GEOFREY S. MEARNS SCRIPT
2015 FALL CONVOCATION
9 AM, FRIDAY, AUGUST 14, 2015
GREAVES CONCERT HALL
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
It is a pleasure to be with you today, and it is my privilege to serve as the president of Northern Kentucky University. As I begin my fourth year, I am proud of what we have accomplished together, and I am even more excited – even more optimistic – about our future.
Thank you, Sue, for your kind introduction. And thank you for your work on behalf of our students and our faculty.
Professor Steele and Professor Strawn – thank you for that wonderful performance. Ladies and gentlemen, this performance is representative of the quality of the students, faculty, and staff within our School of the Arts. This new school is quickly developing a distinctive mission: to prepare our students to be professionals in their art, and to prepare our students to use art in their profession. I look forward to many more great performances and achievements from our arts programs in the coming years.
Let’s give Josh and Jamey another round of applause.
Cecile, thank you for your presentation. As our 2015 Frank Sinton Milburn Outstanding Professor, you join an elite group of faculty who have changed the lives of countless students. I ask all of our previous Milburn Award winners who are with us this morning to please stand. Thank you all for your service to our University and for inspiring so many of our students to achieve their dreams.
Let's give Cecile and our other Milburn Award winners another round of applause.
I would like to introduce our newest regents:
I look forward to working with each of you.
I am grateful to all of our Regents for their continued support of our students and for their service to our University.
To our staff, faculty, and students – to all of you – thank you for joining us this morning.
I am grateful for your continuing commitment to our University.
Since my appointment, I have had an opportunity to speak on several occasions, including my introduction as president here in Greaves Hall and my installation ceremony at what we now call the BB&T Arena. On a few of these occasions, I have spoken about the personal pledges I make to you and to our University community.
I have pledged to honor the transformative power of education, and I have pledged to cherish the fundamental, human value of education.
As an academic administrator, though, I have a tendency to become preoccupied with numbers and performance metrics. Numbers are important, and I will talk today about how we are performing on some key metrics.
But you will also hear about our people. Behind each statistic is a person – a student, a faculty member, or a staff member – or a graduate who came here with a very personal aspiration and found her spark.
Let me give you one example of a person who is affected – who has been truly transformed –by our work. Let me tell you about Katherine Ruckle.
Katherine’s path has not been an easy one. When she arrived on campus three years ago, Katherine was homeless. At New Student Orientation, our staff in Student Support Services helped Katherine register for classes, they helped her submit financial aid documents, and they made sure she was ready to begin her college career.
Katherine soon became an art history major, and she fell in love with the work of Atremisia Gentileschi. Gentileschi is a renowned Italian Baroque painter who defied the gender stereotypes of her day. Virtually all of her paintings are of women subjects.
Katherine had a dream. Even though her meals often consisted of ramen noodles or popcorn, she decided that, if she was truly going to appreciate and understand Gentileschi’s art, she needed to see her art in person.
So Katherine worked hard – at her three jobs. And she saved her money. As a result of her dedication – and as a result of the support and inspiration of our faculty and staff – Katherine was able to travel to Italy to study art in person.
Now, Katherine has her own home. She is a peer mentor and a social media manager for Student Support Services. She’s also president of the office’s student ambassador program. And her cumulative grade point average now stands at 3.9.
Katherine could not be with us this morning, because she is spending the last precious days of her summer in New York City enjoying the art collection at the Metropolitan Museum.
Katherine is a great example of the transformative power of education and the human value of education – the personal pledges I mentioned a moment ago. But more important than my personal pledges are the commitments that we collectively make to our students.
In a tangible way, those commitments are articulated in the strategic plan we developed nearly two years ago. Those commitments are reflected in our mission statement, and our aspirations are articulated in the five goals that we have defined.
Our progress towards those goals can be measured. Our progress is also readily apparent in the ongoing expansion and physical transformation of our campus.
But as I said last year when we gathered here for the Fall Convocation, there is something special happening at our University that you cannot measure and that you cannot touch. Rather, there is something special that you can feel – that you can feel in your heart. It is the spirit of this special place.
