In 2002, under the guidance of fourth university President James Votruba, Northern Kentucky University created a five-year plan called “Strengthening Our Capacity to Serve.” Alongside goals like aligning curriculum with regional needs, enhancing student recruitment and retention, and improving the financial base, the school made a formal commitment to strengthen its public engagement.
One result of this was the establishment of the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement.
Endowed with the mission to “connect campus and community,” the center started with just two programs: the Mayerson Student Philanthropy program—which actually began in 1999 as a way for students to learn about nonprofits by collectively evaluating local organizations and making investment decisions—and the University-Community Partnership program, which provided local organizations with financial and interactive assistance from NKU students, staff and faculty.
Along with the vision of closing the gap between campus activities and community outreach, the center maintains their focus on fostering values of citizenship and stewardship, which current executive director Mark Neikirk defines as “making a commitment to making where you live a better place.”
While donating funds to organizations whose mission you support is a valid method of increasing your place’s value, Neikirk and his team of associates have added numerous programs over the last ten years that demonstrate other avenues of promoting NKU students’ sense of civic duties. The center’s ongoing service learning project with the Newport History Museum is one example, as are the Change Series and an annual thrift shop.
One of its most high-profile programs is the Six@Six Lecture Series, where students and faculty share projects and research findings in public spaces like the Center for Great Neighborhoods, Campbell County Library and Behringer-Crawford Museum.
Inspired by a former professor’s provoking interpretation of "The Wizard of Oz" as a political allegory, Neikirk knew that the diversity of knowledge floating around campus—from invasive earthworms to fried chicken and gangsters—was too intriguing not to be shared with the community.
When the series started eight years ago it only included faculty lecturers, but Six@Six quickly evolved to include students, showcasing NKU’s emphasis on undergraduate research and building students’ confidence presenting outside the classroom.
Austin Lee, assistant professor of communication, spoke at The Mercantile Library in October about the forthcoming potential for robots to impact positive change—“perhaps persuading people to quit smoking, eat healthy or be more conscious of energy conservation?”
Austin Alley, a public relations graduate, gave a presentation at the Fort Thomas Branch of the Campbell County Library about his concerns over the false public assumption that age expectancy naturally trends upward. “Opioid abuse, obesity and other public health threats are claiming more people at younger ages…many hospice and related providers are ill-prepared to communicate to younger people who may need their services.”
Bonus speaker Josh Boak, an economics writer for the Associated Press, delivered a lecture in the Ellen Rieveschl Digitorium on home ownership inequities in the United States and the political repercussions this tension invites into our culture. “The differences in where we live, how we live and how we would like to live is an important story that a journalist who covers the American economy is uniquely qualified to tell.”
Associate professor of political science Dr. Kimberly Weir brought the dark conditions of the international chocolate trade—“its key ingredients (cocoa beans, peanuts and palm oil) are rooted in human rights and environmental abuses”—to the Behringer-Crawford Museum and offered tips on scoring ethical options and consuming with caution in general.
Art student Charity Rust-Jordan shared her experiences with conducting art workshops for kids and adults at the Welcome House of Northern Kentucky and how creative activities “can bring value and comfort to the lives of everyday people, including those struggling through personal challenges.”
Associate professor of history Dr. Andrea Watkins schooled locals and college students alike in the forgotten history of Kentucky women’s experiences during the American Civil War. “The varied experiences of Union and Confederate sympathizers, as well as African-American women, reveal the courageous discipline and strength of women in the 19th Century to maintain family life and human compassion in a time of war.”
Closing out this season of the lecture series is technical theatre and design student William Bunch, who will tackle the environmental perils of the fashion industry and ask, “How can we, as consumers, still look good but reduce the waste our clothing contributes?” This final Six@Six lecture will occur on April 23 at the Baker Hunt Art & Cultural center.
“It's born from a simple idea,” Neikirk noted, “Say ‘hello’ to a student or professor and say, ‘Tell me about your research,’ and then listen.” While the university’s reputation boost is intentional, Neikirk considers the measure of a lecture’s success its ability to provoke continued interest.
Neikirk shared that, while an educated workforce is the most obvious way a university returns a community’s investment, academics can further offer the local community opportunities to learn and discuss wide-ranging issues.
And the series has had indirect community impact as well. When, in 2013, Dr. William Landon of the History and Geography department proposed he and a group of presenters explore Machiavelli’s "The Prince," the center hesitated because it didn’t fit the Six@Six format. Landon sought out other venues, resulting in an NKU-sponsored symposium at the Cincinnati Art Museum. Now in its sixth year, the Cincinnati Art Museum Symposium has grown into an annual series of workshops, film screenings and community lectures around a single topic.
Based on its guiding principles of bridging the gap between campus and community, the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement has made great strides to meet the intellectual needs of northern Kentucky residents. Here’s to the next 15 years of increasing Greater Cincinnati’s value to the country and the world.