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Local Column

Olson: Soon-to-be NIU President Freeman's people focus an asset

The decision to hire Lisa Freeman as Northern Illinois University’s next president makes sense.

If you've hired people, you know that promoting from within has distinct advantages over making an outside hire. A person already working with you is a known commodity. You know how they operate on a real-world basis, and they often know more about the people and unique challenges in an organization than an outsider.

There have been positive changes since Freeman took over as acting president in June 2017. A two-year staff union contract impasse ended. She recommended a 3 percent raise for employees, which the board approved in October. It was employees' first pay increase in seven years.

No major scandals have come to light of late, and the state even passed a budget on time.

As acting president, Freeman has been engaged with the community, and unlike with her predecessor, I haven’t heard any complaints about her management style.

Not everyone is thrilled with the selection or the process that led to it, though. When NIU trustees declared this week that they wanted Freeman for the job, a faculty representative voiced concerns that the search – now effectively over with the board’s announcement of its preference – was not open enough to faculty, students and others, most of whom are not on campus in mid-July.

Faculty members all had to compete for their positions, and some may resent that Freeman will take the top post without competition.

Other critics point out that the university's problems have not gone away. Enrollment is still declining, and where 30,000 once seemed like the goal for enrollment in a time of growth, now a return to 20,000 would seem like a big win.

Some also view Freeman as tainted by the scandal that led to former President Doug Baker's resignation. She was a key player in Baker's administration, which fell apart because of issues with hiring high-paid consultants without competitive bidding.

The flip side to that is that because she saw up-close how things fell apart for Baker, she probably has a good idea what won’t work.

Whatever the case, it appears her future is as the head Huskie. Certainly Freeman must be aware of what critics are saying, and a lot of people will be listening closely to hear how she responds at upcoming meetings with students, faculty and local leaders.  

The university is a critical economic driver for the area. Bringing a person who knows DeKalb and NIU already means part of the learning curve already is in the past.

Now Freeman needs to listen to what people have to say and get buy-in from as many students, faculty and community leaders as she can. We should all wish her luck.

Eric Olson is general manager of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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