- Synopsis: IntroductionKeywords: IntroductionTranscript: PANN: Ready. My name is Kelsey Pann, I'm here with my fellow interviewer Dayton LeClercq and our narrator NIU president, Lisa Freeman. Today is November 12th, 2019, we're here today in the DeKalb Public Library located in downtown DeKalb, Illinois to conduct an oral history interview with NIU president, Lisa Freeman for Northern Illinois University's 125th Anniversary Oral Project. Thank you, Lisa Freeman, for participating in this project. I'd like to start by asking you to please introduce yourself, state your birth date and say a bit about your background such as where you grew up, your education and graduate training.
- Synopsis: Childhood to Current Family LifeKeywords: Natonal Health Service Corps.; University of Rochester, New York; Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas; Adoption; World War II Vetrans; World War Two Veterans; New York City, New York; Pets; Dogs; Only Child; Only Children; Private Adoption; Siblings;Transcript: FREEMAN: My name is Lisa Freeman. I'm currently serving as the president of Northern Illinois University, a job that I absolutely love. I was born in New York state. I grew up on Long Island. I have lived in many different places in the United States as I've pursued my education. I have my undergraduate degree, a Master's degree, and a Veterinary Medicine degree from Cornell University, which is in Ithaca, New York in the Finger Lakes area. I have a Doctoral degree in Pharmacology from The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. While I was attending Ohio State, my husband was paying back a scholarship from the National Health Service Corps, so we actually lived in an Appalachian coal mining town in Southern Ohio. From there, we returned to upstate New York. I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester and before coming to NIU in 2010, I spent sixteen years on the faculty of Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.
PANN: Awesome. What was it like living in a coal mining town?
FREEMAN: It was, I think, one of the experiences in my life where I learned the most about people. It was a very different environment than the one that I grew up in. There was a very different opinion of higher ed as a path to social mobility. Although systems and values were very different than the ones I grew up with, it was also very easy to see that people are basically people everywhere, and they want the same things in terms of stuff, and they love their children and their pets, and you could always find common ground with so many of them even when you started in a different place.
PANN: You mentioned it being a little bit different than how you grew up, can you share a bit about your childhood and your experience growing up?
FREEMAN: Sure. I grew up in a suburb of Long Island where almost all of the houses were bought by families who were utilizing the GI Bill. My dad was a World War II veteran. At the time that I was growing up, I was born in 1959, so I'm a boomer. You can’t say, "Okay, boomer," to me. It was really that kind of American dream period where women weren't expected to work. My mother did work, which set us apart from other families in the neighborhood. But, there were excellent public schools. Kids' play was a lot less regulated than it is nowadays. We ran a little bit wild after school, playing kickball in the streets and going to stores on our own on our bicycles. As I grew up and became a teenager, it was nothing just to hop on the train and go into New York City with my friends. It was a really good place to grow up.
PANN: Can you share your fondest childhood memory?
FREEMAN: My fondest childhood memory. I never played with dolls, I always was much more into stuffed animals, and in fact I think one of the reasons I became a veterinarian was because I had all these plastic stethoscopes, sort of little doctor's and nurse's kits, but I had no dolls. I always played with my stuffed animals and pretended that I was a veterinarian, and I wanted a pet at home so badly. I wanted a dog so badly. I was finally, like, 12-years-old and my mother my whole life had said, "If you still want a dog and you still want your ears pierced when you're 12, that's when you can have those things." I think she thought I would forget, but it was two weeks before my 12th birthday and I'm like, "When am I getting my ears pierced and when are we getting a dog?" My mother was like, "Oh no!" I remember that birthday was a really big one for that reason and it was a great memory for me and my family.
PANN: I know that getting a dog can be a really big deal for a lot of kids. How did finally getting a dog change your experience?
FREEMAN: I was an only child, so having the child meant that when I got home from school, I'd have the dog there to take care of. It meant I had more responsibility, but also more routine. I had just wanted a dog for so long that, having obedience class and taking the dog on walks, and I loved every minute of it. I was never one of those kids who got bored with the dog and expected the parents to take care of it.
PANN: Is there anything that you struggled with growing up?
FREEMAN: That's an interesting question. I think being an only child creates, sometimes, social adjustment issues for kids. My vocabulary was probably much more adult than many of my peers, because I lived in a house of adults. I didn't have older brothers and sisters, or particularly cool parents. My mother was 41, I was adopted as an infant, so they were almost like two generations older than I was. I didn't have anyone to tell me what was in style or out of style or what was cool. I think in the long-run, that was very good for me because it gave me confidence in making individual choices, but there were certainly moments when I didn't know which was the cool group to listen to, which albums to buy, or which pants were in style, and which were going out of style. By the time I hit junior high or high school, I had a group of friends who helped me understand those things, but there were definitely times growing up when that was a challenge and kids would tease me.
