By Ryan O'Connell
Arts & Features
President Nancy Niemi participated as a guest speaker for the Independent Association of Framingham State Alumni (IAFSA) Coffee and Conversations series Oct. 25.
The series gives alumni and students the opportunity to engage with guest speakers relevant to the University. The program held its first event of the year with Niemi’s panel.
Niemi began by discussing the origins of the Framingham Heart Study and the University’s role in it.
“It's really appropriate that Framingham, the city - and town before it - is the home to one of our country’s most influential heart studies,” she said. “I think it is particularly important, because I’ve found that Framingham State University and the entire region leads with their hearts. You can feel it - I can, all the time.”
Niemi said before she even stepped foot on campus, she was asked about her vision for the school, but her initial response was that it wasn’t up to her as such a new member of the University.
However, she said she thinks the connection to the community, which existed in the past has weakened, and added she wants to work toward informing the University community of that past relationship so it can be reinstated.
“I think what the University now is missing is that connection they already had, that community connection,” she said. “I want to make sure that the University community understands that and actually comes back to that.”
Niemi then spoke about her transition to FSU and the uncertainty which comes with a new administrative role, and said she is very happy with the position. She added she has felt a “palpable sense of community” since moving to the area.
“You take a leap of faith when you accept a job,” she said. “You really don’t know, until you come, and the institution doesn’t know about you either. … It’s even better than I could have possibly imagined. I come home every day and say ‘I love my job.’”
Niemi shared her background and journey to the University. “I’m first, last, and always an educator,” she began, and talked about her thoughts on education and its importance for social equity. She added it also led her to become a middle school English teacher early in her career.
She said she loved working with middle-schoolers, but eventually found herself asking bigger questions about education, and later returned to school to earn her P.h.D. in curriculum instruction.
Niemi said going back to school changed her life as she began to question every relationship between school and equity, as well as the discovery of all the structures built “to keep people apart” in education.
She said she then worked as the chair of the Education Department at the University of New Haven for close to a decade. She added she helped found the Center for Teaching and Learning at Yale, but eventually left because she felt out of place.
“I didn’t belong at … an elite institution, and I was realizing that who I was needed to be at a place that served people who didn’t have the best of everything,” she said.
“Not that everybody at Yale was born with a silver spoon in their mouths, but Yale, being the institution that it is, is going to have most everything that it needs.”
Niemi said she applied to FSU after a brief position at University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and said she felt she “belonged” after learning about the University’s commitment to public education and social justice.
She spoke about some of the challenges facing Framingham State currently, mentioning the competition among public Universities in Massachusetts and asked, “How do we make the case for Framingham State University?”
Niemi said the essence of FSU is being “committed to the community we have right in front of us,” and it’s accomplished in ways that tie into the University’s history.
She discussed the Fashion and Retailing, Food and Nutrition, and Education departments, and said they all tied back to gender, due to the University being a historically female school, and the relation to past courses taught at FSU, such as home economics.
Niemi talked more about gender norms that had affected the University, and how the attitudes of students from the Lexington Normal School - FSU’s initial name - still reflect some of the University’s goals.
“Lexington Normal School,” she said, “served as a catalyst for social equity not because they believed in equality between the sexes at all, but because the teachers at train believed in equity for all students.
“I think the teachers then were inadvertent social reformers, because they really believed in public education for everybody.”