New school year brings joys, challenges at NCC
This is the 19th fall that I have had the privilege of welcoming new students to our campus, and it never gets old (even if I do). Their energy and excitement are like a tonic-never more so than this September.
The recession of the past year and the cutting in half of funding for the Illinois Monetary Award Program, or MAP, upon which 30 percent of our students depend to pay tuition, brought great uncertainty about what undergraduate enrollments would look like.
The good news at North Central is that we have a record number of new students (more than 800 first-year and transfer students). But the uncertainty remains, particularly concerning the impact of the MAP cutbacks, which, if they aren't reversed, will be felt by our students and their families in the winter and spring terms.
A different sort of uncertainty facing us this fall was whether the college's new residence hall would be open in time to house more than 200 students eager to be the first occupants of a one-of-a-kind, 200,000-square-foot, "green" combination recreation center and residence hall.
After a year of rain and snow of biblical proportions (more than 160 days since the project's inception), opening the center on time was something of a miracle, facilitated in the final weeks by hundreds of faculty, staff and student volunteers cleaning, sweeping and transporting 3,000 items of furniture. A miracle worthy of the joy on student faces as they moved in!
Amid all the excitement of a new school year, and the responsibility every college and university community faces in planning for the H1N1 (swine flu) virus, North Central has two extraordinary challenges absorbing our attention this fall.
One is the Master Land Use Plan we develop every 10 years, both for campus use and for incorporation into Naperville city ordinance. The other is the "self-study" colleges are required to undertake once a decade in preparation for reaccreditation review by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, our accrediting body.
Both these efforts can sound like "inside baseball" to people outside the higher education community, but each is vitally important, not only to the education of those new students, but also to the relation of the college to the wider community it serves.
Most universities probably aren't required by the cities in which they are located to develop Master Land Use Plans. In the 1980s, as North Central grew, and its neighbors in the Historic District in downtown Naperville became concerned about where the college was going, an agreement was reached.
Every 10 years the college, its neighbors and the City of Naperville engage in a public process through which physical changes anticipated for the campus are projected and modified in response to feedback received.
The process, which provides an unusual degree of public involvement in the decisions of a 148-year-old private institution, and has a significant cost, has nevertheless served both the college and the community well, greatly facilitating the addition, on average, of one major construction project a year on our campus over the past decade, many with active neighborhood support.
The self-study is a two-year process that engages every segment of the campus community in a rigorous review and analysis of how the college has fulfilled its mission over the past decade.
It is an opportunity to tell stories of institutional success - and, fortunately, we have many, from the physical transformation of the campus to the dramatic expansion of study abroad and service opportunities - but also to identify areas for improvement and future challenges. (Not surprisingly in the current economic climate, although the college is fiscally very healthy, resources will always be a concern.)
The accreditation process is rigorous and time-consuming, but also a rare opportunity for an institution to step back from day-to-day matters and learn how to do its job better. If it means that this fall some of us will have a little less time, that is a small price to pay for the benefits it will eventually bring to the college and to those students arriving this fall who will graduate in 2013.
• Harold R. Wilde is president of North Central College in Naperville. His column appears monthly during the school year.