1st female president shares journey to NIU

By Lindsey Salvatelli

DeKalb | Illinois higher education leadership has needed to answer difficult questions during the past few years; however, acting President Lisa Freeman has spent the majority of her life seeking answers to unsolved questions.

Freeman is the first female to lead NIU in its 122 years of existence, but being the president of a university was not one of her goals when she first set out on her professional journey.

“I’m very proud that Lisa Freeman is the first woman president of NIU,” said Rena Cotsones, assistant president for Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development. “I’m proud because I’m a friend of hers, and I’ve seen this extraordinary person rise to this level. I’m also proud the university has identified the best person for the job, and it happened to be a woman named Lisa Freeman.”

Freeman grew up in Long Island, New York, and she knew at a very young age she wanted to be a veterinarian. Although her parents didn’t like animals, they allowed her to own pets and ride horses. Freeman said she thinks her decision to be a veterinarian may have been influenced by her lack of interest in dolls.

“I never really liked dolls, and I don’t know why,” Freeman said. “But I had a huge collection of stuffed animals, and people would give me doctor’s kits and nurse’s kits, and I think that’s how I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian.”

Freeman said she lived in a suburban area not very different from Naperville or the Fox River Valley, and her parents involved her in various activities like theater and dance while growing up.

Freeman said she enjoys football and women’s basketball but didn’t have the opportunity to play sports when she was younger because she went to school before Title IX was introduced.

Title IX was introduced in 1972 and prohibited education programs or activities that receive federal funding from blocking participation,or discriminating against, an individual based on their sex.

Even though women’s sports teams weren’t around, Freeman broke barriers and found her place in sports by managing the men’s lacrosse team from seventh to twelfth grade.

“I took stats, scoring the clears and the rides and running with the penalty clock on the field,” Freeman said. “And I got to understand lacrosse well enough that they let me coach peewee lacrosse.”

After high school, Freeman attended Cornell University, which she said she had decided on attending at a much younger age.

While earning her undergraduate degree at Cornell, Freeman applied to the College of Veterinary Medicine during her junior year. Freeman said she was waitlisted, which led to a transformative experience.

With two of her best friends already admitted to the program, Freeman said she asked college officials what she could do to enhance her résumé and was told to try undergraduate research. In many ways, this response has become a way of life for Freeman, who often finds herself tackling difficult or unanswered questions.

“When I did my undergraduate research, I absolutely fell in love with doing research,” Freeman said. “With being able to try to answer a question that they didn’t have an answer to, that no one knew the answer to. And so by the time I finished [my undergraduate research], I still wanted to be a veterinarian, but I couldn’t imagine a life where I’m not doing science and asking those questions.”

Freeman’s childhood dream to help animals was realized once she was admitted to Cornell’s veterinary program. Upon entering the program, Freeman said she knew she wanted to earn a doctorate degree and teach.

Freeman eventually found her way to University of Kansas, where she worked for 16 years. She began as a professor of pharmacology but ended as the associate vice president for innovation.

Knowing her past experiences and the importance of expanding one’s horizon, Freeman said she encouraged her students to try things they wouldn’t normally do. Freeman sought to help students who were considering pursuing a veterinary career by developing a program to give them hands-on experience.

In her quest to help her students by building a program so they could decide if veterinary school was something for them, she inadvertently found herself learning and practicing an administrative role.

When approached by the university’s provost to enter the American Council Education Fellowship, a program designed for faculty members who shadow administrators, Freeman said she wasn’t sure about the opportunity because it wasn’t something she had envisioned. However, one of her lab students reminded Freeman that she should follow her own advice.

“She said ‘you tell us all the time we should do stuff and we should try stuff that we might not want to do. And if you do it, all you’ve spent is time and you’ve learned that you don’t want to do something. That’s valuable,’ “ Freeman said. “So I went home and told my husband ‘I can’t believe she called me out on this, and she’s so completely right!’”

As it turns out, Freeman loves her role as an administrator.

Freeman began at NIU in 2010 as the vice president for Research and Graduate Studies and was officially given the position of executive vice president and provost May 2014 after a national search failed to yield any viable candidates.

The Board of Trustees approved her as the acting president July 1 after former President Doug Baker resigned amidst reports of mismanagement and a lack of compliance with state code.

Freeman said she believes her background as a veterinarian has helped her in her role as provost and president at NIU because it has improved her observational skills when assessing a problem, prepared her to make decisive decisions based on the information already known when handling stressful situations and taught her to make good decisions when faced with resource constraints.

Cotsones said she thinks Freeman has been consistent with her job as a servant leader and her focus on helping students, faculty and staff achieve their goals.

“I think she has won the respect of the university; she certainly has won the respect of the Board [of Trustees,] which has put her in the role,” Cotsones said. “But again, she takes [her job] serious, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously because she enjoys having fun.”

Freeman continues to pursue new goals and said one of her current goals is to generate a resurgence of Huskie pride through being a good leader, being a good steward with public funds and by showing everyone how exceptional NIU is.

“I think I definitely have the attitude that I’ll try anything and learn from the experience and you never know what you’re going to learn on the other side,” Freeman said. “But don’t try anything illegal.”