DeKALB – Longtime DeKalb resident Manny Diaz, a 58-year-old custodian at Barsema Hall at Northern Illinois University, told acting President Lisa Freeman during a public forum Thursday that he takes pride in his work.
Top of mind for NIU, aside from the semester being in full swing, is the ratification of a contract reached Tuesday by the university and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 963, which Diaz chairs.
Diaz worked in graphic design before being laid off, and although he said his current job isn’t something most people aspire to, he takes pride in what he does to help maintain university facilities. His union still needs its contract to be approved by the NIU Board of Trustees during its meeting next month.
He told Freeman during the forum that throughout the negotiation process, union members formed a firm understanding of how the university viewed workers such as him: low-paid and readily replaceable.
What Diaz wanted to know, he said, was what Freeman could tell workers such as him, who get more respect from faculty, students and office workers than from their own supervisors at NIU.
“What can you say to us that will ease our minds, ease our thoughts as we look to the future as possibly retiring out of the university?” Diaz asked Freeman. “I also have a son on campus. He understands. He sees what’s going on, and he’s concerned. What’s going to happen with me? Are we going to be able to make those tuition payments by the time he graduates next year?”
Students, faculty and staff such as Diaz filled auditorium seats to listen to Freeman speak and to ask her questions about her vision for the future of NIU during the open forum Thursday afternoon at Altgeld Hall on the main NIU campus. Issues such as campus safety, declining enrollment numbers, building maintenance and updates, union and university relations and the student social health of NIU were addressed during the forum.
Freeman said in response to Diaz’s question that she can’t make any promises about outsourcing and said it would be inappropriate to comment on pending negotiations, but she said she wants to emphasize that all students and staff at NIU deserve to be treated with dignity. She went on to compliment Diaz’s professionalism and desire for excellence in what he does.
“I’m not surprised that the faculty, staff and students in Barsema Hall recognize you as the professional that you are,” Freeman said. “And you deserve their respect. And you deserve the respect of everybody on this campus.”
Freeman reiterated previous points she made when she officially announced her candidacy for NIU president last month, including increased advocacy for NIU in Springfield and making public university education more accessible and affordable for students by also increasing university philanthropy.
Freeman also said safety remains a priority for NIU and its surrounding community and she remains optimistic about revitalization plans in the
Annie Glidden North neighborhood. She said NIU officials are doing everything they can to address those concerns and also are in the process of developing designated safe spaces on campus where students can make online marketplace transactions without the fear of heading into harm’s way.
“I know sometimes it can be disconcerting to get a message about what’s going on,” Freeman said. “But we send those messages because we think that information is power, and we want you to know what’s going on so that you can make good decisions about safety.”
NIU Board of Trustees Chairman Wheeler Coleman and Trustees Bob Pritchard and John Butler attended Thursday’s forum. Coleman said in opening remarks for the forum that trustees have heard constituents’ questions and comments during nine presidential search sessions thus far, and there’s one more meeting scheduled with Freeman and the Faculty Senate on Wednesday.
Trustees said Freeman was their first choice to fill the presidential office at the university during their July 16 special meeting. Coleman had said during the July meeting that trustees think Freeman has done an outstanding job as acting president after the resignation of former President Douglas Baker on June 30, 2017.
Freeman became NIU acting president when Baker resigned after a state investigation found that, since Baker became president in 2013, NIU officials improperly classified high-paying consulting positions as affiliate employees on Baker’s orders to avoid state rules that require competitive bidding. Freeman was vice provost during Baker’s presidency.
Pritchard declined additional comment after the forum, saying trustees are not allowed to comment on concerns raised during Thursday’s open forum and other previous meetings between Freeman and university and community constituents, including campus groups and city officials. He said the decision is pending and questions about the presidential search process cannot be answered by trustees until after their meeting next month.
NIU spokesman Joe King said the presidential job listing will be posted only if trustees decide to not hire Freeman after considering all input from the presidential search constituent meetings, which includes Thursday’s forum.
Freeman said she is looking forward to continue implementing ideas that came from constituents, including the NIU policy library that offers a more streamlined way for students and staff to report policy violation concerns.
“I believe strongly that our success as a university will depend on our ability to sustain a culture where students, faculty and staff feel heard, valued and empowered,” Freeman said.
Trustees are expected to make their decision on whether to make Freeman president during their meeting at 9 a.m. Sept. 13 in Altgeld Hall.