PANN: Do you think you struggled — You mentioned being adopted, is there anything that influenced you growing up or even now because of that?
FREEMAN: This is a great story to share. It's a really interesting one. My mother wasn't able to have children. She had three miscarriages before they were able to adopt me as an infant. I was really treasured, not spoiled in the way that I became a brat, but my parents were always afraid something would happen to me, they were careful with me. They told me I was adopted at a very early age, and it never made me feel less than. As I got older, I started to wonder if I had siblings out there. I would never have looked for my parents aggressively, my birth parents, while my adoptive parents were alive. It was a time when you didn't have open adoption. It was a shameful thing to have a child out of wedlock. You just didn't talk about it. But, I turned 60 this year, and I was like, "God, answer my--" I will turn 60 this year. As I got into this phase of life, I thought, "I might have brothers and sisters out there, and it would be interesting to see, parents could be alive or not." I did 23andMe DNA, and I found three half sisters. I learned the story of my birth, and I met my birth father as a result. Really within the last eighteen months, I found a new family. For the first time in my life, I actually have relatives who look like me, which is really kind of interesting and a little bit freaky. When my husband and I went to meet my half sisters and my birth dad, he and one of my half sister's husbands just could not stop looking at not just how much we looked like each other, but how much we gestured like each other, how we had similar mannerisms. Everyone in my birth family are animal lovers, but no one in my adoptive family were. It just has been really interesting to look at what family can mean from very different standpoints. My mom died quite a while before my dad died. My dad actually remarried, and at the age of 30, I got three step-brothers that way after being an only child for thirty years. I'm still close to two of my step-brothers and their wives, in fact, we'll be doing Thanksgiving with them this year. I'm very much of the belief, getting back to your original question, that I think being adopted has made me very open to finding family where it offers itself, and not having a rigid definition of family being based on blood relationships.
PANN: You mentioned your birth family being animal lovers and you're an animal lover, obviously. Is anyone else working with animals or a veterinarian like yourself?
FREEMAN: They all have pets, but none of them went the veterinary route. One of my half-sisters is a high school Spanish teacher, so very interested in education, and one of the others is in counseling and — Well, the third now works for a pet food company, but when I met her, she was importing wine from Italy. They all have dogs. They've all had animals their whole lives, but none of them went into the science end of things.
- Synopsis: Veterinary School to Transition into AcademiaKeywords: Veterinary School; Veterinary Science; Veterinary Faculty; Veterinary School Administration: Northern Illinois University; College Administration; University Administration; Research and Graduate Studies; Research and Development;Transcript: PANN: Why did you decide to go into the science end of things, then?
FREEMAN: I always liked figuring out how things worked, and since I loved animals, I wanted to figure out how animals worked.
PANN: Is there any challenges that you faced in veterinary school?
FREEMAN: Veterinary school is just challenging, because there is a lot of material to learn in a very short time, but it's actually also a really fun environment. You're with eighty people and you're with them in a lot of classes. You serve on clinics with them, and you get to be very, very close. I still go to my veterinary school reunions.
PANN: With all of the interesting and fun things that you got to do during veterinary school, why did you then decide to go into academia?
FREEMAN: When I was applying to veterinary school, it was really hard to get in, in New York state, which was the only school I was allowed to apply to as a New York state resident was Cornell, the state school. There were eleven people for every spot. You had to do everything possible to make your application stand out. In order to get into veterinary school, I did undergraduate research and I actually just fell in love with discovery research, with asking questions that we didn't know the answer to. As I moved through that school, I knew that I wanted to be both a veterinarian and have a PhD and be in a veterinary school as a faculty member. I wound up pursuing that route, and I did all the things you need to do to be competitive, to get grants and run a research lab and be a good teacher. When I decided that that was the path I wanted to take, it was not a very popular one. There were certainly people within my veterinary school class and within the faculty who thought I was like taking the spot of someone who was going to be a real veterinarian because I wanted to be a researcher with a veterinarian degree. By the time I got to be a faculty member, everyone was like, "Oh my gosh. All the people who are veterinary faculty members who understand public health, and animal people, environment interactions, they're all retiring and we don't have anyone to replace them. We better make a huge national investment in training veterinarians to be researchers." For me that was great news because even though I hadn't had it very easy, I loved what I did. I thought I had the best job in the world. I'm like, "Well, I can run programs to help my veterinary students figure out if this is something that interests them." I was able to put together a program that immersed veterinary students in summer research, and I did it with funding from the federal government, from the animal health industry, from private donors, and I ran a pretty good program. Students liked it. The funders felt they were getting a good value. I think as I did that, which was really a labor of love, folks at the university, my Chair of my department, the Dean, the Provost said, "You're really good at administration, you should think about whether or not you want to do that." The provost actually came to me and said, "There's this program where you can take a sabbatical leave essentially, and for a year, immerse yourself in what it's like to be a university administrator and decide if it's for you or not." I was like, "Yeah, I don't know, you know," I'd been doing what I'd been doing for a while. I really liked it. I was at a good point in my grant cycle. A couple of my students came and they said, "You have to do this, because you're always telling us to try it and if you do research and you find that you hate it, you still learn something valuable, you should try doing administration. If you really hate it, you've learned something valuable, you've got to walk the walk." I was like, "Yes, I guess you're right." Students are pretty smart most of the time. So, I did that. I went to the university at Buffalo, and I went there at a time when they had a new President, a new Provost, and just was there as a learner to look at what administrators do. I liked being somebody who could impact so much of the university to have a real influence on the lives of students and faculty and staff. I came back from that experience really feeling like I wanted to do research administration. That was what I did at Kansas State. I was the Associate Dean for research in my college, and then I was an Associate Vice President, responsible for opening a new research and innovation campus. The Vice President for research, who was there and who was a great mentor of mine, wasn't going anywhere. If I wanted to continue to advance, I knew I would have to move. When I came to NIU in 2010, I came as the Vice President for research and graduate studies and I thought I would be happy in that role until I retired. I really loved that role. I had no plans when I came here to be the Provost or the President, but things happen. There were leadership transitions, there were open positions, and because I really love NIU, I chose to stay and move into roles that I didn't think I'd ever occupy.
