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9:30 AM, FRIDAY, AUGUST 21, 2009

It goes without saying that these are challenging times for the University. We’re confronting the most serious global economic meltdown since the Great Depression.  The state revenue picture is bleak. We’ve had significant reductions in our state funding.  Many of our endowments are “under water”.  And, on a more personal level, many of our faculty, staff and students have experienced major economic dislocation.  At the same time, we’ve seen an ever increasing demand for access to the university and a growing public expectation that we’ll be full partners in advancing progress throughout our region and the Commonwealth.  

What is remarkable to me is that, in spite of all that we’ve confronted this past year, we saw the university again achieve significant progress in areas important to both our students and the public. 

How did this happen?  It happened because of the character and competence of  faculty and staff throughout this university who combine a love for the institution, an unshakable commitment to the importance of our work, a belief in our capacity to make a difference in people’s lives, and an incredible tenacity to get the job done no matter what it takes.  

This past year, we again benefited from faculty who were willing to work long hours teaching their courses, advising their students, conducting their research, applying their knowledge to address community problems, and still find time to guide general education reform, SACS reaffirmation, and a host of other university initiatives.  We benefited from deans and department chairs who took steps to sustain and often enhance our academic programs while absorbing significant budget reductions.  We benefited from staff who often worked long into the night and on weekends in order to meet Prism and SACS deadlines.  We benefited from physical plant employees who went “above and beyond” to make sure that our campus was clean and cared for and new buildings brought on line when resources were in short supply. We benefited from vice presidents who had to make difficult choices among priorities, all of which were important.  We benefited from our Foundation staff and board who spent long hours working to minimize the impact of the stock market meltdown on our endowments.  We benefited from our campus advisory boards and community leaders who advised us, encouraged us, invested in us, and supported us through this time of risk and uncertainty. We benefited from our partnership with Highland Heights and Campbell County with whom we have developed significant and lasting partnerships. And we benefited from our Board of Regents who provided wise counsel, asked the tough questions, and continuously offered their encouragement and expressed their confidence that we could continue to move forward in spite of the challenges. 

Times like these test individuals and organizations.  It’s clear to me that we passed the test. We’ve looked for opportunities where we could find them.  We haven’t wasted time with hand wringing and self pity. We haven’t allowed narrow self interests to divide us.  And we haven’t allowed our fundamental optimism to diminish. This is why I say to you today that the state of the university is strong, our future is bright, and our progress will continue!

As we begin this academic year, we find the university’s reputation for excellence continuing to grow.  Forbes Magazine last week announced its list of best colleges for 2009.  For the first time in its history, NKU was on that list based on criteria that included: student evaluations of  professors and courses; student success after graduation; average salaries of graduates; and the number of faculty and students who have won nationally competitive awards.

This reputation for excellence is translating into another banner year for enrollments.  We expect the university to again welcome the largest, most academically talented, and most diverse freshmen class in our history.  The number of first year students scoring  25 or higher on the ACT has increased 33% over last year. The number of students in the freshmen class admitted with regular admission status is 8.6% above last year.  This year we’ll admit 225 new freshmen honors students compared to 180 last year. The number of new African-American students is up a remarkable 20% which translates into 184 students this year compared to 153 last year which was also a record increase.  Total African American student enrollment is up 8% and Hispanic student enrollment is up over 10%.

We expect to be flat or slightly above last year’s graduate enrollments and we’ll again see an increase in Chase enrollments.

Over the past decade, NKU has been one of the fastest growing universities in Kentucky.  However, with a 10% reduction in our state appropriation over the past two years and facilities bursting at the seams, we’ve had to limit our growth this fall to no more than 1% based on program capacity. As of yesterday, we have rejected more than 400 applicants, most from the local area. We won’t see significant enrollment growth resume until we are able to support it with the additional facilities, faculty and staff. 

If we turn from enrollments to degree production, the data are equally impressive. This past year, the university graduated over 1,800 students, an increase of nearly 8% over the previous year and 13% over the last two years.  These increases are the largest of any Kentucky university.

