Auditorium, Main Campus

Good afternoon. I want to thank Dr. Nancy Wrinkle and the Faculty Senate for inviting me to deliver my fourth State of the University Address. It continues to be an honor to serve Northeastern Illinois University’s students, faculty, staff and alumni as president. Thank you for joining me here in-person or virtually. Today, I will focus on our achievements, our challenges and the status of some of our future plans. At the end of the Address, there will be time for questions and I may call on members of my cabinet to also address your questions.

This Address is being recorded so the University community will also have the opportunity to review this presentation at a later date. I am joined by my cabinet, and want to acknowledge and thank them for their leadership. Terry C. Mena, Vice President and Dean of Students for Student Affairs, Shireen Roshanravan, Executive Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and G.A. Finch, General Counsel have joined the leadership team most recently.

As I look out into the audience, I am so pleased that I am able to address you here, in the Auditorium, and simultaneously livestream for those who cannot be here in person. As we continue to learn how to modify, accommodate and improve higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic, we will need to continue to work together and support one another as new opportunities and challenges arise. I would like to thank each and every one of you for your exceptional efforts, for all your flexibility, patience and continued dedication to enriching our University during the pandemic.

It hasn’t been easy. The last year and a half has been an incredible challenge. The pandemic robbed some of us of people we love, cut into our financial safety nets and caused real anxiety. I have heard from many of you about how much harm you are still navigating and how tough it is. I want to acknowledge and respect that. We are healing, but it will take time. I have said this numerous times, and I will say it again today: Please take care of yourselves, Northeastern. This pandemic has taken a physical, mental and emotional toll on everyone. In spite of the challenges we’ve faced, and the ways this virus has altered and impacted all of our lives, we have adapted, endured, and persevered, and we will continue to do so to the best of our abilities. If you need help, 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.

I have been especially proud to see our faculty and staff support each other and work tirelessly to support our students. Even during this unprecedented time, you made NEIU’s students your top priority. THANK YOU for that! [START APPLAUSE]

What happened during the pandemic? We got creative. We worked from our kitchen tables and basements, sometimes with kids, cats and dogs competing for our attention. We zoomed with appealing sunny backgrounds - but sometimes we were not in a sunny place inside. However, to reflect on where we were and where we are, individually and collectively, in 2019 and 2020, and now, in 2021, gives me a great deal of optimism about our future. Everyday, I see each of you putting your best efforts forward to create a more just community here at Northeastern and beyond. That is what I love about Northeastern: the upward trajectory we set for ourselves, this institution and the communities we serve.

Regarding our “upward trajectory,” I want to reflect and appreciate what happened yesterday. Yesterday, our faculty, staff, students and alumni answered the call! You answered the call! The Board of Trustees, “Finance, Building and Grounds Committee” voted to recommend to the full board the “NEIU for You Scholarship.” THANK YOU for your support! [START APPLAUSE] I am so proud of NEIU coming together to support this very important initiative. And, FBG will also recommend that NEIU not increase tuition for our Fall 2022 first time/full time students and to provide one course without cost for our first time transfer students enrolling in twelve hours. This is historic and will dramatically impact enrollment.

These initiatives align with IBHE’s new strategic plan focusing on equity, sustainability and growth. It highlights a reality that many of us here at Northeastern know—that not all Illinois residents have the same opportunities to thrive and significant gaps exist that disproportionately affect African American, Latinx, adult, first generation and rural learners. Together we are addressing this critical issue.

NEIU for You also aligns with my FY22 strategic priority to “embrace equity through access/opportunity and student success.” We will work collaboratively to reinforce Northeastern as a diverse, inclusive, “university of choice” for Latinx, African American and other students from underserved backgrounds. Northeastern is committed to advancing outreach and recruitment to these populations. Further, we must develop and advance best practices for academic and social support structures that enhance student success and retention.

