By Steven Bonini
Nancy Niemi was selected to be Framingham State’s next University president by the Board of Trustees Dec. 23.
The Board of Higher Education (BHE) officially approved her selection Feb 1.
She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in education and has served as the provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore since 2019.
From 2015-19, she worked as an inaugural director of Faculty Teaching Initiatives for Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.
From 2009-15, she served as a professor and chair in the Department of Education at the University of New Haven.
Prior, she taught at Nazareth College as an associate professor of education from 2008-09 and before that, she was an assistant professor of education from 2002-08 at the college.
Chair of the Board of Trustees Kevin Foley said the Board brought forward “three exceptionally fine” candidates to serve as the next president, but he said ultimately, they saw Niemi as the candidate with the best background and experience, highlighting her views on social equity and her strategic plan for the future.
“She was certainly personable, she was well prepared, and she was very thoughtful,” said Foley.
In the campus-wide community surveys for each candidate, Foley said Niemi “stood out” as highly favored by all campus constituencies.
These results played a major role in the Board’s decision to select Niemi, he added.
Foley said he believes Niemi has a strong “strategic vision,” and her background as a provost has helped her “formulate a lot of her viewpoints on equity in higher education.”
He highlighted Niemi’s commitment to helping grow an engaged faculty and working to assist them in adapting to the future of teaching.
From the Trustees’ viewpoint, Foley said one of the biggest challenges facing the University is branding and using strategies to increase enrollment, adding, “She’s going to have a lot to do.”
Foley said when Niemi eventually takes over as president, she’s going to need to be able to listen to her constituents, including the Board of Trustees, members of the administration, and faculty, as well as “making sure she’s setting the tone” and making herself known to the campus community.
Niemi said enrollment will be an area of concern for her, adding, “That will be something that I’ll be paying close attention to.”
The “status quo” thinking of enrollment will no longer serve the University, she said, adding that “more marketing” and being “a little bigger and a little fancier” isn’t going to do the job.
“We have to take the strengths of Framingham and think about how we are going to grow and work together to figure out what that looks like meaningfully for the Framingham University and communities,” she said.
Niemi said it’s hard for her to say what FSU might do to change the decline in enrollment, “but thinking strategically, universities need to begin thinking about their potential college populations with more specificity, and not just one monolithic group.”
She said it’s not about “thinking about all 18-24-year olds as a population,” but instead “how might we think about what FSU has to offer programmatically and investigate what potential students might need or want those programs.
“We could and should also have that same sort of thinking for many age groups. When do people want and need educational credentials and experiences? How might we help them achieve those ends? That is what we should be asking ourselves, and I would bet that FSU is already doing so,” she added.
Niemi said in order for her to better establish strategic goals, it will be important for her to listen to the needs of the community.
A key issue she pressed on is the need to work toward anti-racism and equity, saying, “No matter where we are, we’ve got issues about racial equity, gender equity, social equity, that we need to – right on our campus – that we need to continue to think about, and figure out how we make it a place where everybody is welcome and able to achieve their goals.”
Spending time with and learning about the faculty and staff is another important obligation as
president, Niemi said.
“Faculty have their roles. People like to say that we’re having a crisis in faculty,” said Niemi. “The nature of the faculty work is that it’s always changing.
“I have often said that being a faculty member is one of the greatest jobs on Earth, and I still think that. So, learning what is particularly important to and special about our faculty body at FSU, and how we can help them do their work, whether it’s research, or teaching, or student support – how we help them,” is crucial, she said.
She said by “extension,” staff is just as important.
“The staff, no matter who they are at Framingham, deserve and will get my equal attention in ways that I don’t know yet,” she said.
“I don’t know precisely how I will best need and want to work with them because they haven’t told me all those things yet,” she added. “We had a little bit of a conversation when I interviewed, but I really want to listen to hear specifically how.”
Niemi said she’s excited to begin her new role as president and she was inspired to apply for the position because of the history of the University as the first public normal school in the United States.
“Public education of every kind is absolutely core to who I am,” she said.
“Framingham sounded like, certainly from others who had described it ... a really, really special place and a place with even more potential. And it had the kinds of programs, the kind of portfolio, that showed that it cared deeply about a wide range of students and had the potential for more community growth and more exploration and discovery,” said Niemi.
“It seemed like an opportunity that was potentially a really important fit with my values and my wishes for higher education,” she added.
When Niemi visited the University for the first time, she said she encountered many “friendly” people and it was clear that the “fRAMily” is real.
“I could feel that, and I could see it, no matter what group I was speaking with,” she said, adding, “I really got an opportunity to meet – I think – a really wide range of people.”
