Hello, Northeastern! Good afternoon. I want to thank Dr. Merchant and the Faculty Senate for inviting me to deliver my third State of the University Address. I say this often, but it always bears repeating: It is my great, great honor to serve Northeastern Illinois University’s students, faculty, staff and alumni as president.

Thank you for joining us, or watching a recording of this address later. Today, I will focus on our achievements, our challenges and the status of some of our future plans before taking your questions. I am joined by my cabinet, who I may ask for assistance to best address your questions. I want to acknowledge the newest member of my cabinet, Vice President for Finance and Administration Manish Kumar, who arrived at Northeastern in January. Welcome, Vice President Kumar.

Normally, we gather in Alumni Hall or the Auditorium for the State of the University Address. It’s an important speech, and one of my favorite annual traditions. But like virtually every other activity that was part of our work lives and our personal lives, it has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s frustrating, and disorienting and—let’s be honest—sometimes it’s downright depressing.

So let me start today by asking something of you: Please take care of yourselves, Northeastern. Despite a pandemic the likes of which none of us has ever witnessed, you have adapted, you have endured, and you have persevered. Your steadfast commitment to pursue your academic goals and to serve the mission of the University inspires me every day. But I know, this mix of radical change, shifting responsibilities and anxiety about the virus—both at home and on the job—takes a mental and physical toll.

As president, I need you to be at your best for the institution to be at its best. If you need help, please reach out. Northeastern’s Student Counseling Services offers teletherapy options to students, and the State of Illinois offers an assistance program for employees in need of mental health support. The University Ombuds is a confidential resource for addressing University-related concerns and difficult situations. Please also take care of your physical health.

We are halfway through the Fall 2020 semester, and I am so proud of Northeastern’s response to the pandemic. It was a little less than a year ago that we first started to hear about the coronavirus. We sent out messages in January and February that we were monitoring the virus, and then in March the virus arrived in the Chicago area. I instructed the Emergency Management Team to create a COVID-19 Task Force and charged it with addressing the safety and security of our University community, making recommendations to me on major decisions and establishing a website to communicate the measures we would take to respond. We then moved rapidly to remote instruction and remote work for most employees. We extended remote operations through the rest of the spring, then through the summer term. I want to once again thank the COVID-19 Task Force and the Provost’s Transition Committee for their ongoing work. It is much appreciated.

Now here we are, with the vast majority of us still learning, working and meeting remotely. Northeastern’s number of positive cases is low compared with many universities, but we will not be complacent. We have already committed to carrying our current precautions through the Spring 2021 semester, when we will remain largely remote. December Commencement will take place virtually for the first time, and it’s impossible to predict where we’ll be six months or even a year from now.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking development during the spring was with our students who suffered a financial hit as they lost their jobs, or their family members lost their jobs, putting their ability to persist—to continue to pursue their academic goals—in peril. As you know, every student received a check from the CARES Act in the spring, but it was not enough. How could these students think about school when they couldn’t pay for groceries?

What did we do? Northeastern put out a call to raise money for our Student Emergency Fund, which provides small grants to pay for rent, or medical bills, or basic toiletries. In 2019, the fund provided assistance to 35 students all year. By comparison, since March, the Student Emergency Fund has provided more than $112,000 to more than 400 students. Much of that support came from within the Northeastern community, and those small grants kept our students on track in a time of crisis. These funds were also made available to our undocumented students. THANK YOU for your support!

The first months of the pandemic were scary. Every headline delivered new, more dire predictions from the local and national health experts. But I am confident that when we look back on 2020, this is what we will say: In a time of crisis and chaos, Northeastern Illinois University rose to the occasion. That’s what we did, what YOU did: Northeastern rose to the occasion. And because of all the hard work, sacrifice, innovation and dedication we have invested over the past eight months, Northeastern Illinois University remains a strong, dynamic and essential institution of higher education.

Do we have challenges? Yes we do. Most colleges and universities do right now. But we have been proactive and put ourselves in the position to not only weather this pandemic storm but to thrive when it is all over. As a campus community, we are learning and adapting. And, our pursuit of academic excellence has not—and will not—waiver.

I’ve spoken several times about the inspiration I have drawn from the work I have seen from our students, faculty and staff over the past year, but particularly since the arrival of COVID-19. Let me provide some very specific examples:

Early in the crisis, when hospitals had just begun seeing surges in patients with COVID, the Northeastern community responded by engaging the local community to create almost 6,000 face shields and masks for area medical personnel using the Art+Design Department’s 3-D printers and other community resources.

When COVID-19 forced the Student Center for Science Engagement to abruptly ask faculty to rework their proposals for the Undergraduate Summer Research and Professional Training Program to be remote, the faculty/staff mentors responded, submitting and executing 18 projects. Less than two weeks ago, our students presented the results of their research in the 12th Annual Student Center for Science Engagement Student Research Symposium.

When funding was provided for professional development for faculty and staff to improve their online teaching skills or to become Quality Matters certified, you stepped up. More than 120 faculty members took advantage of the sessions during the summer and even now, faculty are involved in professional development to better understand how to effectively teach in remote environments.

And our students have been involved in many ways. For example, one of our Master of Public Health students with two decades of experience in the Chicago Park District made headlines for creating Chicago’s Social Distance Ambassadors program that helped the city’s 570 parks reopen safely. Truly remarkable!

The Division of Institutional Advancement not only moved its annual Golden Gala and Alumni Awards Ceremony to a virtual platform but also blew past its $100,000 fundraising goal for the night. That’s all money for student support! Even our friends at Ensemble Español announced that the upcoming season will feature new works, virtual programs and a new $300,000 anonymous matching grant opportunity with total potential earnings of $1 million. Wow!

This is my time to brag about NEIU, so let me keep going!

I am proud to once again congratulate our newly tenured and promoted professors. They have excelled in teaching, research and community engagement. I appreciate their hard work.

The Daniel L. Goodwin College of Education earned accreditation at the initial-licensure level and advanced-level from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, then was awarded the organization’s Frank Murray Leadership Recognition for Continuous Improvement.

Many members of the faculty have published books, articles and creative works in the past year. They will all be recognized during the annual NEIU Faculty Publications and Creative Works event in the spring.

Northeastern earned a number of major grants, including a five-year, $3 million Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program Title V grant from the U.S. Department of Education that will help the University increase the number of students who complete STEM majors. The U.S. Department of Education also awarded Northeastern three grants totaling $3.9 million in support of TRIO Student Support Services. Northeastern was the only university in the state to be awarded more than two TRIO grants.

And don’t forget the rankings. Northeastern was ranked in four categories in U.S. News & World Report’s annual “Best Colleges” publication among Midwest regional universities. We were ranked for low student debt upon graduation, ethnic diversity, economic diversity and social mobility. And here’s one more: GradReports, an online resource that matches students to graduate programs, named Northeastern’s Educational Leadership program the best in the state and 20th overall in the nation on its list of 2020 Best Colleges.

When I say Northeastern inspires me, and that Northeastern rises to the occasion, that is what I mean. And while we celebrate these amazing accomplishments, we also are faced with some serious challenges.

Over the summer, Northeastern was able to close a $5.8 million shortfall for the Fiscal Year 2021 budget through a combination of $3.2 million in cuts in non-academic and central administrative areas and strategic one-time use of federal CARES Act funding.

Here’s what we need to confront right now. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor’s budget office estimates that the state will lose out on a combined $6.5 billion in revenue this year and next year, although it could be significantly higher depending on the November tax referendum. Recently at budget planning meetings, the Illinois Board of Higher Education has advised public universities to plan for 5% and 10% cut scenarios for FY2022. Given these possibilities, we estimate that Northeastern might face a structural budget deficit of $5.5 million or more in Fiscal Year 2022.