Upon Board approval, we will: offer a four-year scholarship for students who are Illinois resident whose family income is $60K or less; offer opportunities to apply for scholarships that include residency in the Nest by participating in one of our living/learning communities and best of all – students will receive a world-class education at Northeastern! This scholarship also holds the potential to impact our retention and graduation rates. We all know our students sometimes stop out because they have family obligations and work one or two jobs. With this top-off scholarship they can concentrate on their academic advancement. One student wrote to the Board stating:

Sustainability involves increasing affordability of and access to NEIU students by leveraging public and private philanthropy, partnerships and shared fiscal responsibility. For example, earlier this month Northeastern hosted its annual Golden Gala. The Alumni Association celebrated four alumni, including our 2021 Distinguished Alumnus, former Chicago City Clerk and current President of the Chicago Board of Education, Miguel del Valle. During the event, Miguel spoke eloquently about the significant impact Northeastern had on his life, as he put it, “his time at NEIU put him on the track to pursue a life of public service.” In fact, he took a speech class here that helped him overcome his fear of public speaking and gave him the opportunity to share his motivation for participating in a demonstration to increase Latinx enrollment and create more support services for Latinx students, which are causes Miguel continues to work on throughout the city to this day.

I want to thank everyone who gave to the Golden Gala or to one of our various scholarships. Please keep giving when you can, but also recommend contacts you have who can assist our students with internships (paid), or other opportunities. Private support for Northeastern from our university community, including faculty, staff, retirees, alumni, friends, as well as organizations that share our values, and yes, even our STUDENTS themselves, adds a measure of excellence beyond what is possible from the University’s state support, and tuition and fees. Such support is critical for the recruitment and retention of our students, as well as to augment funding for programs and faculty support above and beyond what state funding can provide.

In FY21, the University raised $2.4 million in private support to the NEIU Foundation, plus $65,000 in proceeds from fundraising events and activities. The University had over 1,800 unique donors, which included 670 individuals who supported the Foundation for the first time. In addition, in FY21, I set forth four priority funds, including the Leader Fund, which is our unrestricted fund, the General Scholarship fund, the Student Emergency Fund and the George Floyd Social Justice Scholarship. Know that NEIU Foundation dollars are not limited to money-in, money-out. Donors add to our endowment as well as to individual scholarship and programmatic funds. This overall support increases our baseline for annual scholarships and program funds and also for our endowment that increases year-over-year perpetual support. With respect to the endowment, the Foundation continues to increase its value-add to the University. This past year, the Foundation distributed $1.1 million for academic, grant and institutional support, plus $576,000 in direct scholarship support for our students. On top of that, the NEIU Foundation Board approved a special additional initiative for $400,000 as a substantial contribution to our NEIU for You initiative.

The Foundation had a strong year in terms of investment performance. The University’s endowment increased by an extraordinary $4 million in FY21. You can see in this chart that since 2017, the endowment has increased by $7 million. The bottom line is that this translates to more year over-year funding that allows us to leverage private support for recruitment, retention and programs.

Northeastern embarked on its first capital campaign during 2017, our sesquicentennial year. The Transforming Lives campaign helped us exceed our goal of $10 million and resulted in over $12 million for the University. We can, and we MUST do more, and the time is now. The next capital campaign will be an “all in” effort to convey our broad reach and impact on our communities. Over the summer, NEIU leadership, trustees, advancement staff engaged in an important conversation led by the Indiana University’s Lilly School of Philanthropy to initiate the next capital campaign. Our goal will be to identify the most critical means of moving the University forward to secure lasting, intergenerational support for our students and lasting, robust support for the faculty and programs that make Northeastern a progressive, supportive and excellent educational institution. You will be hearing more about our next capital campaign in the near future.

We will also focus on growth. We must increase the placement of Northeastern graduates in high demand positions and provide the support structures to ensure their success. These support structures include education initiatives, career readiness programming and working with companies who seek to create inclusive workplaces. Our goal is to diversify the workforce and help address historical inequities. To achieve this, we must reinforce and create opportunities for our students beyond the classroom. In a recent meeting with Senator Duckworth, she pledged her support as we seek collaborative relationships with corporate partners. She acknowledged what we all already know; the Illinois workforce needs our students!

