NIU President Says Pandemic Hasn't Stopped The Mission

May 26, 2020

Credit Northern Illinois University

State and local leaders are making decisions every day about the COVID-19 pandemic that are met with both praise and criticism. WNIJ's Chase Cavanaugh has the second part of our series "The Hot Seat" talking to leaders about the process behind these big decisions. 

Normally, mid-March is when Dr. Lisa Freeman is engaging donors and alumni. But the situation changed quickly while she was on a cross-country flight to a Washington D.C. alumni reception. Then, the governor declared a state of emergency. 

"And fortuitously I was transferring at Midway and I just never got on the plane to DC, came back to campus and started making the decisions about the spring semester," Freeman explained.

Initially, NIU planned on switching to remote learning for just a few weeks after spring break. But it soon became clear that it would become the rest of the semester.

“We had to not just adjust instructionally, but we had to figure out how to relocate the students who were remaining on campus so that we could effectively achieve physical distancing, and still make sure their needs were being met," Freeman said. 

On a wider scale, Freeman said the uncertainty surrounding coronavirus and the constant sources of new information continue to complicate the decision-making process.

“We always prioritize the health and wellness of our community and try to lead with our vision, mission, and values," she said. "But we also understand that we're going to need to continually assess the measures that we've taken and adjust when circumstances change, and that's been an ongoing process this spring.”

Most faculty and staff are working remotely. Summer classes will also be remote. Many of the summer camps planned for campus have been canceled or are now being planned virtually.

In April, Freeman announced a voluntary retirement program for staff, and cuts to part-time positions. She also instituted what she calls a “hiring chill” for new positions.

Freeman said she’s under no illusions that people will be pleased at every decision she makes. But she said criticism is an important part of refining decisions.

“If I get pushback, and that pushback or lack of support makes me realize that there was an unintended consequence or something that was missed in the decision making, then we switch to that form of thinking: 'Is there an adjustment that needs to be made?'”

Freeman said she’s been in regular contact with university presidents at other public institutions in-state and around the country. She’s part of a committee with the Illinois Board of Higher Education on planning out what re-opening means for colleges and universities.

“It's not going to be a very prescriptive set of guidelines," she said. "It's going to be higher-ed specific guidelines that give each of our unique institutions a foundation for making the decisions that work best on their campuses.”

The committee hopes to present those recommendations to the Department of Public Health next month.

“When you're talking to leaders of any institution right now, they’re concerned with what they can do to maintain the health and wellness of their community -- and to integrate public health recommendations -- with needs to consider social, emotional, and economic health considerations as well." She added, "We see the diversity of institutions in Illinois that we see nationally." 

Freeman added that maintaining social and emotional connections has also been essential for her personally during the pandemic.

“The first is by just always thinking about our students, and the impact that a college education has on a student, their family, their community. That keeps me going because it’s so important that we continue to be there." Freeman added, "I'm also making an effort to connect by Zoom, by phone; even by letters with family and friends.”

For prospective and current students, Freeman urged against taking a “gap year” during the pandemic.

“Don't give up on your dream," she said. "In a time of economic downturn, a college degree becomes that much more important.”

And for her fellow administrators, Freeman said constant communication is key to maintaining trust with the public.

"Things change so quickly, you have to be prepared to communicate what's being done today and then, next week, say we're doing things a little bit differently," she said. "And if you do that, I think you build trust, and I think it helps you moving forward. And that's the most important thing to keep moving forward."