At the graduate level, we produced nearly 500 degree recipients last year, an increase of 5.4% over the previous year and 24.3% over the past two years. These graduate degrees are in direct response to strong regional demand.

Our students continue to tell us that what makes the university special are small classes and faculty and staff who care about them.  Despite the temptation to significantly enlarge class sizes in order to generate revenue, the average class size across campus has remained roughly 24 students.

Budget challenges have not prevented us from enhancing high priority programs.  For example, this past year we created the new College of Health Professions in response to the growing importance of the health care industry for our region and the Commonwealth.  Next spring we’ll ask the state for a $92.5 million construction project that will include construction of a Health Innovations facility along with the renovation of Founders Hall which contains 24% of our total classroom space.  Both facilities rank at the top of the CPE list of capital priorities.

How important is the new health professions building?  This year we will turn away nearly 400 qualified nursing applicants at a time when the regional health care system can’t find enough nurses and other health professionals.  This new college is essential to the entire health care reform movement and is on the leading edge in the preparation of the next generation of health professionals.

Four years ago, NKU created one of the first colleges of informatics in the nation.  This summer we broke ground for its new home.  This $40.5 million construction project will include an additional $12 million in state-of-the-art academic equipment, making it the finest facility of its kind in the nation.  The state provided $35.5 million and the university set a goal to raise an additional $17.8 million which, in the current environment, was no small task.

The good news is that we are about to reach this goal.  Senator Mitch McConnell provided $1.9 million last year and appears to be on target to provide another $2.4 million this year.  Congressman Davis will likely secure $350,000 this year. In addition to this Congressional support, we have benefited from a large number of major gifts including, most recently, a $6 million commitment from the Griffin family which will be matched with $1 million from the state.

How cutting-edge is our informatics initiative?  Frank Muehlman, Dell Computer’s North American Vice President and General Manager, said at the groundbreaking, “To tomorrow’s leaders, I say this – if you are a high school student and want a career in an information discipline, you should be submitting your application to Northern Kentucky University and packing your bags for Highland Heights.  This is where you will get a truly cutting edge, applied educational experience.”

We all know that the digital age is transforming every dimension of our lives.  Our College of Informatics is on the cutting edge of this transformation as it relates to health, business, libraries, education, journalism, the arts and much more.  They’re introducing us to a whole new vocabulary like “ubiquitous communities” and “ubiquitous campuses” and they’re forging new partnerships throughout our campus and the region.

While I’ve highlighted our initiatives in health and informatics, I could take the rest of the day to describe equally outstanding initiatives throughout every corner of our campus.  Of course, at the heart of any university is its faculty. NKU faculty members continue to distinguish themselves across the full breadth of our mission and their work continues to be recognized throughout the region, state, and nation.  One recent example is illustrative.  Last week, Biology Professor Hazel Barton’s research lab was listed as one of the top ten courses in the United States by Popular Science.  The article describes Dr. Barton’s lab as one of the ten most fun college courses and most likely to land you your dream job!

Despite the hiring freezes on many campuses, this year we welcome 51 outstanding new full time faculty members with more to come. 

Like our faculty, our students continue to distinguish themselves in a broad range of achievements. The Chase College of Law provides a shining example.  Last year our law students achieved two Moot Court National Championships; two Best Brief Awards in moot court; two Best Advocate Awards in moot court;  State Mock Trial Championship and runner-up; and the list goes on.

The application of our academic expertise is not limited to educating our students. Throughout our region and state, the university is engaged in addressing some of the most complex and formidable challenges confronting our future.

In an age when talent and innovation will drive our ability to compete on a global scale, America faces some harsh realities.  We rank near the bottom of industrialized nations in high school and college completion and the numbers are not improving.  In the STEM fields, our numbers are particularly sobering when compared to a global index. Locally, Vision 2015 has made educational excellence one of its top priorities.

At NKU, we’ve committed ourselves to working across the region and state on behalf of P-12 education enhancement.  This past year, CINSAM engaged nearly 10,000 students and several hundred teachers in math and science enrichment programs.  Our Haile Digital Planetarium  provided P-12 enrichment to over 4,300 students this past year. Their capacity will be further enhanced this year by what we believe will be a $200,000 Congressional appropriation from Senator Bunning.