Our NEIU story is an incredible story. It is a magnificent story of thousands of alumni, faculty, staff and our current students. As you know, just last month, a Northeastern alumna was recognized as a MacArthur Fellow or “MacArthur Genius.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor earned her bachelor’s degree from Northeastern in 2007, went on to earn a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 2013 and is currently a professor at Princeton University. In 2020, she was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist for her critically acclaimed book, “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership.” Our future alumni are also quite inspirational. Students like biology major Kimberly Nu-Tall, who was one of six students to working with one of our stellar faculty members to investigate cellular changes in nerve cells that express TDP-43, a protein linked to the fatal neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS. This research was conducted through the Student Center for Science Engagement, which continued its work throughout the pandemic, affording our students the opportunity to gain crucial research experience that will better prepare them for careers in the sciences. We must continue to tell our stories and celebrate our successes.

While we celebrate, we still have much work to do. One of those areas is Equity, Inclusion and Diversity. We celebrate the completion of our Climate Study for now we must focus on action and outcomes. I believe, however, we have made great strides in this direction. I want to thank the co-chairs for their leadership and all of you who served on the committees. Our Climate Study yielded important action items, many of which are on their way to implementation. The study is posted on NEIUport and I encourage everyone to take a look. The actions items include the following areas:

  • Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
  • Lack of sense of belonging for students
  • Faculty and staff compensation
  • Awareness and student support services
  • “Joy & be Well” campaign and customer service

One other important initiative that will contribute significantly to our EDI efforts is our goal to obtain the Seal of Excelencia. I also want to thank the co-chairs and the committees for their work of this critical initiative. The Seal of Excelencia certifies “institutions are setting the pace for much needed institutional transformation and are confronting structural barriers and inequities.” Our Excelencia team includes faculty, staff and administrators, working together, to identify strategies to implement for the future. This work has accelerated and the goal is to apply for the seal next year. As president of NEIU, an HSI, I strongly support this initiative.

It is important to acknowledge that while we intensify our EDI initiatives, much work in this area started long before my arrival and still continues. I am appreciative of that long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion. EDI work is also now supported through our Executive Director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. Roshanravan. Our goal is to directly address NEIU’s commitment to build a strong infrastructure that upholds the highest standards of inclusive excellence. To further improve our EDI efforts, the Executive Director has:

  • has met with faculty, staff and students across campus;
  • begun the process of creating a shared institutional definition of diversity for Northeastern to guide the development of policies and training that advance EDI
  • Initiated an inaugural Illinois public university senior diversity officer group to ensure cross-institutional collaboration on best practices for a campus climate of inclusion and belonging.
  • Joined as an institutional member of the National Consortium for Faculty Development and Diversity. This institutional membership will provide faculty, administrators, staff and graduate students’ free access to mentorship, curriculum, webinars, workshops and other support by national experts on strategic planning, increased productivity, healthy relationships and work-life balance.
  • Begun work on a land acknowledgement and many more activities that were presented at the recent ASAET meeting.

Through the commitment of many across campus who have been engaged in this work as part of a life-long journey, to the recent initiatives, Northeastern in strategically moving in the right direction to address and improve our campus climate.

I want to turn to another challenge, our fiscal health. Today, it is strong. Our future financial health depends greatly on our ability to reverse our enrollment trends and increase revenue generation. However, during the fiscal year 2021, our balance grew stronger for three primary reasons: First, our enrollments exceeded our budgetary projections. At the beginning of the pandemic, we braced for a 10% decline in student credit hours. While our enrollment did decline, the declines were not as large as was feared. This led to revenues approximately $1.9 million in excess of budget. Second, expenditures were lower across many categories. We spent less on commodities, travel and extra help personnel during the work-from-home period, and both planned and unplanned delays in hiring reduced our actual expenses. Finally, the availability of federal COVID-19 relief funding supported a portion of our expenses as well. This led to spending from our state income fund falling approximately $5.2 million below budget. In all, Northeastern’s operating results generated a $7.1 million increase in our net position.

Federal funding also allowed us to make investments in our classrooms, IT infrastructure and faculty. We have improved the set of tools available for our future. The pandemic showed us how quickly things can change, and also how quickly we can adapt. This year brings a very different set of challenges and a need for more change. While last year’s enrollment came in ahead of our forecast, this year’s enrollments are falling short. We budgeted for a 9% decline in student credit hours, but fall enrollments fell 11% below last year, with spring and summer still to come.

In addition, we are relying on almost $2.8 million of federal COVID-19 relief funding to fill the revenue shortfall associated with the year-over-year decline in credit hours. Unless we recover significantly in spring, even this will not be enough.

