The Northern Almanac Ep. 29 - 'Student-Focused Leadership'

Aug 18, 2020

Welcome to The Northern Almanac, a WNIJ living history project coinciding with NIU's 125th anniversary.

The late 1960s brought enormous change to NIU, largely spurred by the progressive leadership of NIU’s sixth president, Rhoten Smith. When he took office in September 1967, he became NIU’s first president with a liberal arts rather than a teacher’s college background.

President Rhoten Smith liked to meet with students and listen to their concerns.

During his brief tenure, he regularly met with students and faculty for coffee, which earned him the reputation of a fair-minded progressive who protected free speech and listened to students’ grievances.

Smith’s university vision focused on the quality of student life and learning. He established the position of Ombudsman to help students with personal problems. In 1968, he listened to the needs of black students who felt underrepresented on campus, which lead him to appoint McKinley “Deacon” Davis to oversee a new program that would level the playing field for disadvantaged students: the CHANCE Program. CHANCE recruits talent, provides holistic support from counselors and tutors, and supports students all the way to graduation.

CHANCE administrator Jerry Durley, left, talks with CHANCE students during an early orientation. From its inception, CHANCE has placed an emphasis on orienting new students to the realities of college life.

Smith believed students had the right to govern themselves, so he oversaw the formation of NIU’s student government association, which empowered elected student representatives to recognize and fund student organizations and activities.

In 1969, Smith implemented the University Honors Program as a greater challenge to NIU’s highest-performing students. The program also helped students prepare for career success and encouraged lifelong community service.

President Rhoten Smith presenting one of his weekly “Chats With Rhoten Smith” on WNIU campus radio.

That same year, Smith approved creation of NIU’s Division of International Programs. Initially, founding director Daniel Wit focused on opportunities for students to study in other countries. Later, the division began assisting international students and faculty who came to NIU.

Rhoten Smith believed in students' right to self-govern, to access a quality education, and to use what they learned to help their communities thrive. Although Smith departed NIU in 1971, after only four years, his legacy lives on through the progressive vision and student-focused leadership that still guide NIU today.