- Synopsis: Student Impacts in LifeKeywords: College Students; Non-Traditional College Students; Single-Mothers; Mothers of Children; Time Mangement; College Diversity; Inclusivity; Student Life; Student Culture; Cultural DiversityTranscript: PANN: Going back just a little bit, you've mentioned a couple of times how students have impacted you or maybe even pushed you to take steps in your career. Can you share a story about any specific students that have impacted your perspective and experience?
FREEMAN: I think that the students who have impacted me the most were the ones who came in as nontraditional. I always had women students who wanted to work in my lab, or students who came to research from perhaps a different perspective. They came to it through clinical training or through reading books, so they were older or non-traditional. I think what I learned from them, I had a postdoc, so a trainee, but not a student, who had five children. I think some people would have been afraid to say “my research career is going to depend on the productivity of someone who has five children at home,” and she was divorced, so they really depended on her. On the other hand, she was the best time manager I had ever seen work in a laboratory, because I think she knew she was always one ear infection away from having to stop her experiment midstream. She didn't have a lot of angst over things that didn't matter. She didn't waste a lot of time with unnecessary socializing, although she was very pleasant and a popular person. I had a graduate student who worked in my lab, who came from China, who was happy to be in a pretty conservative college town in Kansas, because he was gay, and the attitude towards LGBTQ students and individuals in China was so repressive, that a town where most people from the US would have said it wasn't all that inclusive and welcoming, he was like, "This is amazing." I've just always had undergraduates with interesting backgrounds. I think what I've learned is that a successful student doesn't look one way. There's no way you can look at somebody and know if they're going to succeed or how great the things they're going to do in life until you get to know them. Maybe don't judge students by that first impression.
- Synopsis: Arrival at NIU and Current PositionKeywords: Fermi National Laboratory; DeKalb, Illinois; Chicago, Illinois; O'Hare International Airport, Chicago, Illinois; Vice-Pesident of Research and Graduate Studies; University Administration; Office of the Provost; Northern Illinois University; NIU; Provost; STEM; STEAM; Women in STEM;Transcript: PANN: Thank you for sharing that. Jumping forward again. We've talked a little bit about the different positions that you've held over the years, and a couple of different positions that you've had at NIU. Can you explain your leadership trajectory at NIU, and talk about the experience of moving through those positions?
FREEMAN: I came to NIU as the Vice President for research and graduate studies, and I chose NIU very intentionally. I wanted to be at a university that was research active, but small enough that I would still, as a Vice President, get to work directly with faculty and students, and not just work with other Associate Vice Presidents. I also wanted to come to a university that wasn't one with a veterinary school, or that didn't have a big agricultural program, because I wanted to see if I could be successful bringing people, money and ideas together in fields where I didn't have automatic credibility that comes with having a veterinarian degree or a PhD in that area. I was very attracted to the fact that NIU's near Argonne and Fermi National Laboratory, and I thought there would be some cool collaborations there. Excited about the fact that in the sixty miles between DeKalb and Chicago, there's pretty much every type of town I've ever lived in. A small one, suburban ones, and a very big city and a lot of opportunities for collaboration. When I interviewed for the position at NIU, when you're interviewing at the Vice President level, before you get to campus, you generally interview with a search committee off-campus like at O'Hare Airport or a hotel near there. When I met the faculty search committee of about twenty people, and there were also a couple students on it, I just felt at home even before I came to campus. I felt like Huskies were my people, so I was really excited to come here in that position. That's a great position, because you do a lot internally with research active faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates who are interested in research. You also get to do a lot externally with potentially corporate partners or foundations, the agencies, the National Institutes for Health and National Science Foundation. Chicago has a great innovation scene, so it was a nice balance of internal and external, and faculty, students and staff. When John Peters retired as president, and Baker came in as president, he wanted to make a change at the position of Provost. He asked me if I would serve in that role on a temporary basis, and I said, "Yes, I would serve in that role on a temporary basis," but I really loved being the Vice President for research and I wanted to go back to that position. In addition, at that point in time, my dog died of cancer, at a fairly young dog age of seven in November, and I really wanted to get a puppy. I thought, "Well, I can't get a puppy while I'm provost, but as soon as I go back to being Vice President for research, I'll have a little more time. I'll be able to get a puppy." I had two things that were really driving me to go back to be Vice President for research, so I did not apply to be the Provost. There was a national search, and three candidates came to campus. There was a candidate that the campus found acceptable, that the president found acceptable, who I thought was acceptable and who I was looking forward to working with. On the day that she was supposed to sign her contract, she texted the president and told him she had taken a job as a Dean at a university in Chicago, and she wasn't coming to NIU as the Provost.
