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Local

NIU President Lisa Freeman on $50M pandemic impact: 'COVID-19 upended our progress'

Northern Illinois University President Lisa Freeman speaks Thursday during the unveiling and dedication ceremony of the new sculpture, Huskie Pride, in the Martin Luther King Jr. Commons at NIU.
Northern Illinois University President Lisa Freeman speaks Thursday during the unveiling and dedication ceremony of the new sculpture, Huskie Pride, in the Martin Luther King Jr. Commons at NIU.

Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part interview series with Northern Illinois University President Lisa Freeman discussing the impacts NIU has sustained due to economic fallouts from the COVID-19 pandemic. Part 2 will feature details surrounding NIU's plans so far for the Fall 2020 semester.

DeKALB – In late February, Northern Illinois University President Lisa Freeman said things were looking very good from a financial standpoint for the university.

Fast forward three months, a global pandemic, and a $50 million impact later and Freeman said much has changed.

"For us, like pretty much everyone in the world, COVID-19 upended our progress and presented us with a new reality," Freeman said. "The net result of those changes was about $50 million net impact. We knew that we needed to start to take measures immediately to mitigate that, but mitigating that would be something that happens over time."

Freeman said that $50 million impact includes multiple factors, including refunds to students for housing, parking and dining as well as portions of general fees.

Freeman said there's also a lot more to that figure.

"We made sure students that had expected to work on campus who were not going to be able to still reviewed stipends because we knew those funds were necessary for them to stay in school and continue to thrive," Freeman said. "We had an emergency fund instituted and distributed almost a million dollars to our students and we also had to invest in technology and make some changes related to the way we had to change teaching."

Freeman said the university will end the fiscal year with about a $36 million deficit.

She said that money from the CARES act, a possible stimulus from the federal government, and a promising budget in Springfield right now help mitigate some of that.

But she added there are still summer cuts, about 60 employees total, mostly in dining services and information technology. She said she hopes those positions do return.

As far as faculty, Freeman said going into the fall the school expects no reduction in tenure track faculty. She said she suspects a decrease in hiring of instructors for the fall but there were no specific plans yet.

"We've done these things because a dollar saved now is going to help us through the summer and into the fall as we get more clarity about sources of revenue," Freeman said. "For that very same reason we are exploring all options to see what decisions can be made but we've made no decisions about what we'll be doing to workforce or what other measures we might be taking. We're still waiting for key pieces of information."

Freeman said that things change so rapidly in the pandemic world it's impossible to know what the fall is going to look like, even though it's fast approaching.

"Conditions change day-to-day and we continue to make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time," Freeman said. "But we're getting very used to understanding it's hard to tell what things are going to look like in a month, never mind two months."

That said, she said preliminary state budget talks have her optimistic.

"We're very encouraged by the budget that's being put forward in Springfield right now," Freeman said. "What's being proposed is essentially holding us flat and that will help us as we go into the fall. Right now we don't have enough information in what the fall will bring in terms of tuition fees and auxiliary fees to be able to act. But we're doing everything we can to let students know NIU is still a wonderful university to come to this fall.

"So, yeah we had very unexpected revenue losses and expenses," she said. "But the university is a good steward of funds and we're taking the measures we need to, to mitigate the losses and plan for the future."

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