25.7.06

UH-OH. The Northern Star interviews new provost Raymond W. Alden III.

NS: What changes do you want to make at Northern?

RA: I think what I heard during the interview process was an interest in developing more strategic plans so that as we go into the future, we focus on certain areas that are agreed upon as areas that need to have greater development. I think that's an important aspect of higher education in general, particularly during times nationally when there's financial difficulties, so that when resources are relatively scarce, you make sure you maintain excellence and you grow in areas that are particularly important for the institution and for the state.

Catch that Divine Passive "that are agreed upon?"

NS: Where do you see NIU in five years?

RA: I think a lot depends on the strategic planning process because that's the first thing you start asking once you have a mission statement, a statement of strategic goals. Then you start to build what your direction is, where you're going to want to end up. I think it would be premature for me to say, "This is the game plan," because that represents the entire university community, starting with the president's vision, all the way through the faculty and it has to be done in a shared manner. So I see the strategic planning process as not top down. It is everybody kind of reaching a consensus with this mission and vision in mind... I think that's part of what needs to be done over the next year or two, to engage students, faculty, staff, obviously the president's cabinet in those kind of discussions of "Here we are now. What do we want to be? What are our areas of strength? What do we want to be known for in 10 years?" What do both the student population and the university community in terms of faculty and staff and the external stakeholders want the university to become?

The problem with a consensus is that it has to be too bland to constitute much of a commitment, unless it's administrative fiat.

But if anybody asks me for ideas, I'll offer a few.

NS: You said that you liked the growth of NIU when you were being interviewed for the provost position. What were some of the things that stood out about NIU's growth?

RA: I think there are a number of things obviously. Even during times of financial hardship, there were great things happening - some of the connections we've talked about in big science and a lot of the opportunities of looking at a student population whose characteristics are improving in terms of having better graduation rates, retention rates and so forth and yet still having the outreach opportunity to make sure that individuals who may have been disadvantaged because of socioeconomic reasons or preparation reasons in the K through 12 system are still given the opportunity to come here and given the infrastructure to help them succeed.

I think having some of those characteristics, having the potential to develop the research connections and the engagement in this tremendous community stood out. You can drive around and see the technology quarter coming out from Chicago and obviously NIU could be an effective anchor for that. You have a growing population and lots of potential in terms of serving that population. So, I think research engagement and academic excellence stood out.

Quite frankly, when I spoke to the students, they were all very excited. I think that's the one thing that stood out. Everybody seemed quite positive despite financial hardships and I know that in some institutions, that climate and culture is just not there.

Many of these things have happened despite anybody's efforts to add or detract. Don't mess it up.

NS: How would you describe your leadership style?

RA: I believe in building consensus. I think to get input from all stakeholder groups is important, but I think leaders have to be willing to make the hard decision when the time comes. You can't be just laissez-faire and let things happen. I think that doesn't produce any sort of forward movement or productivity. I think it's a combination of things. I think I'm a good listener and I think I can read situations pretty well, just because I have experience in that area. Yet I do know that at some point in time, provosts and other leaders of universities do have to make hard decisions. You have to be willing to do that, but only after you've gathered all the evidence and made the decision on what's in the best interest of the institution.

We shall see.

A sidebar notes that the new provost's favorite book is The World is Flat, which I reviewed last August, and which UCLA's Edward E. Leamer has treated less than favorably for the Journal of Economic Literature. (Leamer review link courtesy Newmark's Door.)

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