LECLERCQ: Texted them?
FREEMAN: Texted. I will always remember this. It came after a very busy weekend of commencement, in the Spring, it was the Sunday after commencement. We were supposed to have a lunch where she signed her contract. She changed her mind and didn't come, so I was asked to stay on as Provost with a three-year contract. We were between a rock and a hard place. The other two candidates weren't considered acceptable by the campus, and it was going into June, so I didn't get a puppy. I wound up getting an adult rescue dog the following November, so that was okay, and I took on the role of Provost on a permanent basis. Provost is a very internal role. The provost has really the operations of the university, the colleges, the libraries, advising. Then here, the Provost is also an Executive Vice President that has student affairs and human resources. As Provost, you keep the trains running. You deal with a lot of problems that can't be solved by department Chairs and Deans that flow up to you. Then the President gives you a lot of work, and you don't get to do a lot externally. It's not a big fundraising position. You're not out making relationships, but you have a tremendous scope. You have influence over a lot of things that impact folks at the university, so the good side is, it's very impactful. The bad side is, it's very internal. Then becoming President, again, after an unexpected opportunity arose due to a leadership transition that wasn't planned, it was like the best of both of my previous jobs. Because the President obviously has a big impact on the direction of the institution, the culture, the institution, but the President gets to spend more time with students than the Provost does. The president gets to be very external, meeting with alumni and potential partners who are in the industry, and it's a very fun job. [chuckles] Very rewarding job.
PANN: You've served in a lot of leadership roles here. You were Vice President of research, then Provost and now President. As a woman in leadership and with your background as a woman in STEM, have you faced any sexism?
FREEMAN: I think that every woman who's in a male-dominated field faces sexism, and also just deals with implicit bias all the time. It's not that there's one big moment in most women's lives, where they're like, "Oh my gosh, I'm being discriminated against." It's more like, you just learn to deal with bias on a regular basis. Sometimes you feel the disadvantages accumulating, and then you develop mechanisms to cope with that. I joke around a lot with our current Provost, so right now at NIU, the top three leadership positions are occupied by women. The Provost is also from a male-dominated field — economics. She was at the table with me and a couple other members of our leadership team, and she interrupted someone. She said, "I'm so sorry, I interrupted," and I said, "Everybody knows if you grow up as a woman in a male-dominated field, you interrupt people, because that's the only way you could ever get your voice heard."Because there are definitely times I remember where people talked over me, it was hard to get my voice heard. Or I said something and nobody acknowledged it, and five minutes later, a man said it and people were like, "What a great idea." That is such a classic cartoon meme, but it really does happen. Things like that have happened, but I think you also just learn how to use your voice, and if people underestimate you, that can be a big advantage.
PANN: Are there any specific proud moments that you can share about each of your roles that you've had at NIU?
FREEMAN: That's a great question. I've had so many proud moments being President. Every time we have a commencement ceremony, every time I talk to alumni, for whom this institution means a lot. Being able to do things, like change our benefits policies, so that we have a better parental leave benefit, and trying to create more equitable pathways for parents, women, and people of color at the institution. I take great pride in a lot that I've accomplished as President.As Provost, I was Provost during one of the most challenging times in this institution's history, because we went seven hundred days without appropriated funds from the state during the budget impasse. Honestly, keeping the doors open, and preventing people from being terrified, making sure that students got MAP, even though the state wasn't providing the funding to us, those are things I'm very proud of. You don't look at them and say, "That was a great thing." On the other hand, being calm, remaining optimistic, keeping things running as normally as they can in those types of circumstances, I take pride in that also. Then as Vice President for research, hands down, the best part of that job was helping new faculty succeed, early career faculty. When a faculty member that I helped by reading their grant or directing them to a resource or helping them form a collaboration, got funded or got a paper published or got a tenure and came back and was doing the happy dance, those are always great moments.