Recently, we received a highly competitive $900,000 Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Grant to prepare secondary math teachers to work in high need schools.

This fall we will welcome our first students in the SOAR program.  Supported by a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, this program funds scholarships for underrepresented, financially needy and academically talented students in the STEM disciplines and is a partnership between biology, chemistry, and mathematics. 

Our P-12 commitment reaches across the campus. Theater and Dance reaches out to over 26,000 students annually.  Biology and chemistry reach over 6,000 students.   Our new Doctorate of Education is preparing the next generation of regional education leaders by anchoring their studies in local educational practice.  Early childhood faculty members are working to improve early childhood centers.  We are a full partner in the Strive educational initiative which focuses on strengthening educational attainment in our urban districts.  And we are working with all of the region’s P-12 districts to promote college readiness through early testing and remediation before enrolling in college.

At the state level, our Kentucky Center for Mathematics is leading an ambitious multi-campus statewide effort to improve math performance throughout Kentucky’s 120 counties. 

Throughout our campus, we have taken up the challenge to be a full partner in advancing P-12 education throughout the region and beyond.  There is no greater challenge for us to address!

Education takes many forms. For Kentucky to thrive, education and learning must be encouraged and supported in every community, no matter how poor, how small or how remote. Steely Library has recently received a nearly $1 million grant to strengthen the quality of library staff and services in Kentucky’s most economically challenged counties by working with Bluegrass Community College and the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives to provide a bachelors completer program for students with an associate degree in information science.  Associate Provost Arne Almquist makes an important point: Since the 18th century, public libraries have been the “peoples’ university” for many communities and they still have the capacity to serve this role.  We intend to help.

In addition to promoting P-12 educational excellence, we are a full partner in advancing regional economic competitiveness.  The Haile/US Bank College of Business has launched the Center for Economic Analysis and Development which is providing essential analytic and interpretative support for regional economic planning and progress measurement. LaunchPad is helping to profile existing regional industries and their needs.  The Infrastructure Management Institute is assisting companies to be more competitive through the creative application of digital information systems and technology. 

In recent years, NKU has played an important “public intellectual role” through the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement.  The Center has held public forums on such topics as health reform, media literacy, creating the innovative city, and a spirited evening focused on creationism and evolution.   After that one, I suggested to Mark Neikirk that he might want to pick a less controversial topic next time; possibly a debate on when life begins!

All of this is to underscore that NKU is a major force for progress, not only in the lives of our students but in the life of our region and Commonwealth.  Our work in this arena has become a national model, emulated by universities throughout the country.

Institutional excellence extends to other dimensions as well.  Last year, each of our intercollegiate athletic teams made the NCAA tournament….and the overall GPA for our student athletes was just over a 3.0.

It wouldn’t be fall convocation without some mention of our progress related to Prism!  Thanks to the leadership of Tim Ferguson, our Prism team, and the network of users across the campus who have worked tirelessly on system implementation, we’re finally beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.   Gail Wells and I met with the department chairs last week and it resulted in some modifications in approach and timelines.  I expect that this will continue to be the case for awhile but I’m finally beginning to hear people say that this new system is allowing them to do things that they could not do in the past.  All I can say is keep your sense of humor!  We will get through this and, when we do, we’ll have a system in which we can all take pride.

Institutional excellence can also be found in our facilities. This past year, we opened the new Student Union, the Bank of Kentucky Center, the Welcome Center, Callahan Hall and we broke ground for our new College of Informatics building and the new soccer complex. Our recently updated campus master plan contains a commitment to environmental sustainability that, today, can be found throughout our campus.  We intend to have all new facilities LEEDS certified which is another dimension of our commitment to excellence. 

Incidentally, I never realized how important the Bank of Kentucky Center would be to my own cultural awareness.  Before last year, I had never heard of Avenged Sevenfold, Buck Cherry, or Papa Roach and Saving Abel.  Yesterday I learned that Daughtry and Theory of a Deadman will be appearing this fall. Thanks to the Bank of Kentucky Center, I stand before you today as a thoroughly modern man!

