Doug Baker’s inaugural speech’s frankness was refreshing: Yes, NIU does face declining funding and enrollment, and its graduates are seeing fewer job prospects.
NIU is at a turning point, and this is a critical time for higher education in the United States, as he said. The thing is, addressing these issues is the first step toward fixing them; Baker’s beginning may not have been bouncing-off-the-walls happy, but by the end of his inauguration he’d practically shoved aside those issues and could have said, “What we need to focus on are solutions. I think I have them.” That’s exactly what the Editorial Board wanted to hear.
Student career success, a thriving community, financial and program liability and ethically inspired leadership have been touted as the four pillars of Bold Futures, and the president expanded on each topic.
To combat the university’s dismal prospects, Baker said NIU will call upon alumni, using them for funding and mentoring. He proposed pairing each student with an alumni — and he said there are 225,000 of them. The Editorial Board has no doubt some will be involved, but it will be tricky to find enough alumni who are interested and experienced enough in a student’s field to make each pairing a good one.
In order to further promote success, the president said he wants to ensure students are gaining access to paid internships, which he said are the No. 1 predictor of student career success.
Baker also proposed measuring student career success with a new goal: NIU will aim to see each of its students have a job in their area of interest within six months of graduating. Such a standard is as frightening for its loftiness as it is its difficulty to attain.
Baker also spoke of the work he’s done with DeKalb Mayor John Rey and Sycamore Mayor Ken Mundy, the three of whom hope to give the area a “cool college town” atmosphere.
The best part of the inauguration? Baker didn’t just say these goals; he laid out how NIU will make them reality.
NIU’s infrastructure and budget will change so the university can afford to pair students with mentoring alumni. Baker has already changed leadership roles and departments in conjunction with these goals: charging Nancy Suttenfield, interim chief financial officer, with overhauling the budget; creating International Affairs; and moving the Convocation Center and Huskie Field to Athletics, among other things.
Baker isn’t perfect and neither are his solutions — he acknowledged as much during the speech. The Editorial Board sees hints of rose-colored glasses: How can we pair all students with dedicated alumni, and how can we truly have every graduate in a job in their field of interest within six months of graduation?
The Editorial Board suggests Baker create and publish a detailed plan that shows how these two goals will be accomplished.
But these are the first steps toward making NIU a stronger university that provides its students with brighter futures, and that means Baker has started out on the right foot.