- Synopsis: Transition into and Perspective as University PresidentKeywords: University President; Northern Illinois University President; President of Nothern Illinois University; President of NIU; Northern Illinois University Alumni; Northern Illinois University Students; Provost; Office of the Provost; NIU; Northern Illinois University; Office of the University President;Transcript: PANN: Initially, when you were Acting President, you said that you didn't want the board of trustees to consider naming you the next president. Why did you change your mind?
FREEMAN: People convinced me that I should do the job and I could do the job. The Board created a path that seems like a reasonable one, in terms of letting people see my vision, and in the end, what it really came down to was — I wanted to be at NIU in a leadership position more than I wanted to be a President anywhere else, because I just really love NIU.
PANN: How does it feel to have your vision trusted in such a large capacity?
FREEMAN: I don't really think that it's my vision, and I think that's one of the reasons that I'm able to obtain the trust, or garner the trust, of folks. Having been at NIU for ten years in different capacities, I've gotten to know a lot of people. I've gotten to see the common stories and threads that unite our alumni from decades ago and our current students. I've gotten to listen to the hopes and aspirations and the challenges experienced by students and faculty and staff on the campus. I think when I articulate a vision, it's really a shared vision that comes from the community and that's why it's easy for people to say, "Yeah, that sounds good."
PANN: Has your perspective changed at all as President as opposed to when you were Provost?
FREEMAN: I think the thing that I was able to add to my perspective as President was that commonality between what NIU meant to alumni from many years ago, alumni from recent years and students. It is truly remarkable to talk to an NIU graduate from the 60’s, from the 80’s, from the 2000’s, and to a current student, and hear the same story. NIU is an institution that offers students amazing experiences to be involved with faculty members, to be involved with research, to have an opportunity to intern. We also have always served a lot of students who are the first in their families to go to college, who come from communities where there's not often a lot of social capital. They're not wealthy communities in general, and so one of the common stories we hear is, "I came to NIU, I wasn't sure if a college education was for me. I wasn't sure exactly how things were. I didn't know if I could succeed. One day, I was having just a really bad daym and a real moment of insecurity or panic and someone, in some cases a building service worker, in some cases an advisor, in some cases a faculty member, in some cases someone in the community reached out, calmed me down, made me see that I could succeed, connected me to the path that I took to graduation and NIU transformed my life, and I'm doing things I never could have imagined myself doing." Our students today don't look that much like our students from fifty years ago, but that story is the same, and that's so powerful. I think that it's such a privilege to be the President and get to appreciate that, that I want other people to really see that, because that's the power of NIU.
PANN: Were there any expectations that you had for the job of President that turned out to be different once you had it?
FREEMAN: Not really, in the sense that I had been an ACE fellow. I had seen Presidents. I had been exposed to Presidents talking about what their work was like, and here, I had been at NIU for ten years. I had been on the President's cabinet or the senior round table. I had been exposed to most of what the President did. I didn't have athletics or fundraising in my portfolio but I'm a huge sports fan, so I had a lot of friends in Athletics. I knew about the teams. I went to the games, so there weren't any big surprises. I think one of the things that you have to learn as President or CEO of a company, or Dean of a college, is that you don't really get to speak as an individual. When you offer your opinion, it will be interpreted as the opinion of the president of NIU, not the opinion of Lisa Freeman and you always need to remember that.
- Synopsis: Communities and Culture at NIUKeywords: Inclusivity; Diversity: Cultural Communities: Cultural Diversity; Huskie Pledge;Transcript: PANN: What communities do you consider yourself to be a part of at NIU?
FREEMAN: I would hope that I'm welcome in all communities at NIU, as well as in the DeKalb and Sycamore communities and in the universe of our alumni and donors. Certainly, there are communities where you can be a resource. You can be there to witness and to support, without being a member of the community, and so when I'm with our undocumented students, I'm there as an ally. I'm there to witness. I'm there to support, but I don't know what it feels like to be undocumented, but I do what I can and that's true for other marginalized communities at NIU.
PANN: As President of NIU, you oversee the university's goals and improving the campus in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion. How do you see these changes being implemented during your presidency, both structurally and culturally at NIU?