Excellence certainly expresses itself in the condition of our campus. Each year, it seems to me that our campus is more beautiful and cared for than the year before.  This year is no exception.  Our physical plant staff and grounds crew have worked hard, often with limited resources, to insure not only a beautiful and well maintained campus but one that contributes to an environment in which learning can take place.  In a sense, a campus is a sanctuary where students should be able to retreat from the world and focus on their education.  Our campus has never been a more pleasant venue for this learning to occur and we have these talented men and women to thank. 

Vice President Ramey has asked me to highlight that we have four new very lifelike coyote decoys around Lock Norse to scare away the geese.  They are not to be moved, handled, or harassed!

I also want to dispel a recent rumor that the new children’s play area, complete with sandbox and located next to the administrative center is for the eighth floor administrators.  In fact, it’s for the Early Childhood Center and will be removed when the BEP roof has been replaced.

Institutional excellence is also expressed in both our capacity and willingness to adjust to fiscal realities in a way that doesn’t stop our progress.  Over the past two years, we’ve lost nearly 10 percent of our state appropriation.  Making matters worse, we were already the most underfunded university in the Commonwealth and we serve the state’s most dynamic region. With leadership from across the campus, we were able to not only manage our reductions but also to again achieve significant reallocation of existing resources in order to invest in our most important priorities.   The result is that we find ourselves in a relatively strong financial position, given the environment that we confront.   Our recurring reserves are nearly $5 million and this year we will receive $3.6 million in federal stimulus money. I need to be clear that these are non-recurring funds so we can’t use them for people.  However, we can use them for such things as renovations to increase office and classroom space, equipment, and other mission related priorities.

There are some small but encouraging signs that the worst of the recession may be over. The stock market has had a strong run recently.  Unemployment rates have begun to level off.  And home builders are beginning to see some evidence of buyers returning to the market.  However, it’s much too early to declare this recession over and, once recovery begins, history tells us that it takes another year or two for state revenues to recover.  Of more immediate concern is the deep state budget deficit with no agreed upon strategy for addressing it.  

Governor Beshear has made clear his commitment to postsecondary education and has pledged to maintain university funding at the current level. If the conditions allow him to make good on this pledge, I do not anticipate the need to make significant new reductions this year. However, it is clear to me that, unless we find a way to balance the state budget, postsecondary education could experience further reductions, resulting in layoffs, increased tuition,  and further reductions in enrollment levels.

Once we have final enrollment numbers, we will consider whether we have the capacity to make additional recurring investments this year.  In the meantime, we will continue to look for ways to be more efficient in our work.  We’ll look at such things as process redesign, reducing administrative infrastructure, outsourcing, and other steps that can create savings without compromising our core mission. 

A particularly bright light in our funding picture has been the success that we’ve had this year in generating private support.  This year was the most successful year in the university’s history.  We raised $26 million, including the recent $6 million gift from the Griffin family for the College of Informatics.   This is the second largest gift in the history of the university, exceeded only by the Haile/US Bank Foundation $15.5 million gift to the College of Business last fall.  A university doesn’t raise money at this level without a strong belief on the part of donors that the university is worth the investment.  These gifts are yet further affirmation that the public views NKU as a major force for progress in the life of this region.  

Focusing on the Fundamentals

The current fiscal environment has required us to refocus our campus priorities.  This past spring we took steps to simplify the unit planning process and we narrowed the focus of our strategic plan to highlight those elements most essential to our mission.  There are three areas that require our attention this year.

First, we need to complete our work to redefine general education and streamline our majors.   We saw great progress this summer on general education as three faculty work groups developed three different but overlapping approaches to our general education structure including learning outcomes, curriculum categories, and assessment measures. Each plan reduces the number of required credits to 37 and each takes a thoughtful approach to organizing the curriculum around what every student should know as part of a modern university education.  Working with the Faculty Senate, we hope to take the general education recommendation to the Board of Regents for approval at their November meeting.  Once approved, we’ll take the remainder of the year to determine which courses will be included under each category.  This work has important implications for our SACS reaffirmation and for our ability to move students through the system to graduation.