At the same time, we continue to experience delays in filling or refilling vacant positions across the University. This is not desirable from an operations standpoint. Staffing in key areas such as Enrollment Services, Financial Aid and Facilities Management is necessary to provide support for our students and staff, and to increase enrollment and enhance retention. However, these delays are likely to keep spending in line with revenues, if revenues should continue to fall short of budget in fiscal year 2022.

All this being said, I want to shine a light on one particular important achievement. This year has brought increased occupancy in The Nest, led primarily through our Living-Learning Communities. I would like to thank Terry Mena, Vicky Byard, Veronica Rodriguez, Jeremy Babcock and the work of the University Planning and Budget Council in bringing these communities to life. Occupancy in The Nest has risen from 39% last fall to 65% this fall. Working together, we have taken a critical first step toward sustainability for our residence hall! As we turn our attention to the future, I need to be clear: The status quo is not sustainable. The enrollment declines of the past several years have placed increasing stresses on our budget, our staffing levels, and our morale, and each smaller class creates a smaller pool of students we can retain and eventually graduate. This means that even if we bring in the same size class of new students next fall that enrolled this fall, we would still anticipate a decline in credit hours and tuition revenue. Last year’s net tuition revenue was approximately $53.8 million dollars. This year, we are anticipating $51.8 million in tuition revenue, which includes $2.8 million in federal HEERF support. With a similar size class of new students in the Fall 2022, we would project $49.8 million in tuition revenue, or an overall decline of $4 million from last year. Meanwhile, inflationary pressures continue. We need not only to stop the decline, but reverse it.

We need to continue to reach out and connect with elected officials at the city, state and federal level to put Northeastern at the forefront. Despite limitations for in-person interaction with elected officials, leadership and I have stayed connected and engaged with elected officials in a number of ways to showcase the outstanding work that we have accomplished and express to them the work that we seek to achieve. These interactions include: State Comptroller Susana Mendoza delivering the May 2020 Commencement Speech to our graduates; welcoming the Illinois Legislative Latino Caucus for a briefing on Northeastern; and hosting U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth on the Main Campus to allow her to learn more about NEIU and to discuss opportunities for Northeastern. Leadership and I will continue to work with elected officials and government institutions to advocate for the needs of Northeastern and the mission, vision and values that we adhere to.

The Governor’s Office of Management and Budget has asked us to prepare budget scenarios in anticipation of either level funding or a 5% increase in the state appropriation. While we prepare for level funding, even a 5% increase will not be enough to close the gap. We will need to all work together to build enrollment and increase our tuition revenue.

So, what are we doing about enrollment? As part of strategic recruitment, I am very excited to share with you upcoming projects and news in the Office Enrollment Services. As you know, we acquired a new client relations management system or CRM earlier this year, called Slate. In addition, we have partnered with Underscore, a vendor that specializes in Slate implementation and communication strategies and tactics. Northeastern units, including Enrollment Services, Financial Aid and Marketing, among others, have been working very hard with Underscore to maximize and optimize our new CRM. Slate is a CRM preferred by many universities and will be a great improvement over our current system. We will be able to attract, recruit and enroll prospective students through a sequence of personalized, student-centered communications, as well as messaging geared toward student influencers–namely high school and community college counselors. With the new CRM, we will be able to streamline marketing and enrollment strategies while making the prospective student experience more dynamic and efficient. The CRM is scheduled to launch during the Spring 2022 semester.

Also this spring, Northeastern will join all Illinois state public universities in accepting the Common Application. With the implementation of these important systems and processes, we aim to improve our enrollment yield in a positive direction. We were up 3% over last year. I will keep you posted on our yield-to-date at various points throughout the academic year.

I also want you to know that Enrollment Management, partnering with administration and additional staff, HAVE started recruitment efforts for Fall 2022. Just last week, NEIU hosted a very successful Open House. I am thankful to the faculty, staff and students who met with our prospective students and their familities. 