FREEMAN: I think one of NIU's greatest strength is the diversity of our region and the diversity of our student body, which reflects that. Our students have an amazing opportunity to learn how to use their voices in a community that strives to be inclusive. Through their NIU experience, they have the chance to learn, to work effectively on teams with people who have different backgrounds and lived experiences, and that's a very powerful tool for success in life and in work. Our challenges are related to the fact that we do have equity gaps, so that students from low-income backgrounds, students who are first-generation, students of color, don't succeed in achieving graduation at the same rate as students who are majority or are privilege. Those are gaps we need to close, and we're working very hard to do that right now, using a number of mechanisms. We're trying to look at awarding financial aid in the best possible manner, so that we are not inadvertently disadvantaging students who are fragile. We are looking at student success rates in gateway courses to find out where students stumble, because if we can stop them from stumbling, we can stop them from falling. We want to make sure that we have advisors and advising mechanisms, technology mechanisms that students feel comfortable accessing. We're working hard to diversify our faculty and staff, so that students can see people who look like them. There are many things that we need to do to achieve that, but I'm encouraged. This past year, we hired thirty new faculty members and fifteen of them were from underrepresented groups. The year before we hired forty new faculty members and only one was a faculty member of color. Training committees to be aware of their own implicit biases, advertising more widely, going to fairs where you meet postdocs and graduate students from diverse backgrounds and really selling NIU to them. Trying to figure out how we can grow our own, and how we can talk to students and faculty members who are working elsewhere in Illinois and might want to come here. Those are all things that I think are important. Then, just making sure that the people who are here don't have bad experiences, in terms of overt discrimination or microaggression, or that if they do, they know how to deal with them. I don't think we can keep students completely safe and protected from ugliness in the world, because there's ugliness in the world, and you need to learn to be resilient. We all need to learn to be resilient. While students are being challenged, I think we can support them. We can give them the tools to survive and to find their voices and hopefully we're doing that.
- Synopsis: Advice for Future and Current StudentsKeywords: Fourth of July; July 4th; Independence Day (USA); Holiday Weekend; Student Success; Studet Communities; Student Huskies; NIU Huskies; Northern Illinois University Huskies; Student Commitment; Student Perserverance; College Diplomas; College Degrees; Degrees in Higher Education;Transcript: PANN: If you can think back to the day that you first stepped foot on NIU's campus, what advice would you give your younger self?LISA: This is kind of a funny story, but it has to do with the day that I set foot as the Vice President for research. NIU runs on a fiscal year basis, so generally people start working in July. I started work in a fiscal year, when July 3rd was the first work day of the fiscal year. That was a Monday, and July 4th was a Tuesday. The Provost to whom I reported as the Vice President for research was insistent that I start on Monday. I was the only person in my whole building because, think about it, if you have July 4th as Tuesday and you can take a long weekend in the summer, who is coming in on Monday? There I am on my first day of work with absolutely no one to talk to. At that point in time the university closed on Fridays. The air conditioning had been off in my building since Friday, so it was really hot. I'm there dressed up for my first day of work, in a sweltering building, with no one to talk to. I thought, "I should have pushed back when they said, 'Start on July 3rd because this is absolutely crazy.'"
PANN: That's such a funny story.
FREEMAN: It really is.[laughter]
PANN: Did that affect the way that you thought about your job starting out?
FREEMAN: No, I just laughed.
PANN: At least it gave you a chance to explore the building, right?
FREEMAN: It did. I had a lot of opportunity to explore the building and since there was no one around, I could take my jacket off, which was helpful because it was very warm.
PANN: What is something that you believe is important for all incoming students to know about NIU?
FREEMAN: I think students should know that everyone at NIU is really invested in their success, and that our hope is that they feel connected to being a Huskie, and take advantage of the incredible alumni network we have in the region, to find mentors and opportunities. They should never be afraid to ask for help.
PANN: What does it mean to you to be a Huskie?
FREEMAN: I love our Athletic Department’s slogan of Huskies being smart, tough and relentless. I love the advancement slogan of "Huskies Never Quit." You have to remember also that I'm a veterinarian, so I know something about sled dogs. I just think the Huskie is a wonderful mascot, because Huskies are complex. There are Huskies who are leaders.There are Huskies who have very important roles that are not at the head, but steering the sled. Huskies work when they're challenged in brutal conditions, they rally and they pull harder. I just think it's a great image for who we are at NIU. We're not always people that the world looks at and says, "These are the leaders, the geniuses." Yet, we proved them wrong, because Huskies accomplish great things after they graduate. I love to see people wearing red and black on Fridays and putting their diplomas up in their offices, because I just think we should all be really proud that we're at NIU, that we're Huskies and we get things done.
PANN: In your opinion, what distinguishes NIU from other universities?
FREEMAN: I think that we have the right balance of producing research that impacts society, engaging with the communities that we serve, and advancing the social mobility of our students. We are an access university. We try to offer an affordable education. We want students from diverse backgrounds to succeed, but we're not a community college. We have world-class research. We believe that any student that comes to NIU can be involved in that and have that kind of impact. To me, that's what what public higher education is about. We're funded by the state, because we're helping the economy of Illinois be better. We're training the workforce of tomorrow. We're really kind of doing that dual mission of improving society, and improving the lives of our students and their communities. I don't think there's another institution in Illinois that has the combination as right as we do.
PANN: Since your time starting here, how have you seen NIU change, and how do you hope to see it change in the future?