She said she was struck by “the friendliness, the care about their institution, no matter who the group was, who the people were.” Her first impressions were positive.
Niemi highlighted some of the key places on campus she visited, including the Danforth Art Museum, which she called “a real gem of a place.”
Ultimately, Niemi said she really felt a sense of community on campus, adding people often joke community is her middle name.
In terms of her own strengths, the incoming president said she believes she’s bringing the “absolute passionate belief in the power of higher education” to the table as well as “a real depth of experience across populations of higher education.”
She said having worked at Yale, she understands “what it means to have resources and that resources are more than money, and what it means to have the network of connections that schools have, which is one of the things that makes me appreciate the networks that Framingham has.
“The school understands it sits in the MetroWest community, part of the city of Framingham, the commonwealth, and how those things really build on each other,” she added.
“Framingham itself has a long and proud history,” she said. “How do we take what we know about the Framingham communities and work to create an even greater version of ourselves and figure out where we want to go next?”
Niemi said there are many things she’s excited about coming in as president, but she said above all else, it’s the “joyful responsibility of working with a group of people who believe in the power of their work in higher education” as much as she does.
“I think we have the best profession on Earth to be in higher education, and particularly public higher education. And it’s a great responsibility,” she added.
Even though she said she’ll have a heavy workload ahead of her, Niemi said it’s important to see the “joy,” “potential,” and “possibilities” in her upcoming position, adding, “The job’s too hard not to inherently love it at its core.”
In addition to her educational background, Niemi has several scholarly publications including a book she authored titled, “Degrees of Difference: Women, Men, and the Value of Higher Education,” and she is one of three authors for the upcoming book, “Teaching Methods in Business: Course Design and Assessment.”
“I think that the power of the written word, to be able to express one’s feelings through language, is just mind-blowingly powerful,” she said. “I love it.”
She said writing has helped her “think about and organize” her arguments, “and then to substantiate those arguments with evidence.
“We all need evidence,” said Niemi, adding, “Wind me up and let’s talk about an important issue and I could do that a lot. But when I have to put it on paper and create an argument ... then I’m responsible for really making a cogent argument and a set of facts and backing it up and that probably makes me a much better thinker, and a much more measured scholar, and hopefully, a better colleague.”
In terms of any concerns Niemi has about her new position, she said, “I’d not be the kind of president you want if I didn’t say I was nervous.”
She said it’s a “good nervous” because she feels a “heightened sense of responsibility.
“It is a massive responsibility to be the leader of a university, and I don’t take that lightly at all,” she added.
“The Framingham State University communities, from the Board of Trustees, and everybody else ... everybody has put their faith in this decision and in me, and I don’t want to let anybody down,” she said.
“I know very well that not everybody will be happy with every decision we make, that I make, that my team makes,” she said, but she believes by working together collectively, a lot of progress will be made.
President F. Javier Cevallos said he’s “delighted” Niemi will be joining the campus community and he believes she is “really the best [t” for FSU, adding “her values align with our values very clearly.”
He said Niemi “brings a lot of educational experience,” adding, “she has a lot of history in issues of diversity and inclusion and fairness, and she also has a lot of commitment to education.”
Cevallos said he thinks Niemi will bring a “fresh approach” to the University, and he looks forward to seeing what she brings to the table and “what her vision is going to be.”
In terms of the difficulties the University faces, Cevallos said “demographic challenges with enrollment” are a major issue.
“About a million high school students did not apply for college who typically would have applied for college,” said Cevallos.
“That is a huge loss for the nation overall. In our case, we are also down in terms of students applying to us, and as part of that trend, I think that we have to do a lot of work over the next five years to restore that pipeline” to get students coming out of high school to understand “college is the way for them to improve their lives – to have a career and opportunity,” he added.
Cevallos said these enrollment issues will remain a problem for Niemi coming in and “turning that around” is going to be one of her challenges.
In addition, Cevallos said Niemi will be left with the responsibility of making the decision of who will be the next provost and vice president of Academic Affairs and the vice president for Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement.
He said he spoke with Niemi in a virtual setting, and they had a nice conversation on the searches.
Ultimately, Cevallos said while he started the search process for both positions, he is leaving the decision-making to Niemi as he will not be present when the selected individuals take up their new roles, and it’s important she’s able to decide who to appoint as she is the one who will be working with them.
Cevallos added he will help Niemi in any way he can to ensure a smooth transition.
Sociology Professor Virginia Rutter followed the presidential search closely and said Niemi was absolutely “the best” option of the three candidates to be the next University president.
