It’s been said that the answer is always no if you never ask.
It was in this forthright spirit that nearly 40 representatives of Northern Illinois University turned up in Springfield on Tuesday, April 30, meeting with Illinois legislators to bring awareness to NIU, its contributions to Illinois, and the financial needs of the university.
Participants included university administrators, faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends of the university, as well as NIU President Dr. Lisa Freeman, NIU Board of Trustees Chair Dennis Barsema, and DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith.
This effort was the byproduct of the advocacy program established by the Northern Illinois University Alumni Association (NIUAA) Board of Directors. In summer 2017, at the tail-end of a statewide budget impasse that lasted over 700 days, the NIUAA Board rallied to inspire alumni and friends of NIU to use their voices to elevate NIU at the legislative level. Their focus? Making sure that legislators understood the importance of funding operations and capital projects in higher education, especially at NIU. The board’s initial efforts resulted in the formation of the NIU Caucus in 2018 and culminated with NIU Advocacy Day in April.
“NIU Advocacy Day presents an opportunity for our alumni and students to engage in dynamic conversations with legislators about the value of higher education,” President Freeman said. “Our students speak to their current experiences and the ability of our legislators to promote college affordability, while our alumni speak to how much that education has advanced success in their chosen careers —many of them staying in the state of Illinois and contributing to the economy.”
Legislators who are NIU alumni or have NIU connections were very welcoming and understanding of the university’s needs, and many pledged whatever support they could provide.
“It was inspiring seeing such avid supporters of NIU mobilizing in support of the university,” said Matt Streb, chief of staff at NIU. “It is extremely powerful and effective for legislators to hear from our current students and alumni about the positive effects that an NIU education has had on their lives.”
“While members of the General Assembly and Governor Pritzker’s office continue to tackle lllinois’ many pressing issues, we must continue to bring awareness to the importance of higher education and the return on investment NIU provides the state,” said NIU State Legislative Liaison, Jenna Mitchell, who was hired by the university in the summer of 2018 and has been vital in establishing NIU’s presence among the legislature. “There is no better way to do this than by showcasing the impressive successes of alumni, students and faculty.”
While visiting in Springfield, the NIU contingent broke into teams that were assigned to meet with legislators from their home districts, or those who play a role on committees that impact higher education. The teams generally included a representative of NIU, an alumnus, and a current student.
Groups shared NIU’s legislative priorities with legislators, which mainly focused on funding for NIU. Through conversation and important “leave behind” materials that NIU produced for the day, legislators learned, among other things, the number of NIU students, alumni and NIU-contracted vendors who reside in their districts.
Sankat Patel ‘00, a Chicagoan who currently serves on the NIUAA Board, said seeing such Huskie Pride in Springfield was exciting.
“It was fun to see the collaboration of the NIU alumni groups, engaging with legislators in the right way,” Patel said. “We had conversations in their offices, in the hallways, or as they were going into committee meetings.”
The NIUAA Board considered the day a success but hope to continue to grow in the future and plans to add another layer to advocacy next year—visits in legislators’ home districts.
Alumnus Peter Garrity, ‘71, who serves as the NIUAA Board president, believes that NIU should be able to make more of an impression with legislators by engaging more alumni to advocate for the university in the areas where they live.
“Meeting with our legislators in Springfield showed commitment, but I feel that the real work will be done back in legislators’ districts during the summer recess. Going forward, we will be able to tell our story and build awareness on a much more comprehensive basis,” said Garrity.
At the end of spring session in Springfield, NIU received a five-percent increase in its budget allocation, which was due, in part, to the individual and collaborative advocacy efforts of university officials, alumni and friends.
When addressing faculty and staff in the announcement of the fiscal year 2020 budget, President Freeman said “I want to express my appreciation to the many university community members who reached out to their legislators and/or participated in the April 30th NIU Advocacy Day in Springfield. Your time, testimonials and passion for the value of higher education were well-received.”
If you’d like to learn more about advocacy, whether it’s in person or from the comfort of your own home, contact Liz McKee (Lmckee1@niu.edu or 815-753-7400).