In an effort to prepare, we have hosted two University Budget Town Halls and have another planned for next month. Yesterday, I sent out a communication about this process that links to all of the reports and resources we have shared so far, so I won’t repeat myself other than to remind you that we need you to stay engaged and contribute ideas to address this projected deficit.

An important component to all budget forecasting is our enrollment. When COVID-19 arrived, the number of students who were registering for summer and fall classes plummeted, but through a combination of hard work and creativity, we clawed back. Our summer enrollment was actually slightly higher than Summer 2019. Our Fall 2020 enrollment fell by only 4.1 percent, a vast improvement over the 10 percent dip we had projected only a few months earlier.

We addressed our enrollment challenges through a number of initiatives that were launched after the arrival of COVID-19. We removed the standardized test score requirement from the Fall 2020 undergraduate enrollment application—a practice that is now permanent. We used CARES Act funding to support more than 35 students in the new NEIU Social Justice Leadership Housing Award, which provides free housing for students who positively impact their university, career and communities. Using federal Governor’s Emergency Education Relief—aka GEER—money, we also re-enrolled 44 students through a program that waived up to $3,000 in outstanding tuition and fee debt for eligible students who left Northeastern and had not graduated from another institution. Ten additional re-enrolled students deferred to the next semester. We are working now to bring back more students through this program in Spring 2021. And our pilot dual enrollment program at Roberto Clemente High School netted us several students this fall. We will expand that program in the spring and add other high schools.

One of the statistics that I was most encouraged by was this: 66.7 percent of the first-time, full-time freshmen from Fall 2019 enrolled in Fall 2020 classes. That is the best freshman retention we’ve seen in a decade. We are most importantly impacting the equity gap.

We achieved this 10-year high with a deliberate and data-driven approach, focusing on communicating to advisors and directors where there were areas of strength and the need for growth in terms of student outreach.

Retaining freshmen speaks not only to access and student success—my top priorities as president—but also to the dedication of our faculty and support staff who have helped our students pursue their academic goals even through the COVID-19 pandemic.

We rose to the occasion. And we will continue to rise.

Enrollment and retention are the fuel for Northeastern’s engine. I am encouraged by what I have seen, and I am optimistic about the future. Our Enrollment Services office has made significant strides toward modernization in the past two years. Now, we are ready to take the next step. A search committee has been assembled to find our next Associate Vice President for Enrollment Services. We are also conducting an external review of certain offices to identify areas for improvement. And we are in the process of seeking Board approval to purchase new customer relationship management—or CRM—software that will allow us to better attract and retain prospective and existing students.

Of course, all of these recruitment efforts go hand-in-hand with our external marketing efforts. Some of you may have seen this already, but I’m excited to share with the entire University community today a new marketing messaging platform. It’s called “Break Barriers.” These two simple but powerful words will be the new foundation on which our marketing efforts will stand. I love this message. “Break barriers” is not a call to action. It’s what we do as an institution and as individuals every day. This message is versatile, speaking to faculty work in their disciplines, staff work supporting the University mission and student efforts in the classroom. It speaks to the arts, sciences, business and education, and our status as a Hispanic-Serving, Minority-Serving institution. You will hear more about how you can collaborate and utilize this messaging in the coming months from the Division of Marketing and Communications.

As we roll out this platform, we will do so strategically, though our traditional digital advertising efforts and by re-establishing a presence in the diverse communities where we need to thrive. We will reach out to our African American communities, translate this messaging into Spanish, reach out to new markets and enhance our efforts on the web through enhanced optimization of our webpages.

In the new year, I plan to bring in three critical new leaders. You already heard me talk about the Associate Vice President for Enrollment Services. Our Vice President for Student Affairs/Dean of Students position search is progressing, and we will announce virtual interviews soon. And before the end of the year, we will begin a search for a Chief Diversity Officer. Please be engaged in these searches.

