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  • Synopsis: Early Life
    Keywords: Worth, Illinois; high school, community college
    Transcript: KEATH: My name is Matt Keath. I am here today with my narrator John Butler. It is November 16th, 2019. We are here today in the DeKalb Public Library in downtown DeKalb, Illinois to conduct an oral history interview for Northern Illinois University's 125th anniversary oral history project. Thank you, Dr. Butler, for participating in this project. I'd like to start by asking you to introduce yourself, state your birth date, and say a bit about your background, such as where you grew up and what your life was like before you came to NIU. 

    BUTLER: Sure. I'm John Butler. I was born June 20th, 1969. I grew up in the South Western suburbs of Chicago in a town called Worth. It's Southwest. Surrounding towns are Palos Heights and Orland Park. I grew up in a very tight-knit neighborhood. It was an old neighborhood. It was old houses mixed with a few ranch houses built in the 1950s. It was a predominantly white suburb. The people that lived in Worth had lived there their whole life and had multiple generations of family members there. Coming to Northern was a big deal for me in terms of experiencing a new environment and a much more diverse population of students. 

    KEATH: How did you come to NIU? 

    BUTLER: Northern was my first choice institution. I did briefly flirt with the idea of going to Southern Illinois University with a high school friend of mine as a roommate. Then that he decided not to go. Then that fell through. I decided to go to a community college, Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Heights for a year. I took all the necessary courses to be automatically admitted as a transfer student as a sophomore. I'll confess that I was not the greatest student. I had to become a good student, which I did over the years of my undergraduate. Northern was where I wanted to go. I had a number of high school friends who came here as freshmen and I was anxious to join them. 

    KEATH: Could you say more about the process of becoming a better student, like what that means, what that looked like? 

    BUTLER: I often say that the Political Science Professor, now retired, Gary Glenn was the first person to make me want to be smart. Up until that point, I was much more of a creative person. I was a trained artist. I had been in art lessons for most of my childhood and up through high school. Then I came to Northern wanting to be—My goal was to become an art director. I was very interested in the movies and theater. I wanted to study theater. I gravitated almost immediately to set design and technology. That was what I was going to do. It was much more of a interest in being creative. Then I began to take political science classes as well, and eventually, would join the debate team, which would have a dramatic impact on what I wanted to study and my interest in politics. It wasn't really until I encountered some of the more thematic political science courses and their professors, Gary Glenn being one of them in particular, who just for some reason, it was that moment where it clicked for me that I wanted to be one of these people who knew a lot of things. Now, I had to remember back when I was in high school, I remember wanting to be a psychologist and wanting to be a medical doctor. I had periods where I wanted to be an expert in whatever it is that I was interested in. I wasn't a great student in high school. Because I was just more social and I really enjoyed the social aspect of high school, so by the time it came to applying to colleges, I just didn't really have the scores and the grade point average that would have made me super competitive or really competitive at all, frankly. Northern was a place for me to build that capacity that I never really built in my secondary education.
  • Synopsis: Political science student
    Keywords: set design; art; political science
    Transcript: KEATH: You became a political science student? 

    BUTLER: I became a political science student probably after a year of doing some work in the theater department and discovering, I'm assuming, through coursework that I was interested in the study of law. At Northern, there's emphasis in the undergraduate Political Science program called Public Law. I thought I'll become a lawyer. That changes as I joined the debate team and discover that there's a discipline surrounding argumentation, which I thought was fascinating. 

    KEATH: Did you miss having these creative outlets that you had had or did you find that studying debate and political science allowed you to channel that creativity in a different way or was it just a totally (both talking at once) 

    BUTLER: In the sense of writing, it did. I was able to channel my creativity into becoming what I think I was becoming was a much better writer. As I learned more about the language and the different kinds of writing that happened in the Academy, I was able to find a creative outlet there. I continued to be an artist. One of the things that I was a little frustrated with when I came here as a theater student is I was put in these entry-level art classes that had me drawing pencil lines to track the structure of a crumpled up napkin or something. I really struggled in that very basic setting when I had taken all of these lessons all these years and I was an oil painter. I never really learned the basic elements of art, but I had learned it more organically in those early lessons. I found myself really just confused in those early drawing classes. I was getting Cs. I didn't understand why because my drawing looked like everybody else's. I think if I really thought about it, I would understand why that was happening, but the field of political science was to me, a much more–There was a much clearer pathway between expectations and outcomes. I wasn't finding myself struggling to understand the B that I got. I understood why it was a B. I knew what I was missing. I knew what work I didn't put in to the project. Whereas in art that was not the case.
  • Synopsis: NIU forensics and Board of Regents
    Keywords: forensics; speech; debate; board of regents; board of governors
    Transcript: KEATH: You touched a little bit about your time as an undergraduate student. What other roles have you played at NIU over the years?

