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9:30 AM, FRIDAY, AUGUST 20, 2010

I want to once again welcome everyone to this fall convocation and the beginning of the 2010 academic year. Earlier this week, Gail and I met former president Leon Boothe coming out of the library. He stopped, looked us in the eye and said, “I pray for you both every day.” Now what kind of beginning is that!

This summer found me interacting with dozens of university presidents from campuses both large and small located throughout the nation. What’s clear from these conversations is that American higher education has entered a new era; one that offers great opportunity for those willing to adapt, and significant risk for those who persist as though nothing has changed.

American higher education, like banking, healthcare and auto manufacturing, has many of the qualities of a mature industry. As with most mature industries, the majority of our universities are organized the same way, go about their work in the same way, reflect the same culture and core values, share a similar world view, and hold a deep sense of pride (some might call it hubris) in our belief that American higher education is unrivaled in the world.

No one would argue that there isn’t great benefit to be found in maturity. With it come stability, strength, resilience, understanding, patience and a perspective on the world and our place within it.

However, particularly in times of transition and change, maturity can be limiting. It can cause us to think and behave in conventional ways and to become so locked into our view of ourselves and the world that we fail to see the changes that are occurring around us. It can also cause us to lose touch with those whom we serve.

Defining the New Era

Several characteristics of this new era are worth noting because of their impact on our work.

First, reduced public funding is here to stay. Kentucky joins nearly every other state in confronting a deep structural deficit that is not likely to improve for many years. In these challenging times, Frankfort has spared higher education from the kind of deep cuts experienced in other state agencies and in other states, but we need to be prepared for further reductions should they occur.

Second, at the same time that state budgets are being cut, there is increasing public pressure to serve more students. The Obama administration has set a goal for the United States to once again be first in the world in the percentage of its citizens with a college degree. We currently rank 12th. To achieve this goal will require more students and more degrees conferred, even as budgets continue to be reduced.

Third, this new era involves much greater public accountability, particularly around student retention and graduation rates. Today, too many students who start college fail to graduate. State and federal officials are focused on this issue, and their concern is not going to go away.

Fourth, technology is expanding student access and changing the fundamentals of both how we go about the teaching-learning process as well as how we administer the university. Today’s students come to college from a world in which technology allows them to learn anything, anytime, anyplace. This reality has fundamental implications for how we design and deliver our academic programs as well as how we gather, share and use knowledge. George Mehaffy refers to “networked knowledge” as one of the new realities in our world.

Fifth, this new era is one of enormous change in student demographics and enrollment patterns. Not only are we serving more first-generation college students and students of color, but we are also seeing more complex enrollment patterns as students balance their studies with a broad range of other adult responsibilities including work and childcare. This is particularly true of a university like ours.

To underscore how dramatic the change has been in national enrollment patterns, today, only 50 percent of college graduates begin and complete their degree at the same institution.

Finally, this new era includes growing public expectations for higher education’s role in advancing public progress. Today, more than ever before, universities are being asked to be full partners in addressing the challenges that confront states and their communities.

In summary, this new era involves fewer resources to serve more students, greater student diversity, greater accountability, greater use of technology to support every aspect of our work, and a growing public expectation that we will be full partners in advancing the public agenda.

Where We Stand

The good news is that NKU is well positioned for this new era. In fact, we have been “ahead of the game” in responding to the forces that will shape our future.

Two years ago, when many other universities were avoiding difficult financial decisions through dependence on stimulus funding, NKU chose a different course. Based on our belief that the state budget picture would not improve for the foreseeable future, we chose to not depend on stimulus funding but rather to make the necessary permanent reductions. The result is that we’ve been able to avoid such things as hiring freezes, massive position reductions, travel limitations and furlough days. It is clear that we will need to make adjustments in response to this new era, but we find ourselves able do so in a thoughtful and deliberate manner rather than in crisis mode.

NKU’s academic reputation has never been stronger. Last week, the university was again listed by Forbes magazine as one of America’s best colleges, and we’ve become the first choice for some of the region’s most academically talented students.

Fall enrollment is again very strong. We anticipate overall enrollment growth in the 2 percent range, with growth occurring where we have capacity. We’ve kept first-time freshman enrollments relatively flat while we expect to see a significant increase in continuing student enrollments, which is a good early sign that our retention efforts are succeeding.

Transfer student enrollment is projected to be up 8 percent, and graduate enrollment is up 5 percent while enrollment in Chase is projected to be flat.

Last fall, our average ACT score for incoming students was 21.3, with only Murray State University significantly higher at 22.5 among Kentucky’s comprehensive universities.

Students of color continue to increase. This fall we will see a 25 percent increase in new African-American students and a 53 percent increase in new Hispanic students. We anticipate international student enrollment to increase by about 20 percent this year. These students represent more than 60 nations and bring an important global perspective to our campus.

At a time when our national leaders are calling for increases in degree production, NKU’s record is impressive. Last year, the university graduated more than 2,500 students, an increase of nearly 12 percent over the previous year. Over the past 10 years, NKU has increased degree production by 71 percent, nearly twice the average percentage increase of the other Kentucky public universities.