Yesterday, I announced the appointment of our new Vice President for Enrollment Management, Kimberly Buster-Williams. Currently serving as Vice President for Enrollment Management at the University of Mary Washington (UMW), she will join Northeastern Illinois University on January 2. During her tenure at Mary Washington, Kimberley created the university’s first strategic enrollment management plan and modernized operations with the full implementation of UMW’s first customer relationship management (CRM) tool, first predictive modeling tool, and the first document imaging software in undergraduate and graduate admissions. Under her leadership, the percentage of students of color at Mary Washington grew from 23 percent in 2014 to 30 percent in 2021. In addition, UMW enrolled its largest first-year class in history, and saw a significant increase in its incoming first-year academic profile.

Previously, Buster- Williams served as Acting Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at Northern Illinois University (NIU), reinvigorating enrollment operations and growing enrollment and applications in key Illinois collar counties. Before arriving at NIU, Kimberley served as Director of Admissions at the University of Michigan- Flint (UMF). Under Kimberley’s leadership, UM- Flint realized a 29 percent increase in new first-year enrollment (2005-2011), and a 200 percent increase in international student enrollment. In addition to her leadership roles at the University of Mary Washington, Northern Illinois University, and the University of Michigan- Flint, she has also held positions at Old Dominion University and Johnson & Wales University.

I look forward to working on new joint initiatives with Kimberly and Enrollment Services, and I hope that you do as well. With all of these pieces in place in Enrollment Services, and with the hard work and dedication from our faculty and staff, Northeastern will be in a better position to improve recruitment, retention and graduation. Positive outcomes in our enrollment and graduation numbers will inch us closer to a positive outcome in our financial state.

I want to address two final issues before closing. First, during the Spring semester, the Faculty Senate asked me and the provost to improve in seven key areas: shared governance, communication, my interactions with deans, improved relationship with UPI, vision-setting, more effective town halls and enrollment. We, both, take these areas very seriously. I have reported out on several of these topics today and will continue to focus on these area. The provost and I will make regular updates to the Faculty Senate. Communication and transparency critical to building trust and improving our working relationships.

Second, recently we held a Return to Campus forum, where we discussed many aspects of our transition back to on-campus learning, teaching and working all while the pandemic continues. During these forums, we are open to ways of improving communication and collaboration with faculty, staff, students and the community. We listen to your concerns, and we take them into account when planning for new initiatives and processes. One of the points most notably mentioned during this last forum was a remote work policy (telework).

As promised, I committed to providing an update on a remote work policy. To become an employer of choice for highly qualified candidates and to retain members of our current University faculty and staff, I recognize the benefits of offering a remote work option. However, the need to balance the institutional capabilities and employee aspiration need to be considered.

Nevertheless, I am pleased to share that a call for committee members to work on a remote work policy will be released next week. At my request, the committee will be charged with developing this policy. It will be crucial for the committee to take into consideration several factors that influence our ability to provide continuity of services to our Northeastern students and keep their experiences in mind.

One of the major considerations will be to ensure the security of University resources. Resources include personal information, internal documents, student records and more. While UTS is diligently putting the mandatory security measures in place, this committee will work in parallel with their efforts. There are additional considerations that I will discuss specifically with the committee. Please read the forthcoming Targeted Announcement for additional details. As this policy moves forward, we will keep you informed of its progress.

Finally, you may ask, what you can do to help?

  1. Continue to work to support our students
  2. Share your ideas (UPBC will be asking for proposals for revenue generation that focuses on enrollment)
  3. Be kind to each other. I recently met with our SGA President Edwin Medina; SGA is going to host a NEIU Appreciation Day on November 16th in Village Square. I think this is especially meaningful coming from our students. Let’s appreciate each other.

Sharing our University’s accomplishments, challenges, and enrollment and financial trends and forecasts with you is an important part of moving forward for the betterment of our institution. Together, we can accomplish what we set forth.

I would like to conclude on a celebratory note: It has been two years since we have been able to gather for a Commencement ceremony. I am elated to share that, following the guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control, the Illinois Department of Public Health and the City of Chicago, including mask wearing and social distancing and pending any other unforeseen circumstances, we will be holding December Commencement in-person this year. I encourage our faculty and staff to participate in this celebratory occasion so that our students know how proud we are of their accomplishments and to commend them on this momentous occasion. More information regarding Commencement will be shared in the coming weeks.

Thank you all for attending today’s State of the University Address. Thank you for your service and commitment and as always, Stay Golden!