Rutter highlighted Niemi’s ability to really “listen” and said this was something the incoming president did better than the other two candidates.
“When we were in the mediated space, she listened to people ask her questions and really responded to the person and to the question,” said Rutter.
“It pointed to how much varied experience she’s had,” she added. “The number one thing was her skill at listening.”
The second characteristic she said stuck out to her was Niemi’s personal presentation, adding it was clear to her Niemi was “highly competent and capable.”
In terms of top priorities, Rutter said she hopes Niemi will “return the Academic Affairs and our
academic programs to centrality for the leadership of the University.
“One of the things that has been a concern for me and a number of faculty members, is the way that Academic Affairs, and even our leaders of Academic Affairs, are marginalized in decision-making processes that are ultimately about academics,” she said.
Rutter said she believes Niemi can help bring “different constituencies together,” adding, “The Academic Affairs has been so marginalized for so long at Framingham State, but I feel like she can do it without kind of running roughshod over other groups.”
The other priority Rutter said she hopes Niemi will tackle is the gap between faculty of color and students of color.
“Our percentage of students of color has doubled in the past seven years, and our faculty of color has remained flat,” she said. “That’s created a lot of stress on those faculty of color as well as the students of color because we haven’t changed in all the ways that we can.”
Communication, Media, and Performance Professor and Faculty Union President Kate Caffrey said she also thought Niemi was the best option to be the next president of the University.
Caffrey said during Niemi’s meetings with faculty and the Board of Trustees, it was clear she had done her research on FSU and “understood the possibilities for making Framingham State a better place.”
She highlighted Niemi’s points about “community,” adding, “She really talked about the community and how we can engage with the community, which I think is something that the University has not been fantastic at doing.
“We’ve been kind of removed a bit from the community,” said Caffrey. “She talked about engaging the community, which I think is something we really need to do in order to increase enrollments – in order to really put ourselves on the map.”
While listening to Niemi answer questions and speak about topics during her campus visit, Caffrey said she thought Niemi put a clear focus on “good things about our programming” and Academic Affairs.
“One of Framingham State’s greatest strengths is our faculty,” she said. “I think we have tremendous faculty who are incredibly well educated, they do lots of scholarly work, but they really focus on teaching, and it’s really hard to find people who can do so many things so well.”
Caffrey said it’s important to have a president who can “harness the energy” of the faculty, adding, too often, the faculty are the “best-kept secrets.
“When I look at the things that my colleagues are doing, and I look at how involved people are in the initiatives that the faculty promote ... they do a lot of extra work to make Framingham State a great place, but I feel like that is sometimes not promoted as much as it should be,” she added.
Caffrey said FSU has a lot to offer in terms of programming and said during Niemi’s visit, she did a good job pointing out “specific things about the University that she found to be things that are needed in education – programs that are needed in this area that a lot of people don’t really know about.
“For example, our Food and Nutrition program is a fabulous program, but not a lot of people know what a great program it is,” she said.
“Our Fashion Design and Retailing program – awesome program. A lot of our programs – our health sciences. We have a museum. We have all of these things that a lot of people don’t know about in the general public,” said Caffrey. “She talked about making Framingham State a destination for things like this and getting the community to engage with what’s happening at the University.”
She said if the University better promoted these aspects, it would increase visibility and enrollment.
In terms of the relationship between the union and the University administration, she said many state colleges have a contentious relationship with their union, but that is not the case at FSU.
“My hope is that we can continue to have a cordial relationship and talk to each other and listen to each other,” said Caffrey. “If there’s strife between union members ... and the administration, then it takes our focus away from how all of us can do our job.
“There’s always gripes and there’s always complaints and there’s always people who want things to be done differently, but in many ways, the faculty are in the classrooms. We’re closest to the students – there’s many things that we understand because we’re, quote unquote, on the front lines a little bit better than the administration,” she added. “Letting our voices be heard, listening to us, I think is really important, and seeing us as collaborators rather than adversaries.”
Psychology Professor and Former President of the Faculty Union Robert Donohue said when he found out Niemi was selected for the presidency, he was “very enthusiastic” because he thought during her on-campus interviews, she spoke “quite effectively about the bene[ts of Framingham State continuing toward its path of being a Hispanic-Serving Institution.”
Donohue said this is a high priority for him and he hopes under a President Niemi, it’s something the University can achieve.
The second priority Donohue said is important to him is the need for improved funding from Beacon Hill.
He said Massachusetts has been notoriously bad at funding higher education for quite some time, adding, “It’d be great if we could have some leaders come in who could improve our status.”
