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Our View: Bold changes needed for NIU now

The people who think that Northern Illinois University does not need to change for it – and our communities – to thrive are kidding themselves.

Prospective college students now are faced with ever-higher tuition bills because of reductions in government funding for higher education. They (and their parents) are demanding more value for their money. They want a better experience, and they want to feel confident that they will be able to find employment after graduating.

Maintaining the status quo at NIU and the neighborhoods nearby it is not getting the job done. The status quo has resulted in four consecutive years of enrollment declines. Status quo is a campus community that is separated from downtown DeKalb. Status quo is a campus that students find confusing; one to which a third of students who enter as freshmen do not return as sophomores.

Standing still is not working. It is not happening at other schools with which NIU competes, and it should not be considered an option here. Yet, despite all the benefits that our communities draw from having the university here, there is resistance to ideas that could change the nearby neighborhoods, particularly the Ellwood historic and Hillcrest neighborhoods, where residents have formed a community group, Preserve Our Neighborhoods, in response.

People by nature don’t like change. It’s natural for them to be skeptical. But fighting to stop any change will not be good for anyone, really.

That sends the message that, sure, we’ll take the jobs and the business and the economic benefits NIU provides, but we’ll fight every step of the way if there are changes that could help the university. That hardly seems fair.

For example, it seems silly to fight running an electric tram through the Ellwood neighborhood to help students get to downtown DeKalb. The tram could run on the street or sidewalk, but the argument is that the sidewalks are too narrow and there is too much on-street parking. In reality, sidewalks can be widened and street parking can be restricted, either with a permit system or a street-parking ban. The idea deserves a shot. There’s also a lot of concern about the future of the “north 40,” green space behind Barsema Hall that belongs to the university.

The planning for development on this property in the university’s latest concept plan might have been handled haphazardly – NIU President Douglas Baker said they were thrown in by the design team. Although its understandable that people living nearby like it just fine as green space, it’s not their property. It belongs to the university, and officials have a right to plan for its future use, even one they said is unlikely to materialize in the near term.

Some people in the neighborhoods near the university are current or former employees – something that might account for some of their mistrust of the motives of the administration.

Yet it would seem that they of all people should understand the necessity behind what school and city officials are trying to do here.

Nothing in NIU’s “bold ideas thesis” has been written in stone. It should be seen as the beginning of a dialogue where leaders from NIU, the city of DeKalb, and the residents of nearby neighborhoods can come to an understanding about how to create a more integrated environment, where students and neighbors can co-exist. There’s a difference between offering constructive ideas and simply suggesting that things be done anywhere but one’s own back yard, though.

The character of historic homes, and of the mature neighborhoods near NIU, should be respected and maintained through this process. But the reality is that the houses are next-door neighbors with the campus, and if the campus is to be more integrated in the community, they’ll have to be part of it.

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