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Akst: What’s really wrong at NIU

Published: Thursday, May 1, 2014 10:26 p.m. CDT

Ever notice how the weather and your mood seem to match?

“Gloomy” describes this gray, cold, damp spring week. It also describes my current assessment of Northern Illinois University, but I had no plans to say anything publicly about that assessment.

Originally, I planned to write about something else this week, but when I saw Tuesday’s Daily Chronicle editorial – “Our View: Bold changes needed for NIU now” – and the associated reader comments, it seemed appropriate to chime in.

“The status quo has resulted in four consecutive years of enrollment declines,” it said. “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.”

In particular, the editorial talks about various ideas to connect and move people (mostly students) around campus and between campus and downtown DeKalb, as well as proposals for land NIU owns next to the business school.

An efficient system that would quickly and easily move people sounds really cool if we could get it to work, pay for it, get people to use it, etc. I like the large green space next to campus and would advocate doing nearly nothing with it.

However, I don’t view either of these issues as being of utmost importance.

On the other hand, I could write expansively on NIU’s educational experience. I’m there on the front lines, every day, and I can tell you that the reasons why some students succeed, some fail and some leave are more complex than you might think.

It’s true our students face enormous pressure and costs. It’s also true some are dissatisfied for legitimate reasons. It’s also true (but far less publicized) that some students are ill-prepared for college.

But my point today is that two problems at NIU – and many other colleges and universities in Illinois – overshadow the others.

One problem is the looming, potentially catastrophic state budget cut. The other problem is the massive, sudden, inadvertent loss of faculty and staff.

As many news organizations have reported in the past week or so, the new, controversial pension “reform” law includes a mistake that affects some public university employees and is causing what some are calling “a mass exodus.”

That’s not an exaggeration. Just at NIU, it’s been reported that as many as 800 employees, or 20 percent, are suddenly heading for the exits. Without even concentrating, I personally can think of about 10 people leaving. Sure, some faculty members might come back to teach on an ad hoc basis, but many won’t and very few staff will return.

Ask anybody who works in or around NIU. Like a particularly bad virus, everyone knows someone who is retiring all of a sudden, even though they weren’t planning to retire right away.

One might say that with declining student enrollment (a serious but eventually fixable problem) and given that most soon-to-be retirees are older and probably command higher salaries, shedding so many people is a sad but short chapter in the university’s history.

I disagree. I think the professional, subject matter and institutional knowledge NIU is about to lose is catastrophic.

Like I said, gloomy.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, www.ninaonline.org. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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