Q&A with President Hahs
During the summer of 2012, Dr. Sharon Hahs, president of Northeastern Illinois University, sat down for a conversation with Jackson Lewis, a student intern in the marketing and public relations area. Dr. Hahs shared with Lewis her ideas about the future of NEIU and higher education, her professional and personal inspirations, lessons she has learned through various experiences, how her lifelong love of learning enriches her life, and how the people in her life make it fulfilling.
- Northeastern Illinois University is constantly looking forward with endeavors like the Innovation Summit. What do you think the future holds for NEIU?
- I'm really optimistic for the future of Northeastern. I think we are a special place, and I think that we can do some things better than everybody else. On the other hand, it's a tough future. Like every other higher education institution, especially public institutions, it has less and less funding each year. If you have less money than you had the year before, how do you serve your students? That pressure is going to be there. Therefore, we have to be innovative. There are ways to do things differently so that we can meet this fiscal and political challenge while we continue to do good things. I am optimistic yet a little bit sobered by it, and I think we will meet our challenges.
- Looking through a larger lens, what do you think the future holds for higher education on the national level?
- If the states and the federal government choose to support higher education less and less, then it's really going to revert to those who are most clever. I think being the most clever means being more nimble than most of us are in higher education. Higher education is very slow to change. We have to change a little faster, to try to offer the degree programs that students want, to teach things that are useful in our nation, and entice students to actually study those things.
- Who do you draw inspiration from for your personal and professional life?
- There are a few favorite folks in my life. One of them—his name is Wendell Hess—was my first chemistry teacher as an undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan University. He is the reason I became a chemist, and to this day I have honored who he is. My grandmother, "Granny," is another one, who is long gone now. She was a schoolteacher at a time when there really was no accreditation. Then training began to come along. So she took a course each summer, and finished her baccalaureate degree when she was 70 years old. She is one of my absolute heroes, and I named my second daughter for her. The last one that I would mention would be Israel Putnam. Putnam was a general in the Revolutionary War who led the battle of Bunker Hill. He is my "seven greats back" grandfather. Putnam was known for five things, and I have absorbed those and they are my treasures. He was known for his integrity, his commitment, his optimism, his energy and vitality, and his generosity of spirit. These are not about being smart. These are about living a life.
- What do you think is your greatest professional accomplishment?
- My best professional accomplishment is what I'm living every day. It is the presidency, so it's not a thing. It's a process, a set of years, a set of relationships, a set of goals that, as a university, we are accomplishing. I can't take unique credit for any of this. If we get something done, it's because many of us contributed. I always like to mention the strategic plan, but it isn't mine. It's ours. Six hundred people contributed to that, and that's why it's good.
- What qualities have you taken from living and traveling abroad?
- I think when you have these rich opportunities to go somewhere else and learn something, you appreciate cultures and people. I think you also learn flexibility; it's a skill. You might be staying somewhere that has no running water. But, you know, it's not going to kill you. I've learned that the bread in every country is different, and yet it's kind of similar. After all, bread is the staple of the world. Traveling changes you as a person. I am the product of doing all of those things.
- What does diversity mean to you and do you think NEIU encompasses this?
- I have always enjoyed, appreciated and respected different people and cultures. When we did our strategic planning with those 600 individuals, we actually paused to ask this question. We always say it. It affects the core of everything we are, everything we do and, actually, how we do it. There are native speakers of at least 50 different languages attending or teaching at this institution, but that is only a piece of it. It's how we think of the world, how we act, what we do and what we ascribe to as our values. And, yes, we encompass that at Northeastern.
- How does diversity benefit students?
- It gives students opportunities they wouldn't have otherwise, because it is a global world. It also makes our students better problem solvers. A good example is calculus. If you had the same wonderful faculty member at two universities, one at Northeastern and one at a homogeneous institution, and you have students in a class that are very different from each other, they will learn it better than the other group. There will still be that array of academic accomplishment, but they will learn it better. They will develop more skills, because if the student next to you sees derivatives in a different way, you learn more. I think that is the asset for students here. They are better problem solvers.
- What aspect of your life is always behind you, supporting you?
- We all have something behind us, and for me it's my family. I've been married for more than 43 years to the same person. He is really on my hero list, too. We have two daughters. They are each married and they each have two kids, so we have two grandsons and two granddaughters. My older daughter is a surgeon, and she's married to a surgeon. They live in the St. Louis area. My younger daughter is an attorney, and she's married to an attorney. These are life's accidents, but it's true. We spend some of our available time with our families. We are very family oriented. We have great kids and really great grandkids. They're an important piece of who I am. They're also really nice people. I think the goal in raising children is to raise nice people and to raise people who are your friends. They are our friends.
- One of your interests is taking photographs of solar eclipses. What draws you to them and why do you enjoy doing this?
- I read recently that people are using the idea of the potato chip moment – one isn't enough. When one sees a total eclipse, and the moment is over and the eclipse has passed, you wish you could watch another one, right then. But you have to wait a year or 18 months, and you have to go exactly where it is. You can't stay home and watch it, so it's this great excuse to travel to unusual places like Mongolia in the winter. It's always been a challenge and fun. It's also going to a country with no political agenda. We went to Libya when the U.S. was not yet officially in Libya, but the tour group was allowed to go. The Libyans looked at us suspiciously and wondered why we were there. We said we had heard that there was an eclipse and we had come to see it. "Oh!" they said. "Wonderful! Welcome! Come into my home. Share my food." It gets you past the political divisions of our globe.
- What are some of your interests and why do you enjoy them?
- I have lots of interests, but I would say gardening and being a handyman are my more frequent interests. I maintain a flower garden, not a veggie garden, because then you have to eat your veggies when it's time, and life is too chaotic. But I love gardening. I love growing things, mostly flowers and shrubs. I have also long been a tinkerer. I rebuilt a VW engine when I was in graduate school. I don't rebuild engines anymore because engines are way too complex and I don't have the time. I can do wiring, plumbing, some carpentry, and I like being independent enough that I'm not subject to somebody else having to fix my things for me.
- What motivates you to continue serving Northeastern Illinois University?
- I think that it's who I am. I have always served public higher education, whether as faculty, dean, provost or president. I think Northeastern is a really special place, and I love that. I love that we are diverse and that we serve students who deserve to have an education. They are smart. They may have complicated lives, but they are very determined. And they succeed with our wonderful faculty and academic programs.
- What has Northeastern Illinois University taught you?
- I think on one level we all learn every day, whatever we do in life. Part of the learning is very technical. How does the budget work here compared to somewhere else? But when I interviewed here I tried to figure out what Northeastern is. I tried to find what I thought was great about it and whether I would want to come if I were invited. What I have learned is that what I thought then, almost six years ago, is true. Yes, this is a special place. This is where I will be.