    BUTLER: So many. When I was nearing the end of my undergraduate, I had joined the debate team probably in 1990, maybe it was 1989. I'm not 100 percent sure. I think I spent a good three years. It was probably '89. I became very active in that program and eventually became the president of NIU Forensics, which was the student organization for Speech and Debate. I became what you might call a scholarship debater in the sense that I had a tuition waiver. These are all the signs of someone who was doing well. We used to go to tournaments all across the Midwest just about every other weekend. We came home with trophies. It was the most extraordinary thing. We took second and first place at these tournaments, which was absolutely amazing. It wasn't just that, it was something I enjoyed. It was something that I was good at. Then I determined that I wanted to get a master's degree in communication because I had been introduced to the discipline, because my mentors and debate coaches were faculty in the Department of Communication. You might notice I'm struggling just a little bit. I think it's important to point out that I stutter. This is a pervasive issue for me throughout my schooling. The fact that I ended up becoming a communication expert is really extraordinary because I gravitated toward my weakness at the end of the day. I think some of my early creative activity that I was doing was more about not speaking. It was finding a way not to talk. Then when I met Jack Parker, and Dorothy Bishop, and Judy Santacaterina, I started seeing that there was a pathway to actually become good at oral communication. I've had some stumbling blocks. There's a whole period in my senior year where I went through a terrible spell of stuttering where I couldn't overcome it and it was very difficult to compete, which I got a lot of support from the coaching staff to manage. That's always been the area that I was trying to overcome throughout my education, and even now in terms of my public service. I do the master's degree. During that time period, I was appointed by the student association president at the time, student members of the board that governed Northern, which at the time was the Board of Regents. It was a system board that governed, not only Northern, but ISU [Illinois State University] and a university called Sangamon State University, which becomes the U of I [University of Illinois] at Springfield. Those three universities were governed by the Regency System or the Board of Regents. I was appointed by the President of the Student Association to be the student regent representing NIU. That introduced me to academic politics and university governance. That becomes a pathway for me to become accustomed to and understand the larger academy, not just where I was in my department studying for my master's program. I obviously became very close with the university president of Northern and made me even more excited about getting a PhD and becoming a faculty member, which I did. I went to the University of Pittsburgh from '94 to '98. Then, quite unexpectedly, became the replacement to my mentor, Jack Parker, as the Director of Forensics at Northern when I finished my doctorate. Then I come back as a faculty member. I'm on the faculty and serving as Director of Forensics from 1998, where I was only twenty-eight years old when I came back as a faculty member to when I left in 2005. Then, as you know, I think we've corresponded already, in late 2007, I find a pathway to become a member of the Board of Trustees. Now it's a Board of Trustees as opposed to a Regency system. It's an independent board that governs just Northern, which was created in 1996. While I was away at the University of Pittsburgh, the Regency system shifted to the independent board system that we have today. I've been on the board since late 2007, arguably, really not until 2008, because I think it was December twenty-seventh, or something that I was appointed to the Board. That role has been significant. For a period of time, I chaired the Board. I've had just an active and exciting life as a trustee and watch the transition of a couple of presidencies in the process. That brings us here today.

    KEATH: Could you say what the difference is between a system board and a Regency? Sorry if I'm getting that terminology incorrect.

    BUTLER: A system board is the Regency system. There were two system boards. There was the Board of Governors, and then there was the Board of Regions. Then the U of I and Southern Illinois University, which had multiple campuses, had their own independent boards. The flagship had its own independent board. It had a campus in Chicago and Champaign-Urbana, and had a law school and a med school. Then you had Southern, which also had multiple campuses. The Regency system, I'm not exactly sure why, but they put Northern, ISU, and Sangamon State in that system. They were not really reasonably matched institutions. They were very different. At the time, ISU was more of an undergraduate university. They had some graduate programs, but it was more of an undergraduate, teaching-focused institution. I think many people today think that ISU is second to the U of I as a statewide, not regional institution. That was never really the case. That was not how anyone thought of it through the eighties and early nineties. Sangamon State was very different. That was an undergraduate completion university. You went there after you did two years at a community college. It was a junior and senior year institution. Now it's a four-year, satellite campus of the U of I. Then there was Northern, which was a comprehensive research university that was founded in 1898, or whenever. I should know. Just the whole character of Northern was different. A lot of the role of the student regent was to work with the university president to distinguish the uniqueness of Northern and its issues and needs from the other two universities in the Regency system. The Board of Governors oversaw Western and Eastern and Governors State University, Chicago State, Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. That was a little bit more reasonably matched set of institutions. The Board of Regents was oddly matched. I think Northern really struggled to protect its autonomy under the Regency system. Even still today, you can see in the university's constitution, signs of an institution that wanted to, one, for example, evaluate its own president, not just have the board do that because the Northern faculty, at least seemed to feel as though they needed to do this work themselves here in DeKalb as opposed to this oversight board that was really interested in three, not just one institution. All of this changes in 1996 when legislation creates independent boards for each of the state universities.
  • Synopsis: Greek life
    Keywords: greek life; fraternities, sororities; rushing; homohobia; racism; center for black studies; equity; inclusion
    Transcript: KEATH: I don't know that anyone from this project has given any insight into Greek life. I know that you were in a fraternity. Could you talk about your experiences in a fraternity and what Greek life was like when you were an undergrad?