Online enrollment increased by 26.7 percent last year, and we expect a further increase over the next two years as we invest nearly $1 million in the development of new online programs. Online education is quickly evolving from a cottage industry to a fully integrated element of our teaching-learning process, and this bodes well for our future.

In spite of budget reductions last year, we invested in three new graduate programs in response to regional demand – the Doctor of Nursing Practice, the Master of Social Work and the Master of Science in Acute Care Nursing. This next spring, we’ll graduate our first doctoral students in educational leadership.

This past year, the university took significant steps to further improve the quality of our undergraduate experience and strengthen the capacity of our students to understand and navigate our academic environment.

Chief among these accomplishments was the creation of our new general education curriculum, Foundations of Knowledge. In my experience, there is nothing more difficult for a campus than to make major changes in its general education requirements. Efforts to change general education inevitably stimulate strong intellectual debate coupled with issues of departmental self-interest. This is true on every campus, and it’s why so few campuses succeed.

Our new general education program is easier to understand and navigate while continuing to provide students with the intellectual breadth that is so essential for a strong liberal arts education. Our new program is aligned with the American Association of Colleges and Universities recommended best practice, and it strengthens significantly the quality of education that our students receive.

A companion achievement last year was our SACS reaffirmation. As part of the process, we instituted new approaches to planning and assessment as well as an innovative Quality Enhancement Plan focused on active student engagement in learning.

If we add to general education reform, the SACS reaffirmation process, unit planning, and the implementation of our third SAP module, it’s no wonder that our campus may feel what one person recently described as major process fatigue. In all honesty, I feel a bit of process fatigue myself! However, the result of these initiatives is a stronger campus, better able to support our core educational mission.

I mentioned earlier that an important dimension of this new era is the application of the university’s knowledge to advance public progress.

One example serves to illustrate the power of our public engagement work to impact lives. Professor Kirsten Fleming and her colleagues have made the Kentucky Center for Mathematics one of the most outstanding examples of public engagement to be found anywhere in the nation. Funded by the state and working in more than 100 of Kentucky’s 120 counties, the KCM is achieving significant and measurable improvements in elementary math scores that are so critical to a student’s subsequent school achievement. Their work is drawing attention in Frankfort and around the country.

At the same time, we are working with area school districts to enhance college readiness by testing students at the end of their junior year and designing remediation programs for those who need them prior to transitioning to work or college. We continue to support Strive, one of the most ambitious urban school reform initiatives in the nation, and we are playing a key leadership role in the work of Vision 2015 and the Northern Kentucky Education Council.

Why am I highlighting our P-12 initiatives? Because there is no single factor more critical to the future of our nation, our state or our region than the quality of our schools. NKU serves both a public interest and our own self-interest by being fully engaged in supporting quality across the full educational spectrum. Even in these challenging times, we will not diminish our commitment to partnership with our P-12 colleagues.

Public engagement has become a defining quality of our university and, in this spirit, we are honored to have our public engagement work and the leadership of Vice President and Provost Gail Wells recognized by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Dr. George Mehaffy is one of the nation’s leading thinkers on the future of American higher education, and, George, we are so pleased to have you with us today.

While we have lost a significant amount of our state budget in recent years, our support from other sources continues to increase. Last year, we received nearly $3 million in congressionally directed appropriations, primarily for the College of Informatics.

Last year, new academic grant awards were up nearly 22 percent to 131 awards valued at $11.8 million. This reflects the cutting-edge research and scholarship in which our faculty members are engaged.

And, even in the midst of a serious and prolonged recession, our private gift commitments were on goal at nearly $6 million.

Turning to facilities, the construction of Griffin Hall, the new home of the College of Informatics, is on time and under budget. Occupancy will occur in fall 2011, freeing up significant space for other academic needs. Griffin Hall is our first LEED-certified facility and reflects our commitment to both energy efficiency and environmental sustainability.

The new Highland Heights-funded soccer complex is now complete. Both men’s and women’s teams will compete there this fall along with campus recreation. Speaking of athletics, our intercollegiate athletics program once again won the GLVC All-Sports Trophy and the Commissioner’s Cup.

Our residence halls have newly painted and renovated exteriors that look terrific. The residence halls are packed to overflowing this fall, suggesting that it may be time to again expand our on-campus residence capacity.

As we look to next year, our number one facilities priority will be to secure new space for the College of Health Professions, which is also the CPE’s top capital priority.

In spite of budget reductions, our campus physical plant staff continues to make significant progress on campus beautification and facilities improvements. Doesn’t the campus look great?

Looking to the Future

In short, the state of the university is strong, and we’re well positioned for what continue to be challenging and uncertain times. Now let’s turn to where our focus needs to be during the coming year.

First, we will work to further focus our core mission in a way that we don’t attempt to be all things to all people. At the very heart of our mission are our students and their education. Every academic program and every administrative function must be understood with reference to their contribution to this core mission. Continuing to enhance the student experience must be the touchstone for all that we do.