Among the top problems facing Framingham State, Donohue said, is institutional racism and “the punishingly expensive cost of the institution.
“I don’t think people who are from Massachusetts and don’t have a lot of contexts – I don’t think they realize how badly students in Massachusetts get screwed over through public higher ed,” he said.
“Massachusetts public higher ed is extremely expensive compared to most of the other states. So, I would really love to see if the University president could come in and try to do something about that,” he added.
Donohue said when he heard Niemi speak during her campus visit, he “walked out of the room being very impressed,” adding, “I thought she was able to provide thoughtful answers on a variety of topics, and she came oK – I thought – sincere.”
While listening to her speak, he said he noticed Niemi at one point was working “herself through an argument.”
He said when she was in the middle of answering a question, “she was really thinking about what she was saying and she said, ‘Well, I don’t think I’ve really ever thought this before, but now that I’m thinking about it, X, Y, and Z.’ And the fact that she was willing to sort of be frank about that and show that kind of ability to be thinking on her feet in front of a crowd in a kind of a high-risk situation – that’s something that’s really useful for a leader to be able to do.”
In terms of the union, Donohue said, “Compared to most of the other institutions in the system, I think we’ve had a pretty good working relationship between the administration and the faculty here. Not perfect, but good.”
Unlike other institutions, he said at FSU, “We spend very little time fighting between the administration and faculty, and I’d really love to see that continue, because nobody wants to waste their time on these fights.”
Donohue said with an incoming new president and eventually a new provost, it’s important they get some “onboarding about the collective bargaining agreement that defines the working conditions of the faculty and librarians, because throughout the system, and in Framingham State, there’s been this pattern where somebody new comes in from outside, and they don’t know the collective bargaining agreement, and they immediately sort of announce that there’s going to be some new thing, only to be told, ‘I’m sorry, you don’t have the authority to do that.’
“I would really love if the new president and the new provost got some good training on how our collective bargaining agreement interfaces with their new jobs, so that we don’t have to ... immediately have these conflicts,” he added.
Lisa Eck, professor and chair of the English department, said she attended each of the presidential candidate forums and thought out of the three finalists, Niemi was “absolutely” the best of the three.
Eck praised Niemi’s publications and said they “speak” to what faculty care about.
“It’s not just that she has opinions about higher ed, but she’s done really important research on equity in higher ed, gender equity, racial equity,” she said.
“I was already impressed with her scholarship and just how prepared she was, but then she was also just an amazing communicator, and seems really student-focused and faculty-focused,” Eck added.
She highlighted Niemi’s background in the humanities, adding, “My colleagues in the humanities are really excited to have a university president who comes out of the humanities.
“She’s one of us,” said Eck.
In terms of priorities, she said Niemi has experience with “student success and retention” and she believes this will be a clear area of focus for the incoming president.
Eck said it’s also important for Niemi to focus on “access and equity,” adding she’s heard quite a bit about how “passionate she is about equity and inclusion.”
She said she appreciates Niemi’s “emphasis on gender equity, but also men of color in education.”
She said Niemi “seems motivated by principle, by a sense of justice. And education is the great leveler – at least that’s what we believe – in terms of social justice.”
David Smailes, professor and interim chair of the political science department, said whenever a new president comes in, the individual has to adapt to the new environment, adding Niemi will have to “adjust to and figure out” what the culture of FSU is like.
The other side of having a new president, he said, is “every new president brings into a university a set of ideas of what they want to see happen, and the goals that they want to achieve.
“That becomes a very difficult kind of dance ... of perspectives,” Smailes added. “The give-and-take that happens with people when you come into a new organization, and particularly as the leader of that organization, to come in and make it your own, but at the same time, have an understanding and respect for what came before.
“That’s not easy to do,” he said.
Smailes hopes one of Niemi’s top priorities will be the students, saying, “We’re here because of the students, and whenever you’re making a decision, I think the fundamental question that any leader has to ask is, ‘Is this going to benefit the students or not?’”
He said he doesn’t believe “somebody who’s been in business” wouldn’t understand that “as well as somebody who’s been in the field of education.
“I think that’s important because I think that ultimately is what has to guide an institution,” he added.
In terms of challenges, Smailes said one of the hardest goals to achieve is bringing “change to an institution, but doing it in a way that provides or encourages the cooperation of the people whom you’re working with.”
He said it’s also important for a new president to be able to come in and “give some academic direction to the development of an institution without necessarily interfering with the understanding that people have already in a particular department as to what their mission is and what they see their goal to be.”
Above all else, Smailes said he welcomes incoming President Niemi, adding it’s important for everyone to ask her, “‘How can I help?’”