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Baker marks first year as NIU president

Northern Illinois University President Doug Baker stands in front of Altgeld Hall on July 29.
Northern Illinois University President Doug Baker stands in front of Altgeld Hall on July 29.

DeKALB – The image of Doug Baker on the sidelines of a Northern Illinois University basketball game high-fiving students is one that – to Joe Palmer – represents Baker’s commitment to engaging students.

“Anyone who speaks to Baker knows he cares, and it’s awesome to have that,” said Palmer, a senior at NIU and director of public affairs for the Student Association. “Baker came in with a lot of initiative and [had his] boots on the ground quickly. From the [Student Association] side, that’s really exciting to see positive action actually taking place.”

As students return to classes Aug. 25, Baker will begin his sophomore year as NIU’s president, most likely attending more games, but also pushing forward with his visions for student-career success. Palmer looks forward to Baker continuing to work with the student government organization this upcoming school year.

Baker began as the university’s president July 1, 2013. Previously, the executive vice president at the University of Idaho, he replaced John Peters, who retired June 30, 2013. Baker said he plans to stay at NIU for “as long as they’ll have me.”

In his first year, Baker was criticized by some for high-level staff pay rates and by some Ellwood neighborhood residents over campus construction plans, but he emphasized strengthening town-gown relationships and pursued major construction on campus this summer.

Board of Trustees Chairman John Butler said Baker built a solid platform for topics such as student-career success.

“Now that a platform for change has been built, the trustees are looking forward to seeing specific goals,” Butler said.

Last year’s goals

When Baker came into his role, he was following Peters, who had laid out a Vision 2020 plan for the university, which had goals such as 30,000 enrolled students by year 2020. However, there were only 21,138 students enrolled in fall 2013.

Baker said Vision 2020 still remains a priority a year later, but it has taken different forms, especially to address student retention.

Baker’s four pillars – student-career success, ethically inspired leadership, thriving communities, and financial and program viability – have mainly steered his efforts in his first year, and he said he plans to continue following through with them.

He said he plans to continue focusing on student-career success, by making sure students learn as much outside the classroom as they do inside, through internships, undergraduate research, mentoring and volunteering. He hopes to provide more internship opportunities on campus, as well as reaching out to alumni for more opportunities for current students.

NIU Trustee Bob Boey, who led the search advisory committee that found Baker, said Baker has done well reaching out to various groups and stakeholders to improve the university.

“He has a different way of attacking it,” Boey said. “There’s no way he could individually attack those things, and he’s been very smart getting help. He has covered a lot of ground and we’re very pleased with his efforts.”

Looking forward

Baker said student retention continues to be a priority. He said he hopes extensive changes to student advising and peer mentoring will deter students from permanently leaving NIU. Faculty and staff members interviewed about 1,000 students during the spring semester for Bold Futures workshops about their experiences at NIU to try to pinpoint problems with student retention. He said most students pointed to dissatisfaction with advising.

This fall, advising will be available in residence halls for freshmen and first year composition writing classes, which last an entire year as opposed to one semester, will be used to make connections to students. He hopes the professors and peer mentoring will help students feel like they have more of a connection to their campus.

“Students need advice on guided pathways so they can efficiently and effectively get through their lives, careers or graduate school, wherever they’re heading,” he said. “I think advising is key, and we’ll try to work on that this fall.”

Baker has a good framework for boosting retention and enrollment in the future, such as engaging groups both on campus and off, said Marc Strauss, board of trustees vice chairman.

“It’s too late to make a difference for this fall,” Strauss said. “Retention, starting now, has to be a key part for our future.”

Changes for fall

Although the Master Plan Thesis, has been just that, a thesis, Baker said some ideas will be formed when students arrive on campus for this fall semester, including moving the buses from the west side of the Holmes Student Center to the east.

“The reason is the west side, the prevailing wind in the winter hits the tower and comes down like a wind tunnel down on top of those buses,” he said. “It’s really cold there. If you put buses on the east side, it will block it. We’ve got more of a windbreak for students.”

Baker said a sprucing up of campus will also be seen, including a long-needed power-washing of Founders Memorial Library and more banners around campus. He also hopes to have a pilot program of electric buses in place for fall. He said the buses were the most popular idea among students who looked at the master plan’s ideas when they were posted in the Holmes Student Center this past spring.

Other changes include the razing of the Douglas Hall residence hall and extending Lucinda Avenue to the Convocation Center, to provide easier access to and from concerts and sporting events held there.

“I think that’ll create a beautiful and more accessible boulevard for the university,” Baker said.

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