DeKALB – The Northern Illinois University Board of Trustees unanimously approved a four-year contract for Lisa Freeman as the 13th president of NIU during a special meeting Thursday.
Freeman will earn a $450,000 base salary, the same amount her predecessor, Doug Baker, made before he resigned in June 2017 amid scandal. Freeman also will get $25,000 in additional annual deferred compensation and $25,000 in additional annual performance-based compensation.
Freeman said she was honored and excited to accept her role as permanent president during the meeting at Altgeld Hall. As part of her initiative to recruit private donors to help fund more scholarships for the university, she said, she and her husband, Doug Rose, will donate her annual bonus – $25,000 to $50,000 under the contract – to the NIU Foundation.
“My husband and I see ourselves in NIU students,” Freeman said. “We see ourselves in a younger era, and we are so grateful for everyone who helped us, gave us that hand to let us accomplish the things we have, that we want to be the hand supporting NIU students and helping them achieve their dreams.”
The contract that trustees approved during their meeting Thursday does not call for specific increases but says they may be added at the sole discretion of the board.
It also says any potential severance payments will comply with the new Illinois Government Severance Pay Act, which goes into effect Jan. 1.
The search process included gathering input from a 13-person Presidential Search Planning Committee, which spent six months establishing best practices in presidential searches, contracts and salaries. The group also developed a presidential profile that detailed desired qualities for the position.
The trustees’ selection of Freeman as president comes after a two-month evaluation process, during which hundreds of faculty, staff and students across campus provided their thoughts on Freeman. Freeman also participated in an Aug. 30 open forum in which she outlined her vision for NIU’s future and fielded questions from members of the university community.
Board Chairman Wheeler Coleman said that, of the seven years he has been on the board, it received more input for this decision than it did for any other. He said trustees used that input to make the best decision possible for the university.
During those meetings and the open forum, Coleman said, the support for Freeman to be the next NIU president was “overwhelming.”
“Not to say that we didn’t have individuals that didn’t agree with the modified process,” Coleman said. “We did, and we heard those voices, as well.”
Board Vice Chairman Dennis Barsema said Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System numbers show that the average base salary for the president of a U.S. university with similar enrollment, cost and faculty and staff is $483,000, with a $78,000 annual bonus. He said the average base salary for presidents of Mid-American Conference universities is $447,000, with an $88,000 annual bonus, and the average president’s salary for all Illinois schools is about $393,000, with a $75,000 annual bonus.
“So I think that this contract is fair and is within line of where the competitive benchmark data is, and it’s one that I support,” Barsema said.
Cathy Doederlein, president of the NIU Supportive Professional Staff Council, said that she supported Freeman as university president and that she’s glad Freeman’s contract is in line with presidential salary data and Freeman’s male predecessors and counterparts.
Despite data supporting the numbers in Freeman’s contract, Doederlein said, she struggles with the salary distribution across the university, but it’s a problem beyond NIU as an institution and in higher education in general, especially considering the state budget hangover public universities still are feeling.
“We have colleagues who have to work multiple jobs to try to bring themselves above the poverty line,” Doederlein said. “We lose colleagues from all ranks due to competing offers that NIU is unable to match.”
Before becoming acting president, Freeman was executive vice president and provost at NIU. In that position, she provided administrative oversight and programmatic direction to Academic Affairs, Human Resources Services and Student Affairs, and she also spearheaded the university’s Program Prioritization efforts, according to an NIU news release.
Freeman earned $203,000 with $76,500 in additional compensation as vice president and provost under Baker. Baker resigned after a state investigation found that the university had improperly classified high-paid consultants as affiliate employees on Baker’s orders to avoid state rules that require competitive bidding. Freeman became acting president a month later, a role for which she was paid $360,000 with no additional compensation, according to Illinois Board of Higher Education data.
Freeman’s first role at NIU was vice president for Research and Graduate Studies in 2010. Before that, she was a faculty member at Kansas State University for 16 years, where her roles included associate dean for Research and Graduate Programs for the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine and associate vice president for innovation for Kansas State Olathe, according to the news release.
Freeman earned a bachelor’s degree in 1981, a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in veterinary medicine in 1986 from Cornell University, according to the release. She also earned a doctor of philosophy degree at The Ohio State University in 1989.
Freeman worked as a postdoctoral fellow and research scientist at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. In 2004 and 2005, she was a Fellow of the American Council on Education hosted by the University at Buffalo, the release said.
Freeman said she’s honored to take part in a prominent day in NIU history by being appointed it’s first female president. She said she expects to not be the last and hopes for a day when being a woman president won’t be so out of the ordinary.
“I am proud to be the first woman president, and I hope that I do serve as a role model for women in academic positions who aspire to leadership positions,” Freeman said.