GEOFREY S. MEARNS SCRIPT
2012 FALL CONVOCATION
9:30 AM, FRIDAY, AUGUST 17, 2012
Provost Wells, thank you for your kind introduction.
Dr. Pennington, thank you and your students for a great performance. I asked the choir to perform because I thought it is important to have students participate in this celebration. Their music is both beautiful and eloquent.
As I listened to the performance, though, I realized that I should make a change in the order of the program next year. I don't think I should have the choir perform right before I speak. They are one tough act to follow.
Professor Chris Christensen, your presentation was also excellent. Congratulations on receiving the Frank Sinton Milburn Outstanding Professor Award. This honor is well deserved.
Let's give our students and our faculty another round of applause.
It was four months to the day – in fact, almost four months to the minute – when I first appeared at this podium after being appointed your president. On that morning, you gave me and my family an extraordinarily warm reception. To say that day was a special one for us would be an understatement. Simply put, I will never forget it. On behalf of my wife and my children, thank you. Thank you very much.
I also want to express my appreciation to the Board of Regents and to the members of the search committee. I am very grateful for the confidence that you have placed in me. I will honor that trust with my best efforts – and with courage, with honor, and with integrity.
Since the announcement of my appointment, I have received many kind notes and emails and many generous compliments. I appreciate all of your support and encouragement.
Over the past four months, I have also received extraordinary assistance from many people on campus and in the community. You have made the transition so easy for me and my family. Thank you for your help and your hospitality.
There are two principal purposes for this event: to celebrate the achievements of our university, and to talk for a few minutes about our future – the challenges we must tackle together and the opportunities those challenges present.
In preparing these remarks, I received many, many examples of the achievements of our faculty, our staff, and our students. There were far too many to mention this morning, so I had to be selective. The ones I have chosen are not necessarily more significant than the others. All of the suggestions I received were important and deserving of recognition.
Rather, what I want to share with you this morning is a representative sample of these many successes, all of which make us proud.
Let me begin with a few university-wide achievements.
On Monday, classes start for another year. I am pleased and proud to report that this year’s freshman class is the most academically qualified class in our university’s history. This achievement is the result of a deliberate enrollment strategy to recruit outstanding students.
In fall 2010, the average ACT score of the freshman class was 21.4. Last year, the average ACT score was 22. This year, we project that the average ACT score of the freshman class will be 23. This progress is steady and significant. Our retention and graduation rates also continue to rise.
I want to say a word about our excellent student-athletes. As you know, this year we will compete in Division I. But the transition will not dilute our commitment to academic quality. In fact, last spring our student-athletes posted their highest combined GPA in school history, and more than 100 student-athletes were recognized as Great Lakes Valley Conference All-Academic honorees. The women’s cross country team had the highest average GPA – an impressive 3.6.
In addition to recruiting and retaining outstanding students, the university is also committed to the success of our country’s returning veterans. Last year, we had a 41 percent increase in student veterans enrolling at NKU.
As a result of our efforts to support these courageous men and women, NKU was named one of the “most vet-friendly campuses” by GI Magazine. Only 15 percent of the country’s colleges and universities earned this distinction.
This spring, NKU was also named one of America’s most disability-friendly colleges in a new book, College Success for Students with Physical Disabilities. The guide provides disabled students with the confidence, strategies, and guidance they need to choose a college, prepare for university life, and make the most of the collegiate experience.
Success in the classroom is only one aspect of academic excellence. We can also be proud of the university’s commitment to rigorous, professional-level research and creative activity. Last year, more than 575 students collaborated with faculty on research or creative projects that produced posters, presentations, publications, performances, analyses, and organizational studies.
We should also be proud of the many accomplishments of our colleges. Here are just a few examples.
Let’s begin with our College of Informatics. The college has been working with the Kentucky Department of Education and the Southern Regional Education Board to create a four-course informatics curriculum for high schools. In June, the college hosted a two-week professional development workshop for teachers from high schools in six Kentucky districts.
