Beginning of a new era: Baker starts at NIU


NIU President Doug Baker and Denise Schoenbachler, dean of the College of Business, relax and share a laugh during a break while filming a greeting video July 2 inside Barsema Hall.

By Ali Combs

Nearly 2,000 miles from home, NIU President Doug Baker found his way to his new home at Altgeld Hall to tackle a list of initiatives and lead NIU into a new era.

Before his official first day as NIU president, Baker spent a full week working on campus, getting to know the people he’ll be with on a day-to-day basis and learning what the biggest concerns are for leaders who have already spent time at NIU. Baker’s assistant, Dori Hooker, said he was working mostly on internal relations to get started.

Baker’s second day as NIU President was July 2. He spent it working with department heads and NIU Media and Public Relations.

‘He’s Going to Do For NIU What MTV Did For Music’

At 11 a.m., Baker met with Denise Schoenbachler, dean of the College of Business, to film a video greeting for business students.

Dressed in their best, Baker and Schoenbachler prepared for the greeting video by making small talk and getting comfortable in their places.

The video mostly consisted of Schoenbachler asking Baker a few questions about what he thinks NIU has to offer and what makes the College of Business stand out.

After the short interview, the two of them stepped outside to film more footage. This segment of the video shows them walking along the pond behind Barsema Hall and talking with interns from media and public relations.

Paul Palian, director of Media and Public Relations, said Baker has participated in many videos since arriving at NIU.

“I think he’s going to do for NIU what MTV did for music,” Palian said.

Not only is Baker the star of various video greetings, but he is now a tweeter. The new president even used Facebook to publicly chronicle his trek from the University of Idaho to NIU.

‘Discipline, Sacrifice, Creativity and Compromise’

After leaving Barsema, Baker walked with Palian back to Altgeld Hall, taking time to observe the progress on the recently revamped Gilbert Hall and the landscaping and architecture on the east side of campus.

Steve Cunningham was waiting for Baker when he arrived. The vice president of administration was getting ready to go to Chicago the next day to testify in the current pension hearings being debated by the Illinois Legislature. He said the problems public universities face with pension plans affect faculty at all state institutions. Baker said the pension issue is a top priority.

“My dad always said, ‘For the first six months at a new job, you figure out you don’t know everything. After that, you realize you never will.”

“It seems it’s almost an insurmountable issue…,” Cunningham said, “but it’s resolvable with discipline, sacrifice, creativity and compromise.”

Baker and Cunningham had a private meeting over lunch to discuss the most important parts of the six-step plan Cunningham and leaders from other state universities have come up with.

‘I Learned Something About the Human Condition’

Baker and Cunningham wrapped up around 2 p.m., when Joe King, assistant director of Media and Public Relations, came to meet with Baker for an installment of a series of interviews the two have been working on. This segment revolved around Baker’s experiences growing up.

Baker was born in Oregon to a family of orchard farmers.

Both of his parents farmed and worked as teachers. When he was 10, his family moved to a Kansas City suburb, where he spent the fifth, sixth and seventh grades.

“It was an exciting time…,” Baker said. “A few months after I moved there, our grade school got hit by a tornado.”

When Baker was in middle school the family moved to Ohio, where the new president started college, though he earned his bachelor’s in Colorado. Baker said finding a job was simple when he graduated.

“When I got out, it was a pretty lucrative job market,” he said. “I had four interviews and got four job offers.”

Baker recounted 13 jobs he had from the time he was in junior high school through his time as vice provost at the University of Idaho: from being a busboy to working a punch press in a factory, to working with a lumber company in Washington and more. Baker was a true “roughneck,” as he put it.

Baker feels his diverse work background taught him a lot more than just a given trade.

“I had to interact with people from different backgrounds,” Baker said, “and I learned something about the human condition.”

‘Knowledge Outside of Book Knowledge’

Around 3:15, J.D. Bowers, associate vice provost for University Honors, came to meet with the president about their vision for University Honors.

Baker has made his interest in the honors program known from the time he was elected into his current role.

“We’re going to start communicating with alumni more,” Baker said. “We want to get them more involved with students with internships and networking.”

Bowers echoed the need to push for strong alumni relations as his program works on expansion. University Honors is looking to reorganize from the ground up, starting with a new budgeting model and effort to create a more complete faculty for the program. They have to be careful in doing so, Bowers said.

“We’re moving toward an honors faculty…,” Bowers said. “Some places there is an attitude that this will create an elitist faculty, but we think it’ll just be some faculty doing what we want from them for [the] honors [program].”

The new structure being looked at for the program is centered around interdisciplinary studies and experiential learning, like studying abroad, gaining research experience and service learning. Baker said a wide range of knowledge obtained outside of conventional education is invaluable to students.

“Students need a broad base, discipline specifics and knowledge outside of book knowledge,” Baker said.

Bowers said the interdisciplinary and experiential learning will accomplish this task.

‘You Just Have to Keep Learning’

Baker has spent the last several weeks preparing for his time at NIU. He has been on campus the last two weeks, learning about the issues he’ll face in the coming years. Working through orientations, introductions and briefings, Baker has been bombarded with new information each day, which is what he seemed to expect.

“My dad always said, ‘For the first six months at a new job, you figure out you don’t know everything. After that, you realize you never will,’” Baker said. “You just have to keep learning.”