    BUTLER: Sure. I came into the fraternity system just at the time in which the national fraternity organizations were really beginning to focus on risk management. They wanted to, essentially, end the risky partying practices. The fraternity I joined is social fraternity. It was part of the Inter-fraternity council, which varies throughout the years. I'm not sure how many Greek houses there are, but they are paired with and affiliated with the social sorority system. I'm not quite sure. When I came to Northern, I wanted to be in the same fraternity as a good friend of mine, but their fraternity got into some trouble. Then when I went through what's called rush, I found myself really liking this one house and the people in that house. It was much smaller and an interesting group of people but my sister was having a baby and it was her first child. I was very close to my sister and so I went to rush and then the next day, she went into labor. I left DeKalb, and I essentially missed the rest of rush. I had learned when I came back that I actually gotten a bid. They asked me if I wanted to accept that bid. At the time, I did, and I'm not quite sure why. This gets into sort of deep psychological understanding of me. I'm, today, openly gay and that's not really a good place for a gay person, but at the time, I was very much in the closet and wanting to be heterosexual. Probably part of the draw for me was this was part of the life passages of a straight man. What I found myself gravitating to was the politics of the house. I was a student of political science and I was learning about Machiavelli and the Prince and these things that made it interesting to me to see if I could rise in the leadership of the house which eventually I do. I become the president of the house and that becomes really fun for me. It was extremely challenging because I was also a student of Black studies and I was learning about the civil rights movement and it wasn't very difficult to realize that these were predominantly White, obviously, all male organizations. I have never been particularly comfortable with the culture that is created in those sorts of environments, but I set out to actually see if I could change that and see if I could get the house to bring in members who were students of color.It was a real challenge for me, but it gave me an opportunity to practice my capacity to lead cultural change as well as structural change within an organization. If you think about all the people you can talk to you about the Greek system, I'm probably the one that's going to give you the most intellectual, academic, lamest answer about what the system is all about and the rewards. I will tell you that my fraternity brothers became my lifelong friends and professional associates, more so than anyone else that I met in college. Some people in the forensics program obviously continue to be important for me throughout my life, but I'm still very close with my contemporaries when I was in the Greek system.

    KEATH: Do you mind saying more about why the life in a fraternity wasn't great for a gay man?

    BUTLER: They're very homophobic. Whenever you get a group of straight, young men together and they live in house together, one of the ways in which I think men in that sort of environment keep each other in check and exert certain power over one another is to use language, and insults, and such that are very gender-coded. Basically, saying if you're like a woman, you're bad, so the words like “homo” and “fag” and so forth were very common, and I suspect still are. I think my fraternity in particular, I've been heartened to see over the years then become much more progressive in terms of identity and welcoming members who were openly gay which typically would only happen if they were already in the fraternity from another campus and transferred as opposed to someone coming into the house to rush who discloses upon entry that they're homosexual. I would think that that would be harder for them to get a bid, but I don't know that. I think this is a very different generation. The students today, they went to high schools where same-sex partners went to prom, and that certainly was not happening in 1987 when I went to prom. It's just a different generation. We had plenty of gay members, they just were in the closet. Later, obviously, I would learn who those people were. In one case, we had a member who came out while he was in the house. It was very interesting how the house managed that. They managed it as a public relations crisis, more so than anything else which was amazing to me. They didn't become especially intolerant or nasty about it, they just thought it was potentially reputationally challenging. Watching that unfold, I saw really how deeply rooted this idea of this is an organization for heterosexual men is to that system. I recently spoke in front of Greek leaders on Northern's campus probably about a year ago and they asked me what can we do to become a stronger system? I said, "Well, you could take equity and inclusion seriously." It's not inconceivable that you're going to find yourself dealing with some challenging equity, opportunities. Let's just call them opportunities, where perhaps a transgender person may wish to rush the house. How will you handle that? Could you even conceive of inviting such a person to join the house? It was just an interesting conversation, but I was heartened that the members of my fraternity's leadership, then subsequently invited me to talk with them about equity and inclusion on a much more serious level, and what it means, and how they could get on a pathway toward being prepared for that future. Not just as a way of sort of managing risk where they're trying to manage a situation where one of two of the members might say something racist or homophobic and the house gets in trouble. They wanted to go beyond that and talk about how can we position ourselves as a house that is open to members from all different backgrounds. Of course, my cynical answer is, well you have to actually be open. Then, of course, I wonder why would anybody who is not a heterosexual male join a fraternity? I certainly wouldn't today. If I was the person I am today and I came to Northern, it's such a hypothetical, but I would never join a fraternity. It's just something I wouldn't do. There's so many other places for me to make friends and to develop professional connections and networking that I would take advantage of those today.

    KEATH: Could you say more about what it would look like if Greek organizations more generally took equity and inclusivity seriously? Practically, what does that look like to you?

    BUTLER: I don't know. I think it would change dramatically, the Greek system. There are a couple of things that are really putting pressure on the Greek system to become a different kind of organization or larger, structural, cultural organization. One, of course, is just progressive politics and MeToo movement and a much stronger emphasis on consent and whether or not these social environments are safe for women. I think the other is just the changing structure of student housing, and the fact that in the nineties and early 2000s, there was just this build-up of townhomes and rental options that are in some cases better than the homes that students grew up in. That creates a real challenge for the Greek system, because the Greek system really thrives, is most successful when Greek chapters can sustain homes, large homes which require them to be able to recruit residents to live in those homes. If you're nineteen years old and you have a choice, you can either live with your best friend in a townhome. You have your own bathroom and you have a living room, and it's quiet, you have your own bedroom. Or you can live in this cinder block house where you have the small room that you share with somebody and it's noisy all the time. You're going to have a really hard time choosing the cinder block room versus the nice townhome. Those are the real challenges to Greek life, I think. Equity and inclusion would require, I think, the organizations to really see themselves more as less of social organizations and more as networking and social support groups that help people succeed in college. Then social likeness and similarity would become less of an emphasis and become less important for you to necessarily feel naturally as though you have something in common with the people that you're in this organization with. This is just off the top of my head.

