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President of Northern Illinois University Dr. Lisa Freeman Discusses Strategic Change in Higher Ed

Dr. Lisa Freeman, President of Northern Illinois University (NIU), visited Dr. Edna Chun Capstone class on June 8, 2021 for a dynamic and engaging guest lecture on strategic change at a public university. Dr. Freeman is NIU’s 13th president and became president in 2018 after having served as Executive Vice President and Provost. Dr. Freeman shared key insights from NIU’s change implementation process. She highlighted factors that make change difficult at public universities include multiple stakeholders, inflexible human capital systems, decentralized decision-making, public scrutiny, highly valued traditions, and loyalties to departments versus the institution.

In 2014, NIU undertook a comprehensive two-plus year process of program prioritization to align structure to strategy, advance a culture of data-informed assessment, reduce inefficiency and duplication, and improve communication and collaboration. Yet in the midst of the process, a flash point occurred due to a state budget impasse that lasted 790 days. In FY 2016, NIU took a 70 percent cut and no funds from the cut were replaced until FY 2018. Despite these enormous fiscal challenges, program prioritization was implemented with the collaborative input of an administrative taskforce of faculty and staff. In addition to significant financial impact, two successful change initiatives emerged from program prioritization: 1) creation of a new division of Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communication to consolidate operations in a strategic, values-based enrollment plan; 2) establishment of a new office of Institutional Effectiveness that consolidated five administrative functions including Institutional Research and accreditation assessment.

In her talk, Dr. Freeman cited the perspective of a fellow president, “People aren’t afraid of change, they are afraid of loss.” She shared the following key takeaways with regard to change management:

  • Inclusive planning and process development enhance (but do not guarantee) the success of change implementation
  • Consistent communication from committed leadership is critical (leadership fatigue or mixed messages favor failure). There is no way to over communicate or provide too many opportunities for feedback.
  • Be clear about what should not and will not change.
  • Be able to explain change logically and show empathy for those who are going through change.
  • During a reorganization, consolidation becomes collaboration more quickly when there are strong role models in all impacted units (and vice versa)
  • Values-based plans/goals accelerate change

In response to a student question about how to prepare leaders to leader change, Dr. Freeman emphasized that coaching and listening are an essential part of leadership expectations. Her inspiring talk and openness to dialogue provided the Capstone students with valuable and concrete approaches to change management in complex organizations.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity.