By Sophia Harris
President Nancy Niemi has identified improving Framingham State University’s enrollment and retention rates as her top priority.
Niemi also identified building connections with the MetroWest community, defining Framingham State’s brand, obtaining reaccreditation for the University, and filling vacant executive positions as additional priorities.
She noted all these goals relate back to her top priority of enrollment and retention.
“Everything I’ve just said really fits under the umbrella of, ‘How do we define ourselves so that we can grow and be the University that we want to be?’ All of those other pieces are a necessary part of that,” she said.
A reorganization announced in August was designed to help Niemi address these goals.
One of the biggest changes is creating a new division of Academic Enhancement headed by Lorretta Holloway, whose new title is vice president of academic enhancement.
Holloway, whose previous title was vice president of Enrollment and Student Development, will report directly to Niemi.
Enrollment now reports directly to Niemi and there are currently open interim and permanent positions for a dean of enrollment management.
The restructuring was implemented to “have more effectiveness and raise the level of importance that enrollment management, student affairs and academic enhancement, student success have on campus, so now all three of those positions report to me as well as human resources,” she said.
Niemi said the reorganization “took a really big structure and broke it apart so that we could pay attention to its component parts and raise them to the level of importance they deserve.”
[Editor’s Note: See “President Nancy Niemi restructures FSU administration” in the Sept. 15 issue of The Gatepost.]
Her goal for the reorganization was to “re-envision” the departments and how they can better serve FSU students and the enrollment and retention efforts.
Niemi’s top priority for the University is to address the enrollment and retention rates of Framingham State.
In order to reach this goal, Niemi said she must first build stronger ties with the MetroWest community.
“One of my goals is to make sure that I establish - and by extension - the University establishes an even greater presence in the community,” she said.
Niemi said since she has been in office, she has been meeting with alumni, business leaders, non-profit leaders, and municipal leaders in the MetroWest community, noting she met Senator Elizabeth Warren during her first week as president.
She said she has also been looking at state initiatives and the Board of Higher Education, making sure Framingham State is “at the table” for any big changes that need to happen. She stressed the importance of the close relationships she has been making with legislators and state authorities.
“Those are intentional groups of people that I have met with to introduce myself, and equally importantly to - or more importantly - to make sure that those folks know that we value all of those relationships very much and that we build on those relationships,” she said.
Niemi added, “Nothing gets done without strong relationships.”
She said by strengthening ties with the MetroWest community, she is learning how the demographics of the region play a role in how Framingham State can better serve its communities.
Niemi said a key factor in developing these relationships with the community is being able to “explore what the needs are in the community and how our programs are tied to that.
“Our community population has changed,” she said, adding, “Those communities and those students need and want different ways into higher education. So we need to think about our population and then we need to think about our strength from a programmatic point of view.”
Niemi said she is planning to promote programs at Framingham State that are “distinctive” in making “us who we are” and uniquely tied to the population of Framingham, such as the Fashion Design and Merchandising program, Food and Nutrition, American Sign Language, and Education, along with Early Childhood Education.
Niemi said she also wants to promote the University’s centers, including the MetroWest Economic Research Center, the Warren Center, the Danforth School of Art, the Christa McAuliffe Center, all of which have “tentacles to current programs that need development, that need strong development, because these are some of our signature programs.”
According to Niemi, developing what makes FSU unique and taking into account the needs of the community will be a strategy to increase enrollment.
“And those things, in combination with paying attention to who our communities that we serve are now and I mean, Framingham, MetroWest, the Commonwealth, New England, in those concentric circles. That is a strategy then to work with Enrollment to say, ‘Here we are and here's how we can serve and how we can grow,’” she said.
According to Niemi, it is equally important to develop deep relationships with every part of campus as well, adding that is what she has been doing since the start of her presidency.
Meeting with the communities on and off campus “has just been intentional and wonderful,” she said.
Math Professor Robert Page said he is supportive of Niemi's efforts to increase the connection between FSU and the surrounding communities.
“I would like to see more of a connection between Framingham State and the Framingham community. I drive through downtown Framingham and you wouldn't know there's a university right up the street,” he said.
Susan Dargan, dean of social and behavioral sciences, also agreed with Niemi’s goal to build ties with the community, adding seeing students develop those connections would be beneficial.
She would like to see more community-engaged learning as well as civic engagement by students with the MetroWest community.
Framingham State’s Civic Engagement and Service Learning Center aims to do this by creating opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to volunteer with local community organizations.
Dargan said it helps with retention rates when students can connect with the community where their university is located.
“That makes learning more relevant to the students and then they're more likely to say, ‘OK, I can stay here. I'm connected in some way,’” she said.
Wardell Powell, interim chief diversity and inclusion officer, agreed, saying, “I believe that as we think about students' success, then one of the things that is very, very, very important is that community engagement,” he said.
Niemi said a key factor in increasing enrollment will be developing Framingham State’s branding message.
Niemi is focused on developing the brand of FSU and communicating that message through how Framingham State is marketed. She plans to address not only the needs of students, but also those of the MetroWest region when articulating the University's brand.
“How we think about our identity within the community - that actually leads to what we do in order to define ourselves,” she said.
This is an important consideration in developing FSU’s brand, she added.
Niemi said she is able to listen to what the MetroWest community needs from a state university and communicate that message through the branding and marketing of the institution by focusing on what makes FSU stand out from other state universities.
“We have lots of competition. State universities all look alike if you don't show other people how we are different,” she said.
Niemi said part of the branding initiative will be to develop some of these key programs at Framingham State in order to differentiate it from other Massachusetts universities.
She said she is working with a consultant on branding for Framingham State to “re-envision” the current brand of FSU and to say, “Here's who we are now.”