    KEATH: Sure. Thanks for sharing that.
  • Synopsis: Douglas Hall
    Keywords: residence halls; reunion; demolition
    Transcript: Could you talk a little bit about Douglas Hall? 

    BUTLER: Sure. When I came here, I wanted to live in the residence halls because that was the exciting part of going to college, I thought. I was excited to get a roommate who I didn't know. He ended up being an amazing, terrific person who I really, really enjoyed getting to know. He was a lover of music, and so he taught me about music and bands. At the time REM was very popular and he was obsessed with REM. We had a really extraordinary room in Douglas Hall that had—I had a friend who was a carpenter who graduated high school and became a carpenter. He came up when I moved into the residence hall and built this elaborate bunk bed structure, loft structure. It had a staircase. It was the most amazing thing. My roommate, Mike and I just got along so well. I loved the camaraderie of the floor. I lived on D2, D Wing, second floor. I just found everybody on the floor to be fascinating, interesting. I formed some really close friendships with my neighbors and I really enjoyed it. Still to this day, I'm not sure why I took a path to go to the Greek system when I so much enjoyed the residence hall life. I just should have stayed there. It was great. Douglas Hall becomes important to me later because when the university is really reshaping its physical footprint in 2014 and '15 it becomes clear that the best thing for the institution is a Boulevard that takes Lucinda Avenue and then extends it all the way to Husky Stadium and the convocation center. For that to happen, Douglas Hall had to go. I didn't particularly think this was all that important personally, but many people believe that that was a way to connect the East part of the campus, the music building portion, to the West portion of campus, which is your convocation center. Douglas Hall and Lincoln Hall were both relatively old and they would have cost a lot of money to bring into compliance with respect to elevators and air conditioning and anything else that would have had to have been done. I think Douglas Hall was air-conditioned at the time, but I'm not sure of that. We were also experiencing a situation where we didn't need as much housing, and so it gave us a chance to take some buildings offline that were expensive to maintain. The board of trustees voted to demolish Douglas Hall. Before that happened, I managed to get a chance to go actually onto the floor that I lived on when I was there just to walk around it. It was a very moving moment for me to go back to that floor where I had started everything. Here I was walking onto the floor as the chairman of the Board of Trustees, where the last time I had been there I was an undergraduate, sophomore. They tore it down. I actually attended a reunion of some kind where alumni were invited to come and walk around the building again before it was torn down. I learned that for a lot of people Douglas Hall was really meaningful, it's where they met their spouses and really just they had these memories of this place that was really significant to their identity and their attachment to Northern. These residence halls were built very quickly when the baby boomers began to go to college in the late sixties and we needed to ratchet up the number of rooms available for students very, very quickly, so they weren't especially good buildings. It was an opportunity now to also change the way student housing works. That was part of the thing happening at the time.

    KEATH: What year was it torn down?

    BUTLER: I want to say 2015, maybe 2016.
  • Synopsis: Teaching as a graduate student and professor
    Keywords: University of Pittsburgh; women's studies;
    Transcript: KEATH: What was it like to be a professor at the school you had attended as an undergraduate and a master student?

    BUTLER: Exciting. For one, I knew the faculty and I knew the person who had held the position. He was my mentor and the person that got me interested in the discipline. It's been a while since I've really been in the discipline closely, so I'm not sure where Northern stands. At the time Northern’s masters of communication was considered one of the best master's only programs in the country. It was a frequent stop for PhD bound students. We recruited from across the nation, so in a master's program at that time, you would have had people from all over the US and even outside of the US. There was some really great faculty here and I'm sure there still are. I remember coming here and James D'Arcy was here. His book had just won every award in our discipline. I remember going with him and actually staying in the same hotel room with him. He came back to the hotel room with just his arms full of plaques. He had won every single award that was possible to win at that time. I just felt like I was really at a great place. I adored our faculty members in the comms department. Lois Self at the time was the chair. She'd been the former founder of the women's studies program and was just an amazing person to work for. She had an incredible sense of justice and compassion for her faculty and I loved every aspect of it. It was extremely exciting to me. I also at the time was coming back as an openly gay person. I had a partner who I had met and established a relationship with in Pittsburgh. He wanted to study for a master's program. He had worked with a prestigious professor at the University of Pittsburgh who had a national reputation in the discipline. Northern was a really good place for him to do the kind of work he wanted to do, so everything just made sense for us to settle here even though coming back to Northern was not my plan. I really looked forward to the idea that I could settle anywhere in the United States. That was one of the reasons I wanted to be an academic because I could move anywhere and settle anywhere. Then I found myself back at Northern. For the first three years, at least, it was an exciting environment and I loved every aspect of it. I loved living in DeKalb. I loved the human rights work I was doing with some campaigns in the city to change the Human Relations Ordinance. I worked on a mayoral campaign, it was very exciting for me. Everything about it was fun. Of course, I liked teaching. I have a teaching style, it's more performance oriented. I really like to keep the students engaged and excited about learning. I really gave a lot of thought to every aspect of that performance. The PowerPoint and the visuals and how I was moving in the classroom and the way that I was using humor and the examples that I was using. All of it was just an exciting training ground to become an academic. 

