By Sophia Harris, Branden LaCroix
Nancy Niemi, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at University of Maryland Eastern Shore, was the second of the FSU presidential candidates to visit campus Dec. 6-7.
Niemi has been working to improve education and social equity since 2005 through her publications.
During their visits, presidential candidates participated in meetings, open forums, and interviews with FSU community members who will assess each candidate’s suitability as FSU’s next president. The final decision will be made by the Board of Trustees Dec. 15.
During her introduction, Niemi said, “I think we in education are in a radical moment. Not a radical right or left, but because our country needs to support, uphold, and deepen its democracy – we’re in a radical place.”
Citing the “twin pandemics” of COVID-19 and “structural racism,” Niemi said, “We’ve been living through a long period of high stress,” but she sees FSU as “becoming more of what it was founded to be.”
Addressing issues of diversity in education, Niemi said, “We need to fortify a compelling and distinctive identity ... that’s built to the commitment of education.
“We cannot let others write our narrative that a more diverse faculty and student body means lower quality – and people want to try,” she said. “Indeed, it demands higher quality. We have to champion the value of arts, humanities, sciences, even as we show students the way to make a good living.”
Niemi added the importance of communities surrounding universities. “Educational institutions don’t sit by themselves. They sit within communities and those communities increasingly depend on us,” she said.
Meeting with Faculty and Librarians
Following her introduction at the meeting with faculty and librarians Dec. 6, the floor was open to questions.
Dr. Lisa Eck, English department chair, and Tim McDonald, an art professor, asked Niemi about the ways she would support art and the humanities at FSU.
Niemi said from a “presidential perspective,” she would Rnd ways to “give voice” to the arts and humanities department, as well as increase funding to arts and humanities programs.
“We might go to school to teach students how to become an accountant or an architect, but we get nourished by what we learn, by what we read, by what we think about,” she said.
Concerning the art departments, Niemi said, “If we say the fine arts department matters – full stop – and those majors matter – full stop – then we invest in them, and we invest in the faculty, and we invest in the programming.”
She added investing in the arts is important “because it’s a legitimate part of who we are as humans.”
History Professor Lissa Bollettino, assistant director of the Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching, Scholarship, and Service (CELTSS), asked via Zoom what “structural support and resources” she could give to faculty.
Niemi said she developed “the first Center for Teaching Excellence” at her university.
She said she will “find the resources” if they are not available to provide faculty yearly or even
semesterly “opportunities to take advantage of some developmental piece, some conference, or some publication.
“If we don’t invest in faculty development, we don’t thrive,” she said.
“Faculty growth through the means by which your discipline asks of it ... is an expected part of our budget and your work is what we do,” added Niemi.
Yumi Park Huntington, art history professor and chair of Arts & Ideas, brought up current budget issues related to enrollment and asked Niemi what “support system” she would enact to sustain programs like Arts & Ideas.
Niemi said the University should Rnd “a different revenue stream” from enrollment and suggested possibly seeking sponsorships from the community and alumni to support programs such as Arts & Ideas.
Robert Donohue, psychology professor, asked Niemi what her plans are for increasing enrollment and retention.
Niemi returned to the “identity” of FSU and said to “focus on who we are,” as well as “paying attention to who we’re not.”
She said, “I think we might have to have the courage to say, ‘Are there things that aren’t working for us right now?’ Is our yield in some particular thing so low that we might need to say, ‘Can we restructure this differently?’ ‘Do we need this major?’ or ‘Do we need to add this new sexy thing – this new program that a lot of people are doing, but maybe it’s just not going to give us the return on investment that we need?’”
She added the University could offer more courses or resources for professionals to increase their credentials and “create a market for new students.”
Niemi also said her university holds monthly “retention days,” when faculty, staff, and students meet to discuss “what works in retention” and what improvements can be made.
Another crucial topic was increasing the representation of students and faculty of color.
Niemi said a commitment to finding different methods of hiring and finding resources to support faculty of color is important.
