Leading Indicators

How the economics professor son of an Indian government engineer became NKU's sixth president.


 
By Rodney Wilson | Photography by Scott Beseler | Published June 8, 2018
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Dr. Ashish Vaidya

What does Minnesota mean to you? Ten thousand lakes, sure (there are actually 11,842, but who’s counting?), and Prince and Bob Dylan hail from there, so the state has some musical prominence. You’ve probably watched the Twins, Vikings and/or Timberwolves play your home teams now and again. And we all know from “Fargo” that Minnesotans keep backyard wood chippers, don’cha know?

And then there are Minnesota winters, which everyone understands are deeply, painfully and bone-chillingly cold, and, in general, nothing we’d like to experience annually. Now imagine moving there after spending 30 years in California. That’s exactly how Northern Kentucky University’s incoming sixth president, Dr. Ashish Vaidya (ah-SHEESH vie-DEE-yuh), was introduced to the North Star State, after relocating there in 2015 for the job of provost at St. Cloud State University.

“I think a lot of people, including myself, thought I was totally crazy,” says Vaidya. “But I was being very analytical and practical.”

A self-described pragmatist, Vaidya evaluated the state through an economist’s lens, noting the large amount of Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Minnesota and the state’s low unemployment rate  and quality educational system. Then, looking at St. Cloud State, he was impressed with the school’s strong reputation for regional stewardship and internationalization.

“I did a lot of homework, and I found all the fundamentals really strong,” he says. “So the big drawback was that winter. It’s freaking cold. I was like, I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” The sage advice of a friend with Minnesota experience provided a survival framework that tipped the scale for Vaidya. “He said, firstly, you’ve got to embrace the winter. Secondly, you’ve got to be totally prepared. Get all the good stuff: the parkas, the layers—all that. Forget about vanity. I know you’re all about your hair, but put that to the side.”

And it worked—for a while. With the aid of an underground heat- ed garage and the demands of his new job, Vaidya managed to avoid much of his first Minnesota winter. “Everyone kept saying that was one of the mildest winters they’ve had. Not by my standards. I said, look, you guys don’t understand. If it falls below 40, that’s cold for me,” he laughs. “But in some ways, it didn’t matter whether it was 30 or -10, because I was prepared. I knew I had that massive 40-pound parka. I had multiple caps. I had those things you can put in your pocket.”

At the time of this writing, Vaidya has just emerged from his third Minnesota winter, and he’s feeling ready for the move to a more southern climate. “This last one I think was getting to me, for sure,” he says. Though last November’s announcement of his new role as president of NKU preceded the depths of winter, he concedes he might have made a break for warmer winds regardless. “NKU had happened before the winter really hit, so it wasn’t like that prompted me to start thinking about it,” he says. “But the timing was right.”

Which is all to say that, even in challenging circumstances, Vaidya remains ready to pursue opportunities that align with his core values. From a childhood in India shaped by diverse surroundings, to his move to California and American citizenship, to St. Cloud State and now northern Kentucky, one of  the only constants in his life is  an eagerness to learn the next thing.

“Sometimes life throws you a curveball,” he says, “and you have to seize the opportunity that presents itself.”

LAND OF DIVERSITY

Ashish Vaidya was born in 1962 in New Delhi, India, the second child of a government engineer father and homemaker mother. “I like to joke that  I was an afterthought,” he says, referring to the fact that he’s younger than his sister by quite a  few years. “I was sort of late into the picture.”

His father’s role with the Post & Telecommunications division of the government meant middle-class stability for his family, but it also made for a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, as the job would re-station him to various parts of the country every couple of years. Consequently, Vaidya says he was raised across the whole country of India, exposed to a variety of cultures and economic realities as he moved from city to city.

“Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Bangalore, a few places in the East,” he says, remembering cities   he lived  in as a child. “Moving from place to  place, you actually did  experience  different places, and India is so different. You would just go from the north to the south, east to the west, and  it’s almost like different countries. Languages are different, some of the cultural norms are different, the food is certainly different—which is wonderful. I like food from all over India now.”

Though he made friends easily in each new place, the wear of starting again every few years did take a toll. Vaidya’s parents opted to send him to a boarding school in Indore, Daly College, for high school so he could have some consistency while preparing for college.

“It was much better to be there than living with relatives and attending a regular school,” he says. “I preferred the independence, and actually that was a great experience. I really enjoyed it. I made some friends that I still have.”

Upon finishing high school, Vaidya enrolled  at St. Xavier’s College in Bombay (now Mumbai), then, informed by his exposure to economic disparities across his home country at an early age, chose to study the issue and explore potential solutions.