    KEATH: Had you done any teaching or were you a TA when you were a master's student?

    BUTLER: I was. That was important because I had been a TA and a forensics coach as a master's student at Northern. Then I went to the University of Pittsburgh and I was a graduate fellow. I don't know if you know much about Pittsburgh, but they have something called the cathedral of learning. On the first floor of the cathedral are these world rooms. Each of the classrooms on the main floor are replicas of a classroom you might find in some country. I would teach in some of these classrooms, the French room and the British parliament room. I had experienced teaching in these amazing settings which I think probably contributed to my performance orientation as a teacher. When I came back to Northern, I had a good deal of teaching experience already, but they were basic skills classes. This was the first time I was teaching out of my research and I was teaching theory and trying to introduce upper level students to the harder part of the discipline.
  • Synopsis: Human Relations Ordinance
    Keywords: Gilbert, Norden; DeKalb Human Relations Ordinance; Community Members Against Discrimination; LGBT activism;
    Transcript: KEATH: You touched on this briefly. I think you've actually touched on briefly a couple of times. Could you talk about your work with the DeKalb Human Relations Ordinance? 

    BUTLER: Yes, when I came back to Northern, I was out and I had a partner. Keep in mind that I had been on the governing board as a master's student. I was known when I came back. I knew the president personally. I knew the provost personally. I quickly became acquainted with the DeKalb Human Relations Commission and its chairperson Norden Gilbert, who is also an associate general counsel for NIU. He is a brilliant lawyer, went to the University of Chicago. He was an exciting person to work with because he saw an opportunity in 1998 to bring through the Human Relations Commission a measure that would add sexual orientation to the Human Relations Ordinance. If you think about it today, you'd think, "Well, why wouldn't that already have happened?" But at the time, this was an unusual thing, and a highly controversial proposal. I was invited by Norden to join a group called the Community Members Against Discrimination. It was just an amazing group of local people, some affiliated with Northern and some just residents of DeKalb who worked for other companies and organizations, but we worked together to pass this amendment. It was very controversial. If you go back into the record, you'll see front page news articles of the completely packed city council chamber. You'll read about some really extraordinary public rhetoric. Some of the worst things you could imagine people saying about gay people, and some of the most amazing speech from the LGBT community about their life experience and what it would mean to them to have protection against employment and housing discrimination in the city. That passed in 1998, but we made a mistake, and I write about this in an article that I wrote that was published in 2003 about this campaign. The Community Members Against Discrimination toward the end of the campaign to add sexual orientation, we confronted a city attorney who felt like it was important to define sexual orientation the way that it was defined, I believe by the ACLU, which was homosexuality, heterosexuality, real or perceived or perceived or actual or something like that. Obviously, I can't say don't quote me because this is an oral interview. We knew that that change could exclude transgender individuals, but we didn't have anyone working with us who identified as transgender at the time. We really believed that discrimination was a product of perception in the mind of the perpetrator. We thought really the language could include a person who's discriminated against on the basis of gender identity and expression. I can't say that we didn't think about what we were doing, we did, but I can tell you that we really believed or really wanted to believe that this change, which we thought we needed to make in order to get it through the city council because we were already dealing with arguments by the opposition that this was going to open the door to cross dressing and things that the members of the city council were not ready to contend with and we wanted to win. We made the sacrifice and we accepted the change in definition. We celebrated the victory when we won, but then about a year later, the organization, Equality of Illinois, I believe that's what they were called at the time, they were going to give us an award for this. Then they discovered that we had made this change and they rescinded the award, and then said some really horrible things about us. About how we had thrown our transgender brothers and sisters under the bus and we've made this terrible deal with the devil to protect ourselves, but to ignore the larger and more comprehensive problem of gender identity and expression discrimination. Which was very hurtful to us because we didn't think we were doing that, but we set out to fix it. I think this is what makes the story most extraordinary is we went back to the city council and said, "We screwed up. We didn't do everything we should have done." Which now exposed the campaign in a raw way. We were now trying to add protection for gender identity and expression, and all the challenges of that change. The article that I write about this talks about my effort to try to use language strategy to convince the city council that that was not a huge change. It was just a clarification, but the transgender community that was working with us didn't accept that and really challenged me personally to be much more direct and bold. We had already erased them in the first campaign and now we were arguably trying to erase the significance of this change and the second campaign. What we ended up doing was going forward with a really a much clearer and bolder advocacy that said, "We want to protect transgender people and we're ready to deal with all the concerns you have about that, whether it be cross-dressing, bathrooms," all those concerns. We dealt with them forthrightly and significantly. At the time, the view that when you were trying to protect a transgender person from discrimination, you were trying to protect someone with gender dysphoria or recognized mental illness, that was still very active in the public discourse. There was, again, a city attorney who wrote the city council the memo saying, actually, what they're trying to do is extend protection for people who are classified as suffering from gender dysphoria. It was really rough stuff and we—I remember working in the law library and working with Norden Gilbert on response to the city attorney's memo that contended with all of these ideas and really what we were doing at that point was asking the city council to choose between two expert interpretations of the community members against discrimination, and our legal research versus the city attorney and his or her legal research. It was a very challenging time. We were able to get that through as well, but it was really close because the city council—There was a motion at the very end to send it to the city attorney for more analysis and that motion didn't get a second. I have to tell you that that's really because—I think it's because the transgender activists spoke. They stood and they spoke at the city council meeting and they were impossible to ignore, the power of their speech and their bravery, knowing that they could lose their jobs and they could put their safety at risk. It was a really moving moment but that made the difference. That made it impossible for the city council to say, "This isn't the problem here. This is just a—This might be a problem nationally but we don't have any cases of discrimination based on gender identity and expression in DeKalb, so this is an unnecessary change. It's a solution in search of a problem." They weren't able to say that when they met the actual transgender residents of DeKalb.
  • Synopsis: LGBT studies
    Keywords: LGBT studies
    Transcript: KEATH: Could you discuss your role in creating the LGBT studies program at NIU?

