NIU president Baker gets early start

Published: Saturday, June 29, 2013 5:30 a.m.CDT
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Monica Maschak - mmaschak@shawmedia.com Northern Illinois University's newest president Douglas Baker speaks to guests at the DeKalb County Economic Development Corporation leader recognition reception at the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center on Thursday, June 27, 2013.

In a way, Douglas Baker is a college freshman again at age 57.

But instead of taking placement tests, Northern Illinois University’s new president has spent hours meeting with each of the school’s vice presidents and reviewing their written summaries of priorities and projects.

Instead of his parents dropping him off at his dorm room, he made the trek from the University of Idaho on a motorcycle with his wife, Dana. He’s taken in the beauty of the campus lagoon and Altgeld Hall, and visited NIU’s branch campuses in Hoffman Estates, Naperville and Rockford.

Baker’s administration officially begins Monday, but he arrived on campus this week and has been working on the transition since the Board of Trustees selected him in April.

Baker beat out 47 other applicants to earn a five-year contract with a base salary of $450,000 a year – $110,000 more than his predecessor – partially by echoing outgoing President John Peters’ emphasis on students.

Baker said he wants NIU to attract the right students, help them through the financial challenges that can come with college and prepare them for the working world with internships, service learning and strong academic and research opportunities.

“If mom and dad are assured and the student is assured that if they come here, they are going to get a grade-A education and get a job when they get out, I think that’s going to be very attractive,” Baker said. “We’re going to work toward that.”

He also wants to make sure NIU helps new students acclimate to their new environment.

“It’s always difficult as you enter a new institution, whether you’re a president or a freshman,” Baker said. “You have to go through that learning curve.”

Building a team

As the university president, Baker will lead NIU’s administration, which is divided between academics – led by Provost Ray Alden – and operations – led by acting executive vice president Steve Cunningham. Above Baker is the Board of Trustees, which sets general university policy.

“There are always differences between presidents,” Cunningham said. “The president has a great deal of influence in the operations of the university ... each president will set their own priorities — both academic and nonacademic.”

Trustees named Peters president emeritus June 20, a title previously bestowed upon past presidents John La Tourette and William Monat. Peters also will guest lecture in the fall, maintain his involvement with the NCAA, and write about his time at NIU.

Meanwhile, Baker will continue to build his administrative team.

At Baker’s suggestion, the Board of Trustees on June 20 appointed Bill Nicklas, vice president of public safety and community relations, as the new liaison to the board. In addition, Eric Weldy, associate vice president for student affairs at Florida State University, is set to become NIU’s next vice president for student affairs and enrollment management.

Baker expects to receive, by mid-August, a recommendation for replacing former Police Chief Donald Grady, who was fired Feb. 19 for his department’s mismanagement of rape charges against former police officer Andrew Rifkin, Nicklas said.

A search firm has amassed a pool of candidates for NIU’s athletic director, whom Baker said he hopes to announce by the end of July. Jeff Compher became the athletic director at East Carolina University after five years at NIU.

Cunningham was named acting executive vice president of finance and facilities March 8 after his predecessor, Eddie Williams, took a leave of absence after he and a low-income housing development he owns were named in an FBI search warrant served on NIU’s police department. Williams retired May 31.

If history is any indication, NIU administrators can expect Baker to give them the space to do their work and to consider students part of his team.

Baker encourages people who work with him to take initiative, said Jeanne Stevenson, vice provost of Academic Affairs for the University of Idaho. Stevenson worked with Baker on several projects, including revamping the early warning grading process for students and a service learning program that put student volunteers in the community.

“He takes his work really seriously and has a great sense of humor,” Stevenson said.

Max Cowan, a junior at the University of Idaho and president of the school’s student government, said he remembered Baker as a warm person who enjoyed working with students. Baker displayed student paintings, sculptures and photography in his office, stood behind them in keeping the campus gun-free and helped students make campus buildings more environmentally friendly, Cowan said.

“He always listened to what I had to say and was very considerate of the ideas [students] brought forward,” Cowan said.

Eye on efficiency

While gazing forward, Baker also is looking at NIU’s finances. University staff already are reviewing the institution’s fiscal model, making sure they are good stewards of the budget, and reviewing financial aid money, making sure those dollars are distributed wisely, Baker said.

Efficient spending is important in light of declining state funding for higher education. It’s a nationwide trend as state budgets are strained by Medicare, pension costs, elementary and secondary education, and other pressures. It’s also bad public policy, Baker said.

“We see countries around the world, in Asia for example, heavily investing in higher education,” Baker said. “They saw our investment and what it did in our economy. They are running our plays out of our playbook while we’re divesting because of the state budgetary dynamics.”

But NIU’s situation is not unlike the University of Idaho’s. According to the Center On Budget and Policy Priorities, Idaho’s two state-funded universities have seen a 39.6 percent decrease in funding between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2013. During the same period, Illinois has seen a drop of 23.3 percent.

Duane Nellis, former president of the University of Idaho, said Baker provided important leadership between 2009 and 2011 when the university had to make substantial budget cuts, including consolidating or cutting more than 30 programs. Baker was the provost and executive vice president in Idaho from 2005 until he came to NIU.

“It wasn’t an easy process, but I think working with him and others across campus, we were able to make some difficult decisions,” Nellis said.

As they consider efficiency at NIU, leaders expect to continue pursuing the goals established in Vision 2020, one of Peters’ pet projects. The all-encompassing plan was introduced in September 2010 with a series of projects and goals to make NIU “the most student-centered public research university in the Midwest,” as Peters put it.

“Vision 2020 is a good sort of statement that captures NIU’s past aspirations and current aspirations, and President Baker sees that as a good baseline and starting point,” Cunningham said.

Embracing the community

As NIU leaders pursue the goals of Vision 2020, they need a strong and vibrant community for internships and service-learning programs, and to attract students and employees, Baker said. He’s met several times with DeKalb Mayor John Rey and was the keynote speaker at Thursday’s DeKalb County Economic Development Corp.’s Leader Recognition Reception.

It’s a relationship DeKalb leaders want to foster, too. In DeKalb’s updated downtown plan, the city and NIU would create a “Communiversity Commons” – a neighborhood that would serve as a transition between the two, Interim City Manager Rudy Espiritu said.

“By doing things together, especially in our downtown plan, there’s going to be a real connection, providing amenities to the community that would be beneficial to both parties,” Espiritu said.

Baker, who said he’s felt very welcomed by local leaders, agreed.

“A strong community,” Baker said, “allows us to recruit and retain faculty, staff and students.”

The new president’s priorities

• Continuing with Vision 2020 initiatives

• Give students hands-on experience

• Review financial aid programs

• Study NIU’s overall fiscal model

Douglas Baker’s bio

Age: 57

Birthplace: Hood River, Ore.

Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business-industrial relations and management from Colorado State University, Ph.D. in business from University of Nebraska

Hobbies: Golfing, playing basketball, motorcycling, flat-water kayaking and hiking

Family: wife, Dana L. Stover, and daughters Hannah and Robin.

Last job: Provost and Executive Vice President of University of Idaho, 2005 to 2013

Twitter handle: DougBakerNIU

Source: Northern Illinois University

Search cost

The Daily Chronicle sent a Freedom of Information request to Northern Illinois University requesting copies of documents regarding costs incurred by the school in the search for a new president. An analysis of the documents provided showed the university spent at least $189,521.82 on the search.

The largest share of the money was spent on Parker Executive Search, which submitted eight invoices for a total of $110,622.33.

Visit daily-chronicle.com to view some of these documents and read more about the expenses.

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