Averil Capers, director of marketing, agreed with Niemi. “The focus of our marketing efforts is to help shape brand perception, enhance awareness, differentiate FSU from our competitors, and increase FSU’s desirability among future applicants,” she said.
She added, “The Framingham community, both residents and businesses, plays an important role in the success of Framingham State and the new brand platform will support that synergy.”
Michael Harrison, chair of the Marketing Department, also agreed with Niemi’s efforts to serve the surrounding communities, particularly the MetroWest community.
He said the positioning of FSU in the MetroWest community “leads to a unique opportunity for students because one of our unique points of difference is our location to world-class organizations in various industries headquartered right here in MetroWest.”
Harrison said a challenge with marketing will be to “change existing perceptions about the University.
“There is a perception from students, and I have heard this from parents of prospective students as well, that there is nothing to do on campus. Our marketing efforts need to address and change that perception if we want to attract more students. Preparing students for success is critically important, but we all know students also want to have fun and a thriving social life on campus as well. It is a key part of the college experience,” he said.
Another priority of Niemi’s is Framingham State’s upcoming accreditation from the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE).
She said the reaccreditation is Framingham State's “permission to operate.”
Niemi said it's her and the Board of Trustees’ major focus. They will be reconfiguring the University's strategic plan in the “next year or so.”
She said the reaccreditation takes place every 10 years with a check-in every five years.
English Professor Alexander Hartwiger, co-chair of the reaccreditation initiative, said the goal of accreditation is to “highlight all of the wonderful things that have been happening at Framingham State over the past 10 years as well as take a close look at areas that may need attention moving forward.”
He said since the start of Niemi’s presidency, she has been a “strong supporter of the process.
“It is great knowing that she is committed to a successful and thorough reaccreditation,” he said.
In order for the University to obtain federal funding, Framingham State must receive the “seal of approval” from the accreditors through NECHE, Niemi said.
These standards include mission and purposes; planning and evaluation; organization and governance; academic programs; students; teaching, learning and scholarship; institutional resources; educational effectiveness; and integrity, transparency, and public disclosure, according to the NECHE website.
Hartwiger said he and co-chair Mark Nicholas, assistant vice president for assessment, accreditation, and strategic planning, are currently collecting data in order to write the accreditation report.
He said the community is involved with the accreditation process, adding they have seven committees and over 50 faculty, staff, and administrators involved in the accreditation process.
Universities must receive accreditation not only to receive funding, but also to assure prospective students and families that the University has met those nine standards and will continue to meet them, according to the NECHE website.
Another goal of Niemi’s is filling open positions, including the vice president of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement (DICE) and an interim and then permanent dean of Enrollment Management.
She said she is looking forward to working closely with the vice president of DICE to “spearhead initiatives” such as determining how FSU can continue to be more racially equitable though its mission of anti-racism.
History Professor Bridgette Sheridan, interim faculty union president, said she would like to “work and to encourage the administration not only to recruit and hire more BIPOC faculty, but to retain the ones that we have because that is going to be key to recruiting and retaining the students.”
Dara Barros, SGA president, said she would like to see the diversity of the student body reflected in the faculty and the University’s courses.
Eric Nguyen, director of the Center for Inclusive Excellence, said, “You could argue that equity and inclusion rights are at the foundation of why we are here in the first place.”
He said Niemi understands and sees the diversity, equity, and inclusion work as a priority in her goals as president, but added the challenge will be implementing that work into FSU’s policies, practices, and language.
Nguyen said, “We're seeing some challenges with retaining students, particularly retaining students of color, and students who hold other marginalized identities. And so we also need to do the work of understanding why students are leaving, so that we can think about how we meet their particular needs.”
Barros said she has been really impressed by Niemi's enthusiasm and commitment to engage with the community at Framingham State.
She said she has seen Niemi “walking down State Street talking to students.”
Barros, who was the student representative on the presidential search committee, said the passion and excitement Niemi brought to the student forum during her job interview has not “died down,” and her presidency has felt like a “breath of fresh air.”
She said Niemi is accomplishing the goals students asked of her at the student open forums when she was a finalist for the presidency.
McKenzie Ward, student trustee and a voting member of the Enrollment and Retention Committee, said she would like to see more student involvement with the enrollment initiative.
She said it is important for students to make prospective students feel welcomed and comfortable while touring or exploring Framingham State.
“It's as simple as if you're walking down State Street and you see a prospective family taking a tour or a prospective family lost on campus and not knowing where to go. No matter who you are, just take an extra minute or two to make sure they feel welcomed and ask them if they need assistance getting to the admissions house or if they know where they're going, just so they know that FSU truly is the great community that we are,” she said.
Negar Hamidi, a freshman global studies major, said she would like to see Niemi “focus on establishing partnerships with other colleges” in order to have the option of dual enrollment for students.
Aisha Quarles, a freshman American Sign Language major, said, “I would like to see her at more events” such as club meetings and student open forums.
Cameron Lau, a junior computer science major, said he appreciates that Niemi has been making an effort to come to his soccer games.
He said he also likes reading her weekly emails.
Emma Volger, a junior early childhood education major, said she is impressed with Niemi’s involvement on campus and is happy that she has been listening to student voices.
Frankie Hernandec, a junior business marketing major, said it is important to him for Niemi to consider all communities when making critical decisions.
“Two brains work better than one,” he said.
“So it's not just her determining every decision, but rather asking around to get other people's point of view, to then make a final decision,” Hernandec said.
Haley Brouillette, a senior English major, said, “During the existence of Framingham State, there have only been eight women [leaders of the institution]. I feel much more represented and am passionate that she will instill positive ideals into Framingham State for students and faculty.”
[Editor’s Note: McKenzie Ward is Opinions Editor for The Gatepost.]