    BUTLER: I don't know how much of a role I have here. When I was a faculty member I was on the President's Commission on Sexual Orientation which has a different name today. I think at the time it was a committee and then it became a commission and it became inclusive of LGBT and questioning individuals but at the time it was just the President's Committee on Sexual Orientation, I think. One of the things that we wanted to do was provide more of a physical footprint for the LGBT resources and the director of LGBT resources or whatever the exact title was at the time. The other thing we wanted to do was there was a number of faculty who were engaged in research such as myself in gender studies and campaigns related to LGBT activism. We wanted to find a way to maybe create an LGBT studies program connected in some way to the very successful and long-standing Women's Studies Program, but we weren't exactly sure how that would get done. It’s very interesting you asked me that question today because just Thursday the board approved the new bachelor's program or major in gender studies and LGBT studies in concert with women's studies. I can say with a good deal of confidence that that's not something we thought would have been possible in 1998, '99, 2000, 2001. Something like that would not have likely been introduced by the university president and probably would not have been supported by the board. It's hard to tell because it didn't happen, and as I've learned as a member of the board, I think the board is very dynamic and it's entirely possible that that board could have been talked into something like that at that time but that would have required a lot of risk-taking. For me to reflect on the progress that we've made since then as an institution to have just approved a major as opposed to a minor is really an achievement, but I think my role—I step out of this in 2005 and a great deal of effort happens after that with respect to the Women's Studies Program and Kristen Myers and the work that she did to merge LGBT studies work and women studies. I went to her retreat several years ago just as a stakeholder about the merger of those two programs and they had done, by then, so much work in thinking about the alignment of those research interests. My role is long in the past.
  • Synopsis: Tenure case
    Keywords: Tenure; forensics; research; publishing;
    Transcript: KEATH: Would you be willing to talk about your tenure case at the end of your time as a faculty member at NIU?

    BUTLER: Sure, it's fairly well known that I was recommended for tenure and promotion by my department in 2004 I think it was, and it was rejected at the college level. It was quite a fight. The tenure case is a department's case and so it was really the department appealing its case through the various levels at the college and the university level. In all of those stages, we were unsuccessful. It was very disappointing for me. I thought then and I still think today that the outcome was a result of a research-only orientation to tenure and promotion. I can't really talk about the extent to which that may still exist because I don't monitor that as closely as one would have to, to make that sort of claim, but at the time it was just very clear. I was hired to be the director of the speech and debate program. It was in my title, it was in my job description, the dean signed off on it and then at the end of the whole probationary period it seemed as though the college was acting as if they didn't know that they had agreed to that. That leadership portion of my work was just not considered significant in the decision of the department to tenure and promote me. It became a question of whether the amount of research publications that I had done and what I had in progress up to that point was sufficient to grant someone tenure and promotion. The college said it wasn't. The university-level committees and provost sided with the college. That's not to say that there weren't people on those committees that didn't side with the department. It was close but it was one of those moments, I think, where the various levels of decision-making were challenged with the question, "What is the significance in terms of retaining a professional?" "What is the significance of the work that he or she was hired to do that has a certain intellectual component?" Also two, "What is the significance of applied research?" Some of the things that I was creating with the support of the forensics program to create a more deliberative culture in the city of DeKalb and on-campus on issues of local concern. Some of that came up in the process but ultimately I think what we learned in that process is that at least then at the time, the idea that the amount of your research productivity—Amount and quality of that work was the clear determining-factors to whether one got tenure in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2004. I don't know the extent to which that's changed but I think that what's interesting about my case was that there was a student group that was associated with it. That student group really spoke up and they said that the work that's being done by this faculty member is really important, and it's not as though it's just a student activity where we're just having fun and socializing. It's an intellectual activity and it requires this enormous amount of research and mentorship. It's different than teaching in that regard because it's really coaching and that that work needs to be valued and honored. I think they were able to get that point across. As I moved on, they were able to make a strong case for the continuation of the tenure to our director of forensics. Somebody came into that role, actually a former graduate student of mine. She succeeded in getting tenure and promotion in that role, but I think it was the students ultimately who made the case that, "This work is really important to us and needs to be supported by the college and by the university." I'm really proud of them for that because I think that was important. I'm fine. I was fine. I went on to do work that I enjoy, that I'm excited about and I continue to be very satisfied with my career path. I really enjoyed coming back to Northern as a trustee. From my standpoint, it was not a devastating professional situation. It was a sad moment for me, that was really hard for me to accept because it showed a side of the university that I didn't like and it made me very cynical about the academy, but over the years, I think I've been able to refresh my faith in the academy's support for this kind of work. I think we need to continue to find ways to value a co-curricular activity in the life of faculty. Again I just think it's critical to understand that research productivity is a part, but not the entire whole existence of a faculty member.

