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Akst: Grade for rare NIU town-hall meeting: A-minus

Published: Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014 11:02 p.m. CDT

Consensus wasn’t reached about whether Wednesday’s “town hall meeting” at Northern Illinois University was a first. I’ve been at NIU 14 years and I can’t recall one, so at minimum, it’s been many years.

President Doug Baker called the open-to-everybody meeting to highlight the importance of welcoming new and returning students, discuss enrollment trends at NIU and steps the university is taking toward brightening the picture, take audience questions, and address recent controversy regarding the pay of consultants who have been working here.

I would grade the event as A-minus work, but I often think I grade too easily. Regardless, some postgame commentary seems warranted. I should note that I left about 10 minutes before the event was scheduled to end.

Everyone was civil and friendly, which is noteworthy because my sense of NIU – and this is only my read – is that morale is low, and some are angry.

First, the bad news. Baker reiterated in painful detail how much money NIU is losing from declining state support. The state has lowered support about 15 percent since 2003, and most of that has been since 2009. That translates to a loss of about $20 million.

He also said NIU’s overall employment has changed little between 2003 and 2012, even though enrollment has dropped about 15 percent, or about 5,000 students, between 2003 and 2014.

I knew about the enrollment, but I was surprised to hear how little employment has changed. Hires must be happening elsewhere, because everywhere I see, people are leaving, and they aren’t being replaced.

But the really bad part pertains to student retention. Baker said of students who leave without graduating, 9 out of 10 are in good academic standing. That means they didn’t flunk out. They either left because they didn’t like it here, they ran out of money, or both.

Losing students is a huge educational, psychological and financial blow to a university, hence the renewed, campus-wide emphasis on retention.

Which brings us to brighter spots. I was happy to learn that NIU finally is getting some good signs. That might sound trivial until you reflect on your last trip to somewhere unfamiliar. NIU is the third university I’ve worked at, and bad signage is seemingly required. But walk or drive around campus right now, and you’ll see that signage is vastly improved. Buildings are labeled and directional signs are there.

As a graphic designer, I also was pleased to see that many of the signs, while looking tasteful and easy to read, are relatively inexpensive banners that can be replaced quickly. No marble carvings.

Also, Eric Weldy, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management, talked about Welcome Days 2014. It sounds like some really cool, family friendly stuff is in the works.

But I have to be honest: Most of the people I work with are so swamped right now that actually being part of Welcome Days is just not on the radar.

That’s not to say we don’t care. Indeed, one person I spoke with who was unhappy about the town hall meeting said much of it felt like an insinuation that faculty and staff weren’t doing anything to welcome and shepherd students before.

What we’re swamped with is getting ready to teach the best classes we can. This fall, besides my four other courses, I’m teaching a “UNIV 101” class to incoming freshmen.

More on UNIV 101 next week.

• 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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