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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hope and expectations for Northern Illinois University

When a place you know well becomes the site of a horrific tragedy, the landscape is irrevocably altered. A tragedy becomes part of the history and, therefore, the identity of a place, but there is a danger in letting the shadows of horror and grief obscure the bright and vital essence of a place. That is true for Northern Illinois University.

The University launched so many productive and distinguished lives, the recent shootings should not be allowed to discourage or dissuade people from perceiving it as a place of opportunity and resource for building and sustaining significant lives.

NIU is a part of my personal landscape. As an undergraduate at Augustana, I had many friends who came from the area around DeKalb--Sycamore, Downers Grove, Rockford--and we had much interaction with students from what was then Northern Illinois State Teachers College. It had a reputation for being a classy state college with an educational emphasis, and I can recall one gorgeous spring afternoon on the campus for a tennis match.

I have other memories. My ex-spouse earned her master's degree there, and I was impressed with the caliber of instruction offered. A cousin went there for a time. I worked with faculty and staff from there on academic and moonlighting projects and always took pleasure in visiting the campus. Its ivy-covered brick buildings seemed the epitome of the Halls of Ivy kind of institution.

Like all education institutions, NIU has had its time of trial. In the 1950s, it was a teachers' college much like the institution from which I retired, Northern State University. As enrollments burgeoned during the 1960s and it was transformed from a teachers' college to a university of 25,000 students, it struggled with poorly designed and badly constructed buildings. An arboretum near the campus became better known for sexual assaults than for tree specimens. And once when a car struck a student and sped off, a coed recognized it as belonging to the university president. Like all communities, universities have their problems. But they are also equipped better than any other kind of community to confront and solve those problems.

While we give our condolences and best wishes to the families of the young people who were killed and to the wounded, we also need to keep them in our memories as a reason to resume the business of the university and get back to work on February 25.

School shootings are a problem that needs the best information and the most dedicated minds brought to bear on it. The faculty, staff, and students at NIU can lead us out of this dark time in higher education. They have our thoughts, best wishes, support, and appreciation.

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