    KEATH: Could you say a little more about what this cynicism toward the academy looks like?

    BUTLER: For me, it was just recognition that in my case, and it was absolutely clear to me, that there was a research-only standard in place at the college level. Not department who's looked at the whole picture and understood why I was hired, but at the college level and then subsequently supported by the university level reviewers. That just caused me to—You have to remember that I came back to Northern and replaced a faculty member who had worked at Northern for thirty years and had had enormous impact on the students that he coached and taught and he would have gotten tenure many, many years before that on the basis of the work he was doing with the speech and debate program and so too did the assistant director, Dorothy Bishop. That was really important and valued work at that time. They were such a part of the intellectual life of the campus and were wonderful people to work with, were wonderful faculty, mentors and graduate advisors. I really thought I was sort of following in that tradition. Then when my case collapsed in the college, I really struggled to understand what did I get myself into and did I make the right choice to come to Northern? Was there a future for this kind of activity here? In a very short period of time, I would learn that there was, and I was very pleased to see that. It had a lot to do with changing leadership in the college and a real respect that existed organically within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for this work. There were people there who knew the history and knew the people involved and valued very much the program. They ultimately, I think, found a safe landing ground for a program that for a brief period of time was in some turmoil. At the same time, I feel responsible for not focusing enough on research productivity. I felt responsible through the entire process. If I had just devoted more time to getting that journal article out or getting that book contract, I could have overcome all of this and it would never have been an issue, but you have to remember this was the end of a six-year probationary period. In which case I was being—You're generally told. Of course, you're always told as a faculty member, you need to bring your research to publication. Certainly, I was being told that, but I was also being told that I was running a first-rate forensics program and we were highly successful in the work that we were doing. That was at the beginning, at least of what I was hired to do. That's the cynicism.

    KEATH: You've also said that you've found new faith in the academy since then. Is that right?

    BUTLER: One of the reasons I came back to Northern as a trustee was really took to reclaim my faith in Northern. I left feeling as though the university wasn't what I thought it was. I watched them care for the forensics program after I left and that gave me a lot of faith, but I needed to—Personally, I wanted to—I shouldn't say I needed to. I wanted to participate in making the university strong at a time in which I knew the institution was facing a very uncertain and challenging future because higher education was changing so significantly. I had experience as a member of the governing board, so I already knew what I was getting myself into, but what I was really—I think what I was doing personally more than anything, is I was trying to find Northern again for myself because I had lost it in the tenure battle and I felt like it was taken away from me by sort of the unhealthy system that was very localized. It wasn't the whole university, but it was unhealthy enough that it took this thing away from me that was very important to me personally. I felt like I could get that back as a trustee, but I also knew I had to conduct myself as professionally and as objectively open-minded. I needed to put behind me my disappointments in the institution in order to see where the institution was truly unique and strong and transformative for people.
  • Synopsis: Career after NIU
    Keywords: labor unions; pensions; strikes
    Transcript: KEATH: What did you do after you left as a professor?

    BUTLER: I had already become acquainted with an actuary and benefits consultant who was working in the Taft-Hartley multi-employer labor space. Who had asked for my advice on a couple of really challenging situations affecting her clients where they needed to develop some democratic decision-making meetings where the membership could interact with the leadership of the union and talk about what are they going to do with some problems related to the funding of their health and welfare and pension plans. When things were not going well for me at Northern, I had two choices. I could stay in the academy, which I tried to do, but I was facing a pattern of moving up in a search process for a new faculty position at another university. Then I'd reached the point where it looked like I was going to get the position and then they would just—They struggled over, I think, why did things go South at Northern? They were looking at a record they thought was fairly impressive, but they couldn't figure out why things didn't work at Northern. I think I just kept running into that. Meanwhile, I had this person who was asking me to come work for her and do work for her, she was creating a not-for-profit foundation that was working with labor funds. She had an office in Teamster City which is right on 290 and it was an exciting space and she is a really dynamic person. I had already worked with several really dynamic women like Lois Self and Dorothy Bishop and Judy Santacaterina, so for me, it was just that sort of natural move to partner with this amazingly brilliant woman in the employee benefits space. We have worked really well together and it was an opportunity for me also to get involved in some of the more activism sides of the labor movement which was exciting to me. I grew up on the south side as you know, the southwest side City of Chicago and my neighborhood was a very sort of blue-collar—Where everybody was in a union and all hard-working people. My mother worked at a trucking company. She was in the office, but she was a teamster. Many, many years before when the teamsters went on strike and she was on strike, she kept getting these letters from management that were essentially telling her that the union was not meeting and was not meeting in good faith and they'd been offered these great deals and they were turning them down, but my mother was hearing nothing from the union. I recall—I don't know how old I was. Probably sixteen or seventeen. She said what they really need are people who know how to communicate and can counter, what the union needs, people that can counter these propagandistic messages that the membership is receiving because that's just something they're not doing very well. I don't know why that it was just one of those conversations that burned in my head. Much later in my life as I get closer to labor unions, I start thinking, "Well, maybe this is my chance to help them do that very thing." As well as I was becoming very interested in the health and welfare and pension benefit funds that these labor unions were creating in partnership with management, and I was just fascinated by them as institutions and entities. I was excited to learn more about that.
  • Synopsis: Becoming a trustee
    Keywords: Board of Trustees; Board of Regents
    Transcript: KEATH: How did you become a trustee? 