Through the Center for Applied Informatics’ mobile/web academy, NKU students have completed more than 32,000 hours of applied research and development for businesses and nonprofit organizations from California to Switzerland. Universities such as Notre Dame, Bellarmine, UK and UC have come here to study the "virtual co-op" model used by the center. The work done by the center on its pioneering fire department mobile application continues to receive awards, including the Fire Service Global Award for Excellence.
Haile/U.S. Bank College of Business
This fall, the Haile/U.S. Bank College of Business will start a new MBA program that promises to change the nature of business education in the region. Using an integrated approach to teaching and learning, the program is a model of innovation and excellence in this competitive MBA market.
The college of business also recently obtained reaffirmation of its AACSB accreditation. Less than 10 percent of business colleges are accredited by AACSB.
College of Health Professions
In the College of Health Professions, the Nurse Advocacy Center for the Underserved just received the 2012 Award of Excellence in Public Health by the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department. The center received this award because of its efforts to provide flu and hepatitis B vaccinations to the homeless and because of its efforts to reduce unnecessary visits to local emergency rooms.
In response to the reported deficit in caregivers for veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, NKU’s Department of Advanced Nursing Studies has just added a family psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner concentration. Our veterans deserve the best care, and our faculty and students are going to provide it.
College of Education and Human Services
In the College of Education and Human Services, two teams of education students were winners in both the graduate and undergraduate divisions in the international leadership association’s 2011 student case competition. The competition pits students attending an annual global conference against one another. Teams analyze real-world cases involving contemporary leadership issues and develop a strategy that best addresses those issues.
The college has also received preliminary notice that it will receive funding for the 11th year for the special education traineeship program. This program provides $1 million annually to prepare Kentucky special-education teachers. It has made a significant and lasting impact on the lives of special-needs students throughout the commonwealth. We are pleased and proud to be able to continue this important program.
College of Arts and Sciences
The College of Arts and Sciences teaches the majority of our students, and the faculty in the college continue to be engaged in significant research and creative activity.
The college also continues to have an increasing impact on the external community. This past year, the college faculty reached nearly 57,000 P-12 students, more than 5,000 P-12 teachers, and 43,000 community members through academic summer camps, presentations in local schools, and bringing K-12 students to campus.
The college also continues to pursue innovation. During the past two years, a committee of four faculty and one staff member worked to develop and refine an online tutorial to assist students in strengthening fundamental technological skills that will help them to be more successful in face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online classes. Initial indications are that this tutorial has been a helpful tool for new students.
Last, but certainly not least, two points of pride from the Chase College of Law.
In 2011, Chase’s moot court program was ranked 15th in the nation out of more than 100 law schools in a ranking of the best legal advocacy programs in the country. This spring, Chase students finished as national runners-up in two moot court competitions. In the past five years, Chase competition teams have been national champions six times, national runners-up eight times, and regional champions six times.
In a partnership that is the first of its kind in the nation, Chase College of Law and the College of Informatics established the NKU Chase Law & Informatics Institute. The institute explores key issues facing business and develops original research in the regulation and use of information. This institute is another example of NKU’s progressive approach to interdisciplinary collaboration.
The scope of our academic programs continues to grow. Last year, the university created four new programs. Two of the new programs are fully online degree programs: the Doctor of Nursing Practice and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Clearly, NKU’s reputation for educational excellence continues to grow. And the campus environment is keeping pace. With the continued hard work of our facilities crew, the campus will continue to blossom.
For all of these reasons, including the many I didn’t have time to mention, Forbes magazine just announced that NKU was selected for its Best Colleges list. This is the fourth consecutive year that NKU has been recognized. This is something we should all be proud of.
Many, many people have contributed to these achievements. Some of these people are here today. Let’s recognize the collective efforts of our colleagues and friends with a round of applause.
