Our expectations for Peters’ address to the university

By The Editorial Board

On Thursday, NIU President John Peters will deliver this year’s State of the University address.

Like its national counterpart, the address will detail the hopes and expectations of Peters and the rest of the NIU administration. Here, they will announce new projects, report good news and describe the continuing challenges the university faces.

We’re expecting one challenge to be heavily covered in this year’s address, and that’s money. Whether it’s used to describe the budget situation of the state and the university, raising tuition and fees or the costs of new buildings on campus, we’re expecting Peters to address NIU’s need for money to accomplish its mission.

In terms of the budget, NIU and other public universities seem to be facing an almost perfect storm. With the economy still in the tubes and Illinois’ unemployment at 10.6 percent in June, people are still hurting for money. That means every choice, including which college/university to attend, is going to be weighed more heavily than before.

And so is the state. For the majority of fiscal year 2010, the state had not paid the money that was owed NIU. At its height, the total amount that was owed NIU was $63.4 million. As of Aug. 16, the state still owes the university $200,411.

Unfortunately, nothing seems to have changed in Springfield. Any serious fix to the state’s financial situation, whether it takes the form of a tax increase or massive spending cuts, will not occur until January, after the November elections.

But even if the state did get its financial act together, NIU has seen the writing on the wall. The state’s contributions to higher education institutions has been dropping year-after-year.

In light of this, NIU has to raise tuition and fees. You might have noticed the cuts the departments and colleges are already taking. Fewer adjunct professors teaching class, larger class sizes; these are just some examples of the cuts occurring at NIU.

And then there’s the hiring and travel freeze that has been placed on NIU. Can we expect those freezes to continue into this year as well? Because many students do rely on those on-campus jobs.

But in the end, you can only cut so much. At some point, tuition and fees have to be raised. But as we mentioned earlier, people are hurting for money. A tuition/fee raise might force some people to go to a community college, and there are plenty of options for that in the northern Illinois region. And when people do that, that’s less money for the university.

We understand it’s a daunting subject to address, but we hope Peters addresses at least some of this.

Which leads us to recruitment and retention. You’ve probably noticed over the summer that NIU is advertising heavily in this region. And why shouldn’t they? It’s their figurative backyard.

What we would like to hear is the different strategies NIU is undertaking to get students here. They’ve approved the plans for a new residence hall on campus, and they’ve redesigned their website. They’ve also increased their presence on nearly all forms of social media. In addition to the university itself, you can follow a lot of the different departments, offices and colleges on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc. We’re wondering how the university coordinates all of this to stay on message.

The State of the University address is also where the administration announces their new construction projects.

In the past, they’ve talked about Cole Hall, a new computer science/technology building, an indoor practice facility for athletics, a new residence hall and the proton therapy center.

In particular, we’d like to see an update on the Cole-Stevens annex, and when ground will be broken on that.

We know faculty and staff will watch the State of the University with interest, as they should, because it’s their livelihood.

Students, on the other hand, will mostly not care, and that’s a shame, really.

If you haven’t already, this is the time to get out of your self-indulgent bubbles and pay attention. The financial situation of the university, the state and the country affects all of us.

Peters will deliver his speech at 3 p.m. Thursday. For those of you not willing to make the trek to Altgeld Hall, you’ll be able to watch it live on the NIU website, or read the transcript of the video. Afterwards, the video is available on the website or the university’s YouTube page, so there’s really no excuse.