Second, we need a campus-wide focus on retention and graduation.  Consider some statistics:  The United States is in the bottom half of a group of 27 industrialized countries in the proportion of people who complete college certificate or degree programs. Within the United States, only one state ranks lower than Kentucky in the percentage of people who complete a bachelor’s degree.  If we want to be players in the world economy – if we want a good quality of life for our citizens – we must do better.  NKU bears some responsibility to make this happen.  Right now, our statistics are not where they need to be.  We can and must do better.

At this point, some of you may be tempted to tune out, thinking that retention and graduation are the responsibility of someone else.  But the reality is that each and every one of us impacts whether a student will graduate from NKU.  Yes, it’s true that the faculty is probably the most central group, but we’re all responsible.  The campus atmosphere and environment – how we treat students who visit our offices and ask for help – how we respond to students who have problems, how we interact with students we pass on campus – all of these makes a difference.  Each one of us can make a difference in whether a student stays to graduation or drops out!

Last year we had two task forces look at the issue of retention and graduation; both produced strong and mutually reinforcing recommendations and we’re currently looking into implementing them.  We need a comprehensive approach to student success that targets human and financial resources at points where they can have maximum impact.   I’ve asked Vice Presidents Wells and Davenport to lead this initiative and you’ll hear much more about this in the coming weeks.   As a start, I’m asking each of the vice presidents to work closely with their division to identify ways they can contribute to increasing our retention and graduation rates.  Our SACS Quality Enhancement Program focus on student engagement in learning which is an essential part of this initiative as well as increasing opportunities for more students to work on campus.

A critical element in our focus on both academic excellence and student success is our goal to build a university characterized by a diverse community of faculty, staff, and students. I’ve asked Professor Willie Elliott to work directly with me as well as across the campus to lead a campus-wide effort to recruit a diverse faculty, staff, and student body and then to do all that we can to insure their success.  

As we move forward into this academic year, all of us need to consider how our actions impact retention and graduation.  The research indicates that there is no magic bullet for increasing graduation rates.  Those campuses which are the most successful have created a campus culture n which every office and program is aligned to support student success and there is a collective commitment to producing graduates.  This initiative is fundamental to our work and I have no doubt that we can make significant progress. 

In addition to our focus on general education and student success, we will continue to build both statewide and regional collaborations on behalf of P-12 education, economic growth, healthcare, and support for non-profit capacity building.  Public engagement is a fundamental element of our core mission and we will focus on those areas that build on our academic strengths, provide an opportunity to involve our students, and allow us to have a significant and measurable impact.  


I would like to close my remarks on a personal note. I grew up in a university community.  My parents weren’t faculty members but our neighbors were almost all academics. They would visit my parents and the conversation would often turn to their excitement over the progress of a particular class or an individual student.  They would describe research breakthroughs and efforts to help improve crop yields in Latin American, education in Detroit, or health care delivery in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  These were faculty members who were passionate about their work and I remember as a young boy hoping that I would one day have that same sense of passion and purpose for my own work.

John Gardner once wrote, “The most powerful moving forces in history are not societies – which are forever decaying – but highly motivated people and their ideas of what is worth living for and striving for.”

This university has become what it is today because it’s comprised of highly motivated people who believe that what this campus represents is worth living for and striving for.  It’s this shared belief that binds us together as a community.  Our challenge, in these days of uncertainty, is to keep our motivation strong and focused and determined, no matter what we may confront. 

Our companion challenge, of course, is to help guide our students to develop within themselves the motivation to pursue ideas that they believe are worth living for and striving for.  At our very best, this is what we do --- and no other institution does it better. 

We begin the year full of hope and full of confidence.  Monday, we’ll welcome over 15,000 students, all of whom will be looking for that spark that propels their life towards ideas worth living for and striving for.  In ways both large and small, each of us has the opportunity to contribute to their journey.  Thank you and best wishes!