    BUTLER: Labor unions are very politically active and they are very involved in politics and they're very involved in state and local elections. They had a number of people that they knew and some of my clients I thought could help me express an interest in an appointment to the board. That ended up being true. It was a fairly long process from the point at which I was saying I was interested and then I was reached by someone in the governor's office at the time who said that I was nominated. Which I didn't quite understand what that meant, but it just essentially meant that people were saying that I would make a good trustee. Then about a year later, the paperwork started coming to go through the vetting process and eventually I received an appointment letter. In December twenty-seventh, I think it was, 2007, I received an appointment to the Board of Trustees. Which was really, really exciting. Even though I knew that it was going to be somewhat controversial because of the tenure situation, but it was really exciting to go back to the board that I had once been on. 

    KEATH: As a student? 

    BUTLER: As a student, yes. There's a great story I like to tell people. When I graduated with my masters degree in 1994, I went to the President's house, John La Tourette's house. After graduation, I brought my family and I remember I was leaving and the provost at the time, J. Carroll Moody stopped me at the door. He was essentially saying goodbye to me because I was going to go off to Pittsburgh. After a long distinguished career as a faculty member in history, in labor studies, he who had become then the executive secretary in the university council and eventually the provost, he said to me, he said, "John I want you to know something, you will never be as powerful as you are right now in your entire academic career." That's what he said to me. He was somewhat joking, but he was telling me the truth. He was saying, "You're going to become an academic, you're going to become a professor. You're never going to be as influential as you are right now as a member of the Board of Regents in terms of the hierarchy of the institution." I'll never forget that because I wanted to be a faculty member and I wanted to do that work and I really thought that was the life for me, but I never thought that I would actually go back on a board or back on the board. I'll never forget Carroll saying that to me because I always sort of thought he was wrong about that. I always thought, "Well, I will." (laughs) I don't know why. Strangely enough, when I was a faculty member back in the '98, '99, 2000, I had a couple of dreams that were very strange dreams where I was on the board. It wasn't the Board of Regents, it was NIU's Board of Trustees and I didn't know any of the trustees at the time. I didn't know them personally but I was at a meeting and I was walking around and people were talking to me as though I was a trustee. I woke up and I thought, "That is just so strange because that's never going to happen because I'm a faculty member." Then I would ultimately be on the board.
  • Synopsis: NIU's values
    Keywords: CHANCE program; Center for Black Studies; equity; inclusion
    Transcript: KEATH: What else do you think deserves attention given that it's NIU's 125th Anniversary?

    BUTLER: My time with Northern spanned up a good deal of time and I have experienced the institution as a student, as a faculty member, and as a trustee. The university's gone through some really challenging situations. I've been fortunate to see the institution respond to some very serious challenges in a manner that's inspiring and replenished faith in me personally in the future sustainability of the institution. I always say that the most important thing for any university is that there be an alignment of values. I don't think there's ever been as clear of an alignment of values between the President and the board and the faculty as there is today. I think that's exactly what we must have as we face this extremely uncertain future where higher education is changing dramatically. The nature of what students are expecting from universities is going to change and the manner in which we format education and provide education is going to change, but the value system must be there. That value system from my personal perspective has to be an access-oriented value system. My personal view is some of the most—that the things that deserve the most amount of attention right now as we think about where we are with our value system, is some of the programming that we've developed as an institution. In some cases, we were ahead of our time when we did it to assure that, that access mission is fortified and meaningful going forward, so we have established some fantastic programming. The CHANCE program for example, which is being renamed is really worth our time in terms of studying its history and its impact on the campus. The various centers for study that are culturally oriented, the Center for Black Studies is the one that, I think, figured so prominently in my life, is really worth our time. Understanding the origins of that center and the work that they've done. These are programs that if we didn't have them, we'd build them. We'd need to distinguish ourselves as an institution going forward, so I would hope that there's some attention to that as we honor 125 years and where we've come because there's a lot to be valued there. There's a lot to take from those formative experiences and find ways to work that into our future plans and strategies. I could not be happier with the manner in which our existing, stated, expressed values reflects that equity in access mission, I think is so important for our future.

    KEATH: Before we conclude, is there anything I didn't ask you about, that you'd like to mention?

    BUTLER: No, I'm good. This was a good experience. My only fear is in the academy the prospect of a tenure denial is so top of mind and so traumatic to so many people that I don't want people to leave listening to this session with the idea that this was—That was a hugely formative experience for me. That was just one of many things that I've gone through in my life that has contributed to the person that I am now. I love this university, I love its people, and I love the opportunities that it's given me to learn how to be a leader and to learn how to be a public servant and to give back. Really, nothing changes that. As I think about the whole arc and trajectory of my career, I could not be more pleased to have been a part of NIU's history.

    KEATH: Dr. Butler, thank you so much for sitting down and talking with me. I really appreciate it.

    BUTLER: Thank you. End of interview



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