Let me talk about that third position a bit. Why do I want to hire a Chief Diversity Officer now, during a time when we are seeking to correct a structural budget deficit? My answer to that is that we can’t afford not to. This is an investment in Northeastern—and the first year of the salary will be paid through GEER funds. The individual who takes on this role will provide strategic direction that strengthens Northeastern’s commitment to equity, diversity, community and inclusion. These are not just our goals, but also the focus of the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s developing strategic plan. IBHE explains several reasons why the plan is important, including: “it provides a pathway to equity in higher education access, attainment, and affordability with a focus on those who are most underserved and elevates their voices in this process.” As a Hispanic-Serving Institution and a Minority-Serving Institution, Northeastern must face the nation’s challenges—and its own challenges—head-on. We may be one of the national leaders in diversity, but diversity does not equal inclusion or equity. We learned some of the hard truths about this fact with the results of Northeastern’s first Climate Survey, which was published earlier this month.

For those of you who haven’t had a chance to read the results of the report, I encourage you to seek out the documents on NEIUport and watch the recording of the presentation. Many of the findings of the report focus on issues of inclusion and equity. We will begin hosting forums on those results in November, with the goal of identifying and accomplishing three to five concrete, measurable goals in 2021. Let us not forget that climate directly affects student enrollment and the retention of students, faculty and staff.

During last year’s State of the University Address, I laid out a number of initiatives that I planned to advance and explore that were brought forth by the President’s Transition Committee. Some of them have been paused as we deal with complex challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, but one in particular has not: the One-Stop Student Services Success Center that supports incoming freshmen and transfer students in their transition to NEIU, and all students through their matriculation. Despite the challenges of off-campus learning and working, this project not only is moving forward, but now has the added boost of a new, nearly $500,000 competitive GEER grant from the State of Illinois that was announced yesterday. These funds will assist in the implementation of best practices for mitigating barriers to initial and ongoing enrollment, particularly through digital applications that provide remote access to consistent, high-quality information and services. As discussed earlier, we are bringing “near-completers” back to campus with up to $3K debt forgiveness; we have hired our VP for Finance and Administration; faculty from USC’s Center for Urban Education and the Center for Teaching and Learning are presenting workshops to promote culturally relevant pedagogy and equity-minded practices; and hopefully the CRM will be approved.

The transition committee also highlighted the importance of investing in new majors in alignment with current and future workforce needs. That work continues as Academic Affairs identifies programs with potential for growth. For example, each college has been charged with developing a completely online degree. So, we are making progress with some of the President’s Transition Committee recommendations; however, there is much more work to do!

Before I close, I have a very important announcement. When the death of George Floyd sparked national outrage and national demonstrations for racial justice in America, Northeastern founded the George Floyd Social Justice Scholarship to establish a permanent financial resource for NEIU students dedicated to pursuing leadership roles in the multifaceted, intersectional work of social justice. The goal was to raise $50,000, and the NEIU community quickly rallied to blow past that number. I appointed a committee to set application criteria and to recommend the recipient or recipients. I want to thank the committee for their tremendous work. I am very pleased to announce the three recipients of the inaugural George Floyd Social Justice Scholarship. Each recipient will receive a $5,000 scholarship.

The inaugural recipients of the George Floyd Social Justice Scholarship are: Kaleb Autman (New freshman - CCICS); Timothy Jefferson (New freshman - Wentworth Scholar) and Donovan McKinley (Graduate Student in Counselor Education: Family Counseling). You will read more about these dedicated, remarkable students in the days to come. Please consider giving to the George Floyd Social Justice Scholarship or other scholarships for our students.

As I conclude, I want to leave you with this final thought: In December, we will send another class of Northeastern graduates out into a world that needs them. In a year when we have been forced to focus on the urgent and unrelenting demands of each day, let us never take this accomplishment for granted. Our students, our faculty, our staff—all of us together—we are rising to the occasion. Thank you.