With the help of outside consultants, we’ll focus on developing a deeper understanding of how students experience our campus from their first contact with admissions to their graduation day. As students move through the system, we need to know where we are doing well and where we can improve. This is not an effort to evaluate discrete units but rather the campus system as a whole. Where does it work well, and where could it work even more effectively and efficiently? In that spirit, as the campus grows ever more diverse, we’ll analyze how students representing traditionally underserved populations are served and supported. This process has already begun with a campus climate survey administered last spring.

Today, too many students who enroll in NKU fail to graduate. We’ve developed important new initiatives like U-CAP, our Gateway partnership and our participation in the Foundations of Excellence program. We’ve generated more than $3 million to support the recruitment and retention of STEM students. Still, more needs to be done. At our university, student success must be everyone’s responsibility.

Second, we’ll analyze both the quality and efficiency of key administrative structures and processes. Do we have unnecessary duplication? Can we streamline business processes? Are we taking full advantage of our new SAP system? We need to do all that we can to ensure that our human and financial resources are focused as much as possible on our core mission to educate students.

Third, we’ll focus on ways to enhance student credit hour productivity without compromising academic quality. Working with our deans and chairs, we’ll develop SCH targets on a per-FTE faculty basis. This conversation is going on across American higher education, but it takes on particular significance for NKU because of our 70 percent dependence on tuition. Our deans and chairs have already begun this initiative, and I applaud their leadership.

The deans and chairs have said, Give us targets and let us manage their achievement. In other words, don’t micromanage from the eighth floor. That message has been heard. We’ll leave it to the chairs and deans, subject to agreed-upon parameters, to distribute faculty workload in a way that achieves SCH targets while also recognizing that workload must be distributed differentially so that the full breadth of the mission can be served.

We’ll also analyze our current pricing structure to determine what options we have for increasing revenue without impacting either affordability or access. Until quite recently, NKU was very aggressive with both tuition and need-based financial aid. The result was unprecedented progress in both the quality and number of our academic programs as well as our support for students. A recent CPE analysis of tuition sticker price versus actual net price shows that attending a Kentucky public university remains financially affordable for nearly everyone when considering the availability of federal, state and institutional aid, exclusive of loans. This is true for those in each income quartile, not just for those who qualify for need-based aid.

Our priorities for investment are simple and straightforward. We’ll invest in academic programs and student support services that can demonstrate strong public demand and significant student impact. We’ll also invest in our people. Universities are people-intensive enterprises. In order to recognize the performance of our faculty and staff as well as assure our capacity to recruit and retain the best, we’ll do all that we can to ensure that salary increases are resumed this year.

In this new era, our capacity to invest in our university will occur in two ways. First, it will depend on new revenue from tuition and other revenue sources that we control. Second, it will occur through internal reallocation to those priorities most important to our future. This means that we’ll have to ask ourselves this fundamental question: Is everything in which we now invest more important than the areas in which we need to invest?

Earlier this summer, the Board of Regents and I discussed the forces that are shaping our future and how the university will need to adapt. Their thoughts and mine can be summarized as follows:

  • Focus our mission with a special emphasis on our students and the quality of their academic experience.

  • Take further steps to improve retention and graduation rates.

  • Focus our resources on those programs and services that are most central to supporting academic excellence and student success.

  • Concentrate our public engagement in areas where we can have a significant impact.

  • Invest in our people.

If we do these things, we will be well positioned for the future, and we’ll have the capacity to invest in our campus, even when state support is declining.


When I arrived as president 13 years ago, I remember standing here on this very stage and saying to you: Our choice is a simple one. We can either wait for others to take care of us, or we can take care of ourselves and determine our own future. We responded by taking charge of our future, and we never looked back. The results can be seen all around us.

I once heard a boat captain say that, when the gale winds blow and the seas are rough, it’s no time to cut your engines. In 13 years, I’ve never seen our university cut its engines. It’s not in our DNA. Attitude matters, sometimes even more than resources. We are an institution of builders. I see it in every corner of our campus. We spend more time focused on our future than on our past.

The new era in which we find ourselves will require us to challenge convention, raise difficult questions and think anew about how we go about our work. It will also require us to be steadfast in our commitment to our university vision, our core values and our most important institutional priorities.

In closing, please permit me a personal note. On August 1, I became the university’s longest-serving president. Over the past 13 years, there has not been a single day when I wasn’t reminded of the enormous impact that this university has on our students, our region and the commonwealth. It has been a great privilege for me to share this journey with all of you and to see, in both our values and our work, the best that the academy has to offer.

I was recently speaking with a returning student and asked him how his NKU experience was going. He responded emphatically, “Dr. Votruba, it’s awesome!” Actually, he included a colorful adjective that I won’t repeat, but you get his point. My hope for each of you and for our nearly 16,000 students is that you have an absolutely awesome year. I hope you feel as I do, that there’s no more important work that we could be doing and no better place to be doing it.

Best wishes to you all!