Domestic partnerships, accreditation focus of BOT committee meeting

By Kyla Gardner

NIU Board of Trustees committees discussed proposed changes to employee benefits for domestic partners and received reports on student success academic program accreditation Thursday morning.

Domestic Partnership Benefits

The BOT Legislation, Audit and External Affairs Committee debated details of potential amendments to NIU employee benefits for same-sex domestic partners.

Steven Cunningham, associate vice president of Administration and Human Resource Services, said NIU is on par with peer institutions in terms of the benefits it offers domestic partners. These can include medical and dental plans, life insurance and partial tuition waivers for children of NIU employees.

Cherilyn Murer, chair of the committee, said she wants the committee to proceed very cautiously and methodically to address possible holes in the definition of domestic partnership that would allow for fraud.

The current definition of domestic partnership is largely based on establishing proof of shared residency through joint leases or mortgages, said trustee John Butler.

Butler said the issue of residency was particularly debatable because domestic partners both working in high education might live and work at different institutions.

“We all know that one can become married but not live in the same household,” he said.

Murer said a lot of people share apartment leases but are not in relationships, which is a possible fraud liability. She also said that people move frequently in today’s society, so residency should not be an applicable criterion on which to judge the validity of a domestic partnership.

Domestic partnerships are defined by the declaration by the partners that they are each other’s sole domestic partner, unmarried, over 18, unrelated by blood and “jointly responsible for each other’s welfare and financial obligations,” Butler said.

Butler said the best way for couples to prove they are domestic partners is through an official civil union, which is a state recognized marriage for same sex couples offered in several states but not currently offered in Illinois.

Without a civil union, couples must provide a joint mortgage or lease, beneficiary of life insurance or retirement contracts, powers of attorney, or joint ownership of a vehicle or bank accounts.

Murer said she was concerned the language in the proposal might inadvertently discriminate against heterosexual couples who do not have a legally recognized marriage but are in domestic partnerships.

Butler said he would like to see gender identity addressed in the language of the proposed amendments to address student concerns about gender identity and expression.

“This morning we have had more forthright discussion about these issues than we have ever had,” Murer said. “My personal concern…is that we don’t squander this opportunity, which is precedent setting.”

The Committee decided to continue their discussion during future meetings.

Student Success

NIU Vice Provost Earl Seaver presented a report on the Office of Student Academic Success to the BOT Academic Affairs, Student Affairs and Personnel Committee.

Seaver explained the causes of students academic problems and the measures being taken to increase student academic performance and retention.

“This is about caring,” Seaver said. “We want all of our students to feel like we are interested in what they are doing. But when you look at the human resource power that we have, you have to prioritize. [We need to] start with the ones that are at highest risk.”

The office has student success specialists in each college who identify and try to intervene with students who may be at risk of leaving NIU.

Factors that indicate that students are at risk, said Seaver, are having an undeclared major, lacking an associates degree at time of transfer, having no connections to campus through activities, missing advisor appointments or not registering within a week of the appointment, low class attendance and requesting a transcript to be sent to another institution.

One of the biggest indicators that a student might be at risk is waiting to take a core math class until later in their academic career, Seaver said.

The office has released degree maps, four year plans for every major offered at NIU, to show students how a major should be paced so that they don’t take too many challenging courses at the same time.

Seaver said that last year 250 seniors left NIU in good academic standing. Seaver said NIU will conduct phone interviews with students who leave in good academic standing to ask what they would need to return and why they left.

The office has an alert system set up through red, yellow, and green flags on students. Through an early alert system, the office speaks with professors about student performance and attendance.

The office will also work with high schools and community colleges to make sure new freshman and transfer students come into NIU set to succeed.

“It’s trying to solve a complex problem in a complex way,” Seaver said.

NIU President John Peters said NIU will see a change in the next several years in the way it is funded by the state.

The state will begin to focus on the number of students graduating instead of the number of students enrolled.

“The state invests in us and they want to make sure that their dollars are used,” Peters said. “Plus it’s the right thing to do for the students. It doesn’t sound revolutionary, but it is revolutionary.”

Accreditation and Assessment of NIU Programs

Virginia Cassidy, vice provost for Academic Planning and Development, reported on the means of evaluation of academic programs at NIU to the Academic Affairs, Student Affairs and Personnel Committee.

Internal reports that evaluate the learning objectives of each NIU academic program are produced every year, Cassidy said, but programs are formally assessed every eight years by outside agencies. Programs are also evaluated for approval for licensure and accreditation.

The committee addressed the recent evaluation done by the National Council on Teacher Quality on NIU’s undergraduate, graduate elementary teacher and special education teacher preparation programs. The study found the programs to be subpar.

“The [assessment agencies] that we pay attention to are the ones that are recognized by the [U.S.] Department of Education,” said Raymond Alden, liaison of the committee.

Peters also defended NIU’s external assessment initiatives.

“These are systematic, long term, rigorous, formal assessments where the outcomes change over time,” Peters said. “The system of accreditation in this country is what has made American higher education, public and private, the best in the world.”

Cassidy also reported on the visits by the Higher Learning Commission to NIU extension campuses and said she expects the reviews to be positive.

The Legislation, Audit and External Affairs Committee also received an update about state legislation in Springfield and post-election commentary, a report concerning federal legislation and post-election commentary, and an update about internal auditing.