FREEMAN: I want NIU to be seen by the faculty, staff, and students who come here as a great place to study and a great place to work. Not just an affordable place, not just a place where you can get a good pension, but a place that really cares about people. We're moving in that direction. I hope that we continue to move in that direction. I want our students, our faculty, and our staff to really feel valued, and to really feel empowered to make change. We went through a very difficult period where we weren't appropriately funded by the state. We will never have enough resources to realize all our ambitions. That means we have to work smart. We can't always say “we're going to do more with less.” Sometimes you need to do less with less, but you have to be picky about what you choose to do. I want everyone who works at NIU to feel that they can make a suggestion to stop doing something that doesn't make sense anymore.
PANN: How do you think that those changes can be made, structurally and culturally, here?
FREEMAN: I really hope that over my tenure as president we're able to do more, to develop leaders among our faculty and staff, so that as individuals advanced in their careers they go from being individual contributors, to being managers of others, to being leaders. They understand the mentoring and coaching that needs to come with that. They're able to foster a sense of empowerment across their divisions and able to use what we say about Huskies, to unleash their creativity. I think that we just have to let people know that that's the expectation, and then give them the tools that they need to bring that out in themselves.
- Synopsis: Personal Life and Perspective on Change at NIUKeywords: Mom; mother; mentors; advice; positive impact; Huskie Pledge; marriage; husband; successTranscript: PANN: Are there any specific people in your life, personal or professional, that have inspired you in your career, or in your words, unleashed your creativity?
FREEMAN: I'm very fortunate that I've had wonderful professional mentors, but if you really asked me who influenced me, it was my mom. She was a woman who worked when no one else worked. She was someone who just didn't give up. She told me five things when I was little that I think are great advice to anyone. She said, "Always try your hardest. Learn from your mistakes. Take responsibility for your actions. Follow the golden rule, so do unto others as you would have them do to you, and don't be afraid of people who are different than you are."
PANN: How do you carry that advice into your life now?
FREEMAN: I feel like I try to live that and I've been trying to live that for fifty-nine years, so it comes pretty naturally to me, but If I'm making a decision or doing something, and I don't think my mother would approve of that, I pull out that filter and I think about where am I falling short of her expectations? Then I try to fix it.
PANN: What other inspirations have driven you to become the person that you are today, or the person you hope to be in the future?
FREEMAN: I just think that helping others is a fundamental thing that we should all do. We are in this world together, and we should be pulling for each other. I think I've been very fortunate to be in positions where I can model that and I can have an impact and try to set a tone. I think that that's really what keeps me going. I don't take great joy from getting an award or having a title or moving into a new office, but I take great joy from the accomplishments of those that I've been able to help achieve their dreams. That's true with my friends. It's true with members of my family. It's true with the students at the institutions where I've been privileged to work. I think that'll just keep me going.
PANN: How does it feel to see your own positive impact on people and in the community?
FREEMAN: I don't know that I actually look out and say, "Wow, that was my positive impact." I think it's more that — I can look and see that I played a role along with others in effecting a positive change, or helping somebody realize their goal. I guess I just think that's what all of us should be doing.
LECLERCQ: Of the projects that you've helped develop, or worked with your teams, et cetera, which do you think is your most favorite, or that you're proudest of?
FREEMAN: That's a tough question. Right now, I don't know how it's going to turn out, but I'm pretty proud of the changes that we're making in diminishing the emphasis on standardized tests and how we award financial aid and admissions and in taking the money that the state gave us for additional financial aid and using it to create the Huskie Pledge so that we can fully cover the tuition and fees for students who come from families making less than $75,000. That's just because my parents told me, I believe my job is to make higher education available as an opportunity to as many people as possible. I really believe, I grew up believing, and I still believe, that higher ed is a way to advance yourself, your family and your community. The opportunity to make that available to more people, and to say tests like the ACT and the SAT that everyone just took for granted as important or predictive or meaningful — our data at NIU shows that those tests don't predict the success of students on our campus. There are national, lots of data that show those tests have implicit bias in that your ability to do well depends more on the educational level of your parents, or the household income in your neighborhood, than on your ability to succeed. Just to say, we don't have to use them because we always have and because others do. It's not changing standards. It's living up to our mission. I'm pretty proud of leading that change forward. I hope that we're able to see the impacts we anticipate.
PANN: You are clearly very passionate about all of the work that you do at NIU and in our community, but what's the most important part of your life outside of work?
FREEMAN: Most important part of my life outside of work is definitely my husband. We've been married for thirty-five years. I met him because I dated his fraternity brother. We didn't actually really get together until we had both graduated from college. I was in vet school, and he was in med school. For both of us, we always thought, "Wow, I wish I hadn't let that one get away." When we got back together, it's a true and deep love for all stages of our life. He's retired now. We really enjoy our summers. We have a boat in Lake Michigan that we go to every weekend. I couldn't do this job without him supporting me, the two of us taking refuge in each other, and enjoying doing a lot of things that are related to the university life. We go to a lot of sports events. We really enjoy those, but then going to listen to live music in Chicago and going skiing and snowshoeing. I mean, he is — other than work, he is my world. The two work really well together.