Now, there is one person who also deserves some credit for these achievements, but he is not with us this morning – and that’s my predecessor, President Votruba. Through 15 years of service to our university and our community, he led the transformation of this institution. Through vision and dedication, President Votruba also laid the foundation for our future successes.
On a personal note, I am fortunate to call him my mentor and my friend – a source of guidance and inspiration.
Please join me in showing our gratitude to President Votruba with a round of applause.
As a result of President Votruba’s leadership and the concerted efforts of our faculty and staff, our university is poised for even greater success over the next few years. But we cannot be complacent; we cannot assume that our winning streak will continue. To the contrary, we know that there are genuine and substantial challenges that lie ahead – for our university and for higher education as a whole.
Over this past summer, I came across a lengthy study by a faculty committee at another university. The committee was charged by that university’s president with two major tasks: first, identifying the challenges confronting higher education in America; and, second, developing recommendations for curricular reforms that would enable this university and others to meet these challenges.
The committee identified three major factors that threatened the status quo in higher education. The first factor is “the staggering expansion of knowledge produced largely by specialization.”
The second factor cited by this committee is “the concurrent and hardly less staggering growth of our educational system with its maze of stages, functions, and kinds of institutions.” The committee recognized that this expansive growth was needed to make college accessible to more people in our country, particularly those who had not previously been able to attend college.
The third factor is “the ever-growing complexity of society itself.” This complexity was the product of technological advances and the increasing internationalization of business and culture.
The committee recognized that colleges and universities were responsible for two objectives that were in tension with each other. On one hand, higher education is responsible for preparing men and women for a specific career. Yet, on the other hand, colleges and universities must educate these same students to be informed, well-rounded citizens in our democratic society.
These factors and this challenge sound quite familiar to all of us. But this study was not conducted in the last year or two. In fact, this study wasn’t conducted during this century. The committee’s report was published as a book in 1945!
So, why do I bring it up now? I do so because it’s reassuring to me. Sometimes, we have a tendency to think that no one has ever faced the problems we have. But this study demonstrates that the basic challenge is not really new. Reading this report was a very good reminder that higher education has faced similar challenges in the past – and that these challenges can be overcome with thoughtful planning – and with dedication and determination.
I recognize, though, that the challenges we face at NKU in 2012 are more acute. And I know that we have a much smaller margin for error than they had at Harvard in 1945.
For example, we are very dependent on state funding. That level of funding has decreased over the last few years, even though our growth in students and academic programs justifies more financial support. We must accept the fact that this situation is not likely to improve in the near future.
Moreover, we must be concerned that our students and their parents may not continue to have ready access to federal financial aid, including Pell grants and subsidized student loans. If these risks were to materialize, our university’s budget would likely have to absorb additional stress.
At the same time as these external forces constrain our university’s capacity to support our students’ success, parents – and the public at large – are becoming increasingly focused on outcomes, such as retention and graduation rates. I think this increased attention is appropriate. But this focus on accountability and outcomes raises the stakes for all of us. All of these pressures have substantially increased the competition among colleges and universities for new students. Our friends at the University of Cincinnati and at Xavier have increased their efforts to recruit students from the high schools and from the communities from which we have historically drawn our students. And we can’t complain, because we have ventured across the Ohio River to entice students to come to NKU.
This competitive threat is compounded by the increasingly aggressive recruiting tactics of the for-profit online institutions. But, instead of wringing our hands, we will develop more effective enrollment recruiting strategies throughout our region and beyond. We won’t waste time complaining – we will focus on competing.
More fundamentally, we must find an answer to this critical question: what are the distinctive attributes of our traditional, place-based university? We must identify those attributes. We must develop and implement a strategic plan to enhance those attributes. And we must communicate those distinctive attributes to prospective students and to their parents, to elected officials, and to community leaders.
I have a confession to make, though. At this point in my tenure, I don’t have the specific answer to that central question, and I don’t yet have the details of a strategic plan to exploit our university’s distinctive competitive advantages.