“I had begun, in late high school, thinking more about this notion of why there is so much economic inequality,” he says. “So I really became persuaded that I want-   ed to study economics. It was an economic problem that India was facing.” The decision made perfect sense to Vaidya, but some family members were shocked at the news. “Since my father was an engineer, the standard was, you know, you  have to become an engineer. My uncles and aunts were like, ‘What is this? How is  he not doing engineering? Economics? What the hell is that?’ It was a big deal, but both my mom and dad said, ‘It’s fine. That’s what he wants to do.’ They were very supportive.”

Fueled by a growing passion for the study of economics—a career in finance didn’t appeal to him at all—Vaidya pursued graduate work with the goal of earning a Ph.D. in economics in the U.S. But as a baccalaureate in India involved only three years of study and he’d need four years to attend graduate school in the States, he decided to go ahead and earn a master’s degree from the University of Mumbai.

It was there that he met, and began dating, a fellow economics graduate student named Nita. The two enjoyed lively conversations, most notably about their focus areas of study, which they discovered overlapped in intriguing ways (Nita studied demography). But when Vaidya was accepted to the University of California, Davis’s Ph.D. program with an offer of full funding, he knew it was time to leave India.

“Davis was a really great option in northern California. My sister was already married and living in the Bay area, so it was a natural thing for me to go there,” he says. “I said to Nita, ‘This is a long program. The only way it’s going to work out is if you decide to join me as a grad student. I know it’s possible for two grad students to manage to hang out together.’ That wasn’t part of her psyche, but she decided, hey, if that’s what it takes.”

Nita applied and was accepted to UC Davis’ sociology Ph.D. program, at which point Vaidya, having finished his first academic year in California, returned to Bombay—where the two were promptly married. The couple then traveled back  to  California  as  husband and wife, and settled into an academic California life, eventually conceiving their first child while pursuing higher-level degrees.

Though he’d initially planned to work for the World Bank, upon graduating with his Ph.D. Vaidya heeded the advice of friends who knew he’d enjoyed working as a teaching assistant, and applied for academic jobs. When he was offered a tenure-track position teaching economics at the California State University, Los Angeles, he, Nita and their one-month-old daughter packed up and headed for LA. He didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of a long, successful academic career that would eventually lead him to Highland Heights, Kentucky.

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Ashish Vaidya

A WINDING PATH TO PRESIDENCY

So how does a West  Coast  college  professor, driven by an intellectual need to understand economic disparities, end up in the university president’s office? Much of Vaidya’s career trajectory has been deter- mined by his unique ability to connect people, from students to staff to faculty members on different sides of the campus, and encourage them to work together. But his story also contains some unexpected (and in  one case, tragic) twists of fate.

By his own admission, Vaidya misses teaching economics, a feeling born of a love for instruction fostered in LA classrooms. But his interest in admin- istrative work can also be traced to these times, as his community involvement, as well as his relationship to the U.S., deepened.

“We lived in a town called Claremont when I was working in LA,” he says. “And there was a call for the traffic and transportation commission. So I said, ‘I want to put my application in and see what happens.’” Vaidya was appointed to the position, and he was struck by how much impact moves made at a city level had on his family—now four strong with the addition of a son—and neighbors. “We were making decisions and recommending to the city council to change some things that affect the day-to-day quality of life for people. I really like this model of being engaged. You can sit there and complain that things are not going well, but you do have an opportunity to make change.”

The more involved  he became, the more Vaidya saw one glaring omission in his capabilities to influence change: As a green-card resident, he couldn’t vote. “I bought property, and my kids were obviously citizens because they were born here,” he says. “I was doing everything that a citizen does. I’m paying taxes and engaged in city governance, so I probably should become a citizen. And I think it was also kind of an identity question—I felt okay about it.”

At work, Vaidya grew more involved in decision-making, too, with his appointment as director of the MBA program, a role that leveraged his inter- personal skills. When the opportunity arose to be a founding member of Cal State’s 23rd campus at Channel Islands, he went as a faculty member highly versed in the administrative work that starting a cam- pus from scratch would require. So when he finally made the move to become dean of  the Channel Islands campus, his transition to academic administration seemed a natural shift. Vaidya’s career path followed suit, with a return to Cal State, LA, first as the provost, then as a special adviser to the president for regional economic development.

Then came Minnesota. Although  it  had  once been the best-funded public university system in the nation, budget cuts had in recent years reduced state money to below the national average, and the almost 150-year-old St. Cloud State was trying to adapt to changing times. The president of the school, Earl Potter, was widely respected and looking for a provost whom he could consider a partner in running the university. The challenge was a big one, even without subarctic temperatures, but Vaidya was up to the task, so in 2015 he bought that 40-pound parka and headed east.

But in June of the following year, the unthinkable happened—Potter, 69, was killed in a rollover crash on the highway. As second in command, Vaidya was quickly appointed interim president of St. Cloud State, accepting the dual responsibilities of helping a shocked campus through its grief and continuing the important work of his predecessor.

