Can DeKalb Really Help Fix NIU?


The Daily Chronicle’s editorial board scolded a group of residents this week for being total NIMBYs hating on good and necessary change.

[D]espite all the benefits that our communities draw from having the university here, there is resistance to ideas that could change the nearby neighborhoods, particularly the Ellwood historic and Hillcrest neighborhoods, where residents have formed a community group, Preserve Our Neighborhoods, in response.

People by nature don’t like change. It’s natural for them to be skeptical. But fighting to stop any change will not be good for anyone, really.

My observations suggest this is a mistaken assumption. Group members aren’t resisting change per se but rather are targeting the utter gall of NIU’s handing down a plan for their neighborhoods without their input.

Now that Preserve Our Neighborhoods has succeeded in forcing something of a pause, maybe we could productively use it to think through the notion that widening sidewalks, installing tram service and building more housing are really the best uses of resources in combating the problem of plummeting enrollment.

Also weighing in on the topic this week is Jason Akst, who teaches journalism and PR at NIU and writes a column for the Chronicle as well.

One problem is the looming, potentially catastrophic state budget cut. The other problem is the massive, sudden, inadvertent loss of faculty and staff.

As many news organizations have reported in the past week or so, the new, controversial pension “reform” law includes a mistake that affects some public university employees and is causing what some are calling “a mass exodus.”

That’s not an exaggeration. Just at NIU, it’s been reported that as many as 800 employees, or 20 percent, are suddenly heading for the exits. Without even concentrating, I personally can think of about 10 people leaving. Sure, some faculty members might come back to teach on an ad hoc basis, but many won’t and very few staff will return.

Add growing instability, then, to the mix of retention threats. This is bound to wreak havoc on the student experience, from basic customer service — something that, in my experience, large institutions of learning tend to have problems with in the first place — to overall quality of education.

You may ask, “What does this have to do with City of DeKalb?” to which my off-the-top-of-the-head response would be, “DeKalb has TIF money burning a hole in its pocket.”

I picked up a new narrative about NIU’s difficulties at the City of DeKalb strategic planning meeting in March. It goes something like this: “NIU is in financial crisis. DeKalb and NIU will sink or swim together, so DeKalb has an obligation to help NIU.”

And the push is on! You may recall that I was upset at there being no allowance for public comment during the half-day meeting (nor was it video-recorded). However, NIU’s Bill Nicklas participated in every aspect, including lobbying for projects such as Locust Street sidewalk-widening.

Even assuming the narrative is true, do we really believe that NIU retention struggles are a direct result of its having narrow sidewalks and lack of shuttle service to downtown?

If so, where is the data — surveys, compiled exit interviews — that say so?

Seems to me that while spending city money on amenities might constitute an appropriate part of our long-term aspirations at some point, there are more immediate and fundamental issues for NIU to address.

So if you haven’t yet donned your Cap of Skepticism over the sense of urgency to involve DeKalb in NIU redevelopment projects, you may want to do so soon.