She said, “You make the commitment that our people, our thinking, our teaching matters more than anything else, and then you put your money where that belief is.
“You need a diverse group of people to educate a diverse group of students,” Niemi added.
“If we want faculty of color, and we want students to be educated by and with faculty of color, then we have to hire them, and we have to keep them,” she said.
Meeting with the Board of Trustees
Niemi answered questions at a Board of Trustees open forum about racial injustice, enrollment, and the implementation of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the hiring process. The meeting was held Dec. 6.
Her opening statement highlighted that she sees Framingham State as becoming “an instrument of equity, of economic and cultural vibrancy through education,” she said.
Trustee Claire Ramsbottom asked Niemi what her biggest professional challenge has been and what she learned from it.
Niemi said the most difficult challenge is the one she is currently facing, which is “how to be the best leader at a HBCU [Historically Black College and University] at a time where the country’s racial climate is, to put it mildly, extremely challenging.”
She said her institution has been the “target of so much racism.”
Niemi said she learned that her experience in academics and leadership “still needs to take a backseat to [her] listening to the people who are experiencing those challenges and working with their needs.”
Student Trustee Hillary Nna asked Niemi to elaborate on the racial targeting that her institution has faced and “how she deals with racial incidents.”
Niemi said her institution has been “targeted in a number of ways,” adding her university gets targeted “continuously” because of its “rural area and because of its past – in ways that are sobering.”
Niemi added she deals with racial incidents by “doing a lot more listening than [she] ever imagined.”
She elaborated that she needs to talk with “staff members who have been at the institution for longer than anybody else” in order to know how they would proceed and “deal with the issues when they happen.”
Trustee Beth Casavant, who attended the forum via Zoom, asked what Niemi’s strategy is regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as how she has created a welcoming environment for students and faculty through her leadership.
Niemi said her university does “cluster hiring where they can” in order to have the faculty be
representative of the student body.
She said it is important for “students to be able to see themselves in their faculty.”
Three years ago, Niemi and Maryland’s teacher of the year, who was given the position of Endowed Chair, created a center for the education of Black male educators, which is the “only program in the state that educates Black male K-12 teachers,” she said.
Niemi said she “takes the time” to look at the research and scholarships around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Trustee Anthony Hubbard brought up enrollment retention. He asked about steps Niemi would take to “bolster” enrollment in the short and long term.
She responded in the short term, she would like to see the strategy that FSU has in place for increasing enrollment.
Then she asked, “I think your yield is 14%. I would want to know why that isn’t higher. ”
She said she would want to look into financial aid and scholarships to confirm FSU is meeting students’ needs.
Given this information, she will see what aspects need immediate attention.
She said she has prior experience in increasing enrollment and “knows what a good enrollment strategy looks like.”
In the longer term, she wants to look into “sharpening the identity of Framingham State” as a state university and as part of the MetroWest community.
She said she wants to see if FSU’s recruiting message “speaks to who we are.”
Niemi said although it’s not something “people want to hear,” discontinuing low-enrollment programs to invest those resources in high enrollment programs, including Graduate and Professional programs should be considered.
Bob Richards, a trustee emeritus who attended the forum via Zoom, asked Niemi to expand on her role leading the academic program analysis and alignment process at her institution.
Niemi said she looks at programs’ “objectives and their enrollment over time, and then matches that with the objectives of the university and the strategic planning.”
She said through the data, it becomes clear what courses are “not fulfilling enrollment objectives” or “graduation objectives.”
The next step is to take action at “low, medium, and high priority,” she said, adding some of the changes are internal – such as dividing departments – while some changes are “eliminating majors” and “condensing administrative assistance.”
Trustee Brian Herr asked what Niemi’s plan is for marketing the “brand awareness” of FSU and if she has been involved in marketing at universities.
Niemi said she is currently “deeply involved” with the marketing at her institution.
She said her institution is going through a market study and has hired a “market group in order to help us rebrand ourselves.”