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Local Column

NIU’s new president tweaks tradition

Watching the investiture of Lisa Freeman as Northern Illinois University’s 13th president last week, I was intrigued by the big staff she was presented and that gold medallion she was given to wear. What is their history, I wondered.

Lisa Miner, senior director of institutional communications at NIU, helped answer all of my questions. The University Mace, symbol of authority, was specially designed in 1968 for the inauguration of the late president Rhoten Smith, and kept as a tradition at every new president’s inauguration since.

The walnut staff originally had four sides on the head with quotes from historic figures on each side. President Freeman wanted to add some new life to the tradition and had it redone with six sides, including quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., President Ronald Reagan, former First Lady Michelle Obama, Paulo Freire (the late Brazilian educator and philosopher), Aristotle and, lastly, a familiar quote from the NIU fight song.

Now about the crown jewel used in the ceremony: The Medallion. It is 6 oz. of solid 14-karat yellow gold with a 19-karat star ruby at the bottom. It was also designed for the induction of President Smith in 1968. Presidents get to keep the medallion for use at commencements, other formal ceremonies and special events. It is kept in a secure, undisclosed location.

One of the investiture speakers, a friend of Freeman’s, suggested that becoming president is like going into battle, and the mace might come in handy. It reminded me of a quote from President Teddy Roosevelt, who once said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.” But I don’t expect to see the new president carrying that stately staff around campus.

Back to those quotes. They include:

“Public education is our greatest pathway to opportunity in America. So we need to invest in and strengthen our public universities today, and for generations to come.” – Michelle Obama

“Education is not the means of showing people how to get what they want. Education is an exercise by means of which enough people, it is hoped, will learn to want what is worth having.” – Ronald Reagan

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” – Aristotle

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

“Education does not change the world. Education changes the people who will change the world.” – Paulo Freire

“Forward, Together Forward.” – NIU Fight Song

Since I am on the subject of NIU, here’s a little quiz: Other than my friend Sally Stevens, can anyone name the 13 presidents without using Google or Wikipedia?

If it’s not worth the effort, here are their last names: Cook, Brown (J.Stanley), Brown (Joseph), Adams, Holmes, Smith, Nelson, Monat, Wingfield, La Tourette, Peters and Baker. Of course you already know No. 13.

• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at or through P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115. His past columns can be found on his website at

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