Meanwhile, here in northern Kentucky, NKU’s fifth president, Geoffrey Mearns, was ending his contract and preparing for his new job as president of Ball State University in Indiana. Gerard St. Amand, former Dean of Salmon P. Chase College of Law and Vice President for University Advancement, agreed to postpone his retirement from teaching to take the reins as interim president. When the Board of Regents put out the call for a new university president, Vaidya recognized NKU from the American Association for State Colleges and Universities’ publication “Stepping Forward as Stewards of Place,” authored by a task force on public engagement chaired by NKU’s fourth president, James Votruba. The university’s leading work on regional stewardship—the idea that higher education should address needs in the community through educating the next generation of problem solvers—had deeply influenced Vaidya over the course of his career, and he wanted to be a part of what the school did next. But that would mean leaving St. Cloud State and the possibility of a permanent presidency.

“At the end of the day, I have to admit, it was a struggle,” he says. “I know the people, I know the place. I have a great relationship with the mayor, the legislators, the foundation. But NKU was really an exciting opportunity—the sense of innovation, entrepreneurship, an independent board, great public-private partnerships.”

In the end, of course, he applied for the job, which was offered and made official with a vote and announcement in November 2017. And now, with his July start date mere weeks away, he’s ready to leave the Gopher State to become a citizen of Greater Cincinnati.

Ashish and Nita Vaidya

A PUP, A PALATE, A POINT GAME

To predict how Vaidya will adapt to his new home, it helps to know a few things about him. He and Nita have two grown children—Jaanhvi, a management consultant with Accenture, and Avaneesh, a recent graduate of the University of  Arizona—and a tiny third in the form of a Chihuahua named Coco. The Vaidyas are both pretty serious about food, and he’s equally as serious about his  hair  (and  concerned about who will cut it when he gets to town). And he has a deep love  of  tennis that’s rooted in his early days at Daly College.

First, Coco, who Vaidya is looking forward to walk- ing in winter without constantly slipping on treacherous ice. When family friends in California took in a stray that turned out to be pregnant (she recovered to become the namesake of both the Lucy Pet Foundation and Lucy Pet Products), the Vaidyas volunteered to deliver one of the puppies to Ashish’s sister. But while caring for the dog in the interim, Nita fell in love with little Coco. Despite Ashish’s reluctance, the Chihuahua ended up joining the family’s other dog, a German shepherd mix named Frisco, in the home. And Coco quickly found a place in her new owner’s heart.

“She’s been in the house ever since,” he says. “They all make fun of me, because Coco’s a smart dog who knows she has to keep me happy. She’s like a lap dog.” Sadly, Frisco passed away in October 2015, leaving Coco the run of the house—though Vaidya suspects she may not be lonely for too much longer. “I think Nita still has a secret plan to get a second one at some point.”

[It is NKU Magazine’s editorial opinion that this is highly likely.]

While Vaidya has sampled Skyline chili, Cincinna- ti’s growing dining scene, as well as local staples, are exciting unknowns to him at this point. “I could say   we are foodies,” he says. “I think food is a reflection of culture and the nuances ethnic groups in every region within countries are very proud of.” He points to LA   as an excellent example of culinary diversity, where eating Mexican food meant choosing between menus from a variety of regions represented in the area. And though he’s excited to try Cincinnati’s various eateries, you probably shouldn’t expect to run into him at the Hofbrauhaus. “Maybe German not so much,” he says with a laugh.

As for tennis, Vaidya smiles in excitement when asked about the Cincinnati Western & Southern Open, the annual hard court tournament in Mason, Ohio, featuring some of the sport’s biggest names. “When I saw that, I was like, oh, this is going to be good,” he says. “I would certainly expect to go see a match or two.” As for his own game, which he’s been at since teaching himself during high school, Vaidya is looking forward to a milder climate than he’s experienced the past few years. “That’s been one of the drawbacks in Minnesota,” he says. “Summer is the only time, and I’d been used to being able to play all year round. Even if   I don’t play regularly, I look forward to doing more of that here, for sure.”

Leaving Minnesota for northern  Kentucky  has some lifestyle perks, but Vaidya knows that, foremost, he’s here to do the job of leading NKU forward. For him, that means helping students succeed here and,  after graduating, within the region at large. “The work that public institutions are doing in this country is important, significant and essential,” he says. “I’m passionate about that, and this is something I advocate for very strongly.

“The true impact of a college education—especially for first-generation, Pell-eligible and under- represented students—was something I didn’t fully realize at first,” he continues. “It really does change the trajectory of their lives. If it weren’t for college, they would probably have very limited options in terms of economic and social mobility. We provide access and opportunity and change their lives.”

NKU’s reputation for changing lives is what first attracted Vaidya to the university, and a primary objective of his presidency will be strengthening the school’s commitment to student success.

“We have to find new and better ways to serve students across the board,” he says, “and find ways that we can live up to their hopes and aspirations.”

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