PANN: You said you've been married for thirty-years, right?
PANN: How do you have such a long and successful relationship?
FREEMAN: We've had, as you know, a couple with two careers. A lot of times when we've had to make decisions, had to work things out, I think because we got into it knowing that this is where we were headed, we learned how to talk about things and compromise and be flexible together early on in our marriage. That set us up for success.
PANN: You talked about, at the beginning of the interview, that you guys have moved around a lot together. How has that affected your relationship?
FREEMAN: I think we like moving around. Until we were in Kansas for sixteen years, we'd never really been a place more than five or six years. At that five or six-year point, we were like, "Oh, is it time for something different?" Fortunately, we were both offered opportunities to advance in our jobs. It got to be different without moving. I think living in different places, working in different settings, being around people who come from different backgrounds, I think that's been really good for us as citizens of the world. I think it also helps us as a couple just realize that very few problems are insurmountable. There's almost always a solution if you're willing to be creative. Your goal is to maximize the outcome for the family, not the individual.
PANN: You seem to be a very positive and hardworking person. Is there anything in your life that scares or worries you?
FREEMAN: I'm pretty optimistic. You hit that nail on the head. I look around. Certainly, there are things in the world that I wish were different, but my reaction is usually to say, "Well, how can I affect change?" Not to say, "Oh, no." I'm just not a "oh, no” person. I look glass half full. Let's-see-what-we-can-do-about-it person. My mother, here's my mother again. My mother used to say, "You can wring your hands or you can roll up your sleeves." The message was always, we roll up our sleeves. We don't wring our hands.
PANN: How do you think you can teach other people to be like that, and to not be a victim of their own story?
FREEMAN: I love the fact that you said a victim of their own story, in the sense that I think letting people understand that they control their own narratives is a really important thing to do. Then if somebody is struggling, or swirling, or is stalled, I think helping them figure out the way forward, rather than telling them the way forward, or judging them for being stuck, is something that's very rewarding for both parties. I know there have been times in my life where I started to get stuck, and not be the very positive person than I am. I was always fortunate at those points in time to have a mentor to say, "You're not acting like yourself." I mean, I remember at one point, there was a job where I was just becoming very frustrated. It was a job that was very hard to do for reasons that really were beyond my control. I started to feel sorry for myself. I started to just be really frustrated without a positive solution. My mentor at the time said, "One of the things I've always liked about you is you never came in here with a problem where you didn't also offer a solution. Now, you're coming in here and you're whining. It's not that I mind you whining to me, it's that that's just not you." I was like, "You're right. That's horrible. I've become someone who whines. That's not who I am." That was the kick that I needed to kind of move on. If somebody seems stuck, I'll just say, "Can we talk this through? What do we think is going on? What are the barriers? Is there something I can do? Is there's something you can do?"
- Synopsis: Anniversay Celebration and ConclusionKeywords: Equity; equality; students of color; remembering; history; history; future; NIUTranscript: PANN: What else do you think deserves attention during this 125th anniversary year?
FREEMAN: I think it's really important that we don't whitewash our memories. There are things that the university can be very, very proud of, and there are things that the university could have done better fifty or sixty years ago, particularly in terms of equity and equality and the way we supported students of color when they first came to the university. As president, I hear very authentic stories from people who sometimes succeeded, despite the obstacles the institution allowed to be in their path. I think, documenting those stories so that we have them to remember, and continue to learn from, is as important as telling the things that are more cheerful or positive or public relations or any of that.
PANN: Yeah. How do you see those memories and those stories being utilized and turned into action and change in the community?
FREEMAN: I think remembering and documenting the real feelings of those people is very powerful, because you don't want to forget. You don't want to go back to doing things that we can't be proud of. The cyclical nature of history in human nature is such that I think we need those reminders.
PANN: Yes. Thank you. Before we conclude, is there anything that I didn't ask you about that you would like to mention?
FREEMAN: I think you asked me about everything.
LECLERCQ: Is there anything you'd like to add to anything you've said or anything she's asked?
FREEMAN: No, just that this was a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun, not just to talk about myself and to talk about NIU, but to be part of 125th anniversary celebration and to do it with students who are finding their way and testing out their skills. It's been a lot of fun just to watch the two of you in action here because you are Huskies. I can see your bright futures reflected in this interview.
PANN: Thank you. Well, thank you, President Freeman, for your participation in the 125th anniversary Oral History Project. We truly appreciate your time and are very grateful to include your voice in this collection.
LECLERCQ: Let me have the audio back and then we fix our transcript to — END OF INTERVIEW
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