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Guest View: NIU President Baker responds to criticism on raises

Published: Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 5:52 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Aug. 8, 2014 5:54 p.m. CDT

I read with great concern Sharon May’s letter from Monday's Daily Chronicle questioning compensation for two of my senior people. I have no problem with constructive feedback from those who feel strongly about the university, and in fact, I seek this kind of input.

But I feel it necessary to respond to Ms. May’s letter, as I believe it focused on the wrong issue and lacks appropriate context. The focus really should be on what I brought Ron Walters and Nancy Suttenfield to the university to do. When looked at in this context, it is clear that the compensation levels for both Ron and Nancy is entirely justified.

Despite the many wonderful things that one can find at our university every day, NIU faces issues that are real and serious, most notably a financial shortfall that was precipitated by a more than 20 percent reduction in state funding over the past 12 years and made more acute by declining enrollments. In fact, our annual enrollment has gone down by 5,000 students over the last decade.

This makes it particularly vital that we develop a well-thought out strategy for growing our revenues coupled with a sustainable approach to financial management. If we can deliver on these objectives, our outstanding staff and faculty will benefit accordingly, as growth will lead to additional compensation for our people, and I will be delighted when that day arrives.

The challenges we face required me to look outside the organization for highly specialized talent. Attracting individuals like Nancy to lead the finance division and Ron to facilitate strategy development required that we provide a competitive compensation package to them both.

Let’s examine for a moment the credentials of the two individuals in question. Ron is a senior strategist who has a four-decade track record of building organizations and counseling global enterprises, both public and private. Because of the progress we were making through his efforts, I asked him to expand the time he was working with us as well as his scope of activities over the course of the year beyond the part-time status. To equitably compensate him for the additional time, his compensation proportionately increased without increasing his pay rate. Further, his position is not meant to be long-term.

Nancy has a demonstrated track record of success in the senior finance position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wake Forest, Case Western Reserve, and the Smithsonian Institution. Her interim role originally was supposed to end in May.

No viable candidates emerged a national search to replace her. As such, she was asked to stay on through the rest of the calendar year to continue developing a budget and budget model for NIU. To encourage her not pursue other opportunities, she was given a salary increase. We will reopen the search for her position at the beginning of the semester with the aim of having her replacement on board for the spring semester.

I would just end by noting one issue that is not in the letter that has received a certain amount of currency; namely, whether I am related to Ron Walters. I am not. Ron and I worked together at the University of Idaho and built up a level of trust. I am no different than virtually any other university president or private sector CEO, for that matter, in that I want to people on my team who I know and trust and will get the job done. So, I brought in Ron temporarily, and his work has met with a good deal of support across the university.

We believe that all of us who care so deeply about NIU share the same goal, namely, building NIU’s reputation as a highly respected, successful public institution of higher learning that leads to student career success. We may disagree on the way to get there, and on that score I would defend anyone’s right to his or her own opinions and perspectives. We have to move on and work our plan, and that is what I intend to do.

I welcome, as always, the continued interest and feedback from the NIU community.

• Douglas Baker is president of Northern Illinois University.

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