With the support and encouragement of the Board of Regents, I will spend the next few months continuing to learn about the university. I have already met with the vice presidents and the academic deans. I have also begun to meet with and speak with external constituents. In the next two or three months, I will circulate a survey to all members of the university community – both internal and external constituents. The survey will contain a small number of open-ended questions, and I will ask that you send your responses directly to me.
Then, over the next two months, I will meet with faculty in each of the colleges, and I will have several open forums for staff and students. I will also visit with alumni, donors, elected officials, business leaders and community members. The purpose of the survey and these meetings will be to get your advice and input on how we can strengthen our university by identifying those aspects of NKU that are distinctive. When I have gathered this information and guidance, I will then be prepared to propose a process by which we can develop a focused, effective strategic plan.
While I continue my transition, the university will not stand still. To the contrary, while I am listening and learning, we’ll continue to implement the university’s current strategic plan – which is a very good one. We’ll also continue to execute the individual college and department plans.
I do have some preliminary thoughts on our future strategic plan. As we develop our next plan, we must foster an institutional culture that is innovative, creative, responsive, and nimble. At the same time, we must maintain certain institutional values that make this university an attractive place to study and work. We must preserve a community characterized by collegial relationships and shared governance responsibility. We must encourage and reward excellence in everything we do. And most importantly, our paramount institutional goal must be student success.
For me, "student success" means enrolling qualified students, retaining and graduating those students at high rates, and preparing those students to obtain meaningful employment as well as preparing them for a rewarding, fulfilled life. This paramount goal is everyone’s professional responsibility. And it is our moral obligation.
Reasons for Optimism
The challenge – improving undergraduate retention and graduation rates – is a complex and difficult one. To succeed, we must be determined and dedicated - persistent and patient. I am excited by this challenge and the others we will face together. I am also optimistic that we will succeed.
This institution has a history of success. In fewer than 45 years, you have transformed a fledgling community college into a dynamic, comprehensive, metropolitan university. That transformation was not easy, and no single person is responsible for it. This tradition of overcoming challenges with vision and hard work is a legacy that we are fortunate to inherit.
I am also optimistic about our future, because this metropolitan region has come to appreciate the importance of this institution. Everywhere I go in this area, people tell me that NKU is a community asset that has a disproportionate, positive impact on the economy and the culture. I believe these people – our graduates and our friends – will continue to support our institutional ambitions. I even sense that our friends in Frankfort recognize that supporting higher education is not a cost, but rather an investment – an investment in people – an investment that yields prosperity and good health.
Most importantly, I am optimistic because of the quality and character of the people this university attracts and retains. As I have said before, our students are special – they come here with desire and determination, not a sense of entitlement. Our faculty and staff recognize that special character, and they reciprocate with their commitment to put the interests of our students and our university before their own self-interests. I admire you for that quality.
As I continue to meet with people, and as I walk across campus, I also sense genuine enthusiasm and positive energy. I regularly hear people tell me that they are confident that our university’s best days are still ahead of us. I share their confidence. I share their faith.
Unfortunately, four weeks ago we lost one of our colleagues – a woman who personified that optimism, that faith. On July 11, Professor Heather Bullen passed away. She was only 35 years old.
Heather was not necessarily atypical for NKU. Many other faculty and staff have a similar passion for education. But Heather was very special.
In her short time on our faculty, Heather established an extraordinary record as a teacher and as a scholar. In particular, she relished every opportunity to involve her students in her research. Heather was adored by her students and admired by her faculty colleagues. I regret that I never got a change to get to know her.
So, as we embark on this new academic year – as we embrace the challenges ahead of us – I ask that we all draw upon Heather’s memory as a source of inspiration. Let us face our future with her excitement and optimism. Let her life and her spirit remind us of the rewards of teaching – and the great joy in continuing the search for knowledge, for understanding, and for truth. Let her memory also remind us that life is a gift – a precious gift that is meant to be shared in service to others.
Thank you all for joining me this morning. I hope that you have a good day and a great year.