Let me give you an example.
Last week, a young man reluctantly – very reluctantly – attended one of our orientation sessions for new students. I say “reluctantly,” because he really was not interested in going to college – here or anywhere else. So when his orientation day arrived, this young man – completely out of character – dressed in sweat pants and a hooded sweatshirt – and he pulled the hood over his head. He did not want to be here.
This young man was accompanied that morning by his mother. After the students and parents were separated, she began receiving regular text messages from her son. He told her, “This is a mistake. I’m not happy. College just isn’t for me.”
But this woman decided not to respond to her son’s text messages. She held out hope that the situation would maybe work itself out. As the separate morning sessions continued, her son’s texts became less frequent. And when lunch time arrived, the young man asked his mother for the keys to the car, and he drove home.
A little while later, though, the young man returned to campus, now dressed in much nicer clothes. During the afternoon session, he began sending more text messages to his mother. But the tone and substance of those messages were quite different now. His attitude about college was changing. He was having fun. And he was excited to begin classes at our University.
You see, everything we do – from the way we treat one another to the condition of our campus to what we say about this University at the grocery store or on social media – everything we do affects the way people feel.
Creating that emotion – that spirit – is completely in our own hands.
We can nurture that spirit by fulfilling three promises that we have made to our students and to ourselves.
We promise is to put our students first.
This promise is not new. Indeed, when I arrived here, I was immediately impressed by the strong commitment we have to putting students first. For so many of you, it is why you are here – because our University is truly student-centered.
Each Fall, we welcome a new class of freshmen. They come from across the region, the Commonwealth, and around the world for a life-changing experience.
You ease their anxieties with every friendly encounter – with every piece of advice or word of encouragement. As we have seen time and time again, we have the power to change hopeless texts into hopeful hearts in a single morning.
We are working to make it easier than ever for students from all backgrounds to attend and succeed here. In recent years, we have implemented many new strategies to attract and recruit more students to our University. And our efforts are paying off.
Freshmen applications for this Fall increased by 18 percent compared to last year. Over the last four years, applications have increased by 36 percent. I anticipate new freshman enrollment this year to increase by two percent compared to last year.
And the quality of our new students continues to grow. This year’s incoming class will once again be the most academically qualified class in our history. A decade ago, when we implemented admissions standards for the first time, the median ACT score of the incoming class was 20.7. This Fall, it will be 24, up considerably from last year’s median of 23.1.
I am also pleased to report that we are expanding our recruiting reach. Last Fall, we visited high schools across Kentucky on our Road to NKU. We traveled 3,000 miles from Pikeville to Paducah – from Ashland to Owensboro. I personally met with more than 3,000 Kentucky high school students, introducing them to our University in a whole new way.
Applications from the schools we visited increased 43 percent compared to 2014, and admissions from these schools has increased by 22 percent. I am looking forward to traveling the state again beginning next month, and we will be adding a number of more schools from across our region this year.
There are a number of other initiatives that will enable us to continue to improve our enrollment.
Next Summer, we will welcome the Governor’s Scholars Program back to our campus for the first time since 2003. This six-week summer residential program will bring outstanding high school students from across Kentucky to our campus before they enter their senior year.
It is an honor to be selected as a host institution once again for this important program. It is a testament to the work all of you are doing. It is also a wonderful opportunity to show many of the best and brightest in the Commonwealth what our University and this region have to offer.
I am sure our Governor’s Scholars will enjoy the Campus Recreation Center. This renovated and expanded facility will feature more weight training and cardio fitness space, six basketball courts, an indoor soccer facility, and a running track. There is also a new aquatic center with eight 25-meter competition lanes, a dive well, and a shallow-water area. There is a bouldering wall, enhanced locker rooms, and several study and collaboration spaces. This facility will soon be an exceptional campus destination for our students, our faculty, our staff, and our alumni.
Over the next few years, the Governor’s Scholars will also get to watch the construction of our new health innovation center.
This new academic facility, which will include the complete renovation of Founders Hall, will help us to meet the growing need for qualified health care workers. A study conducted by our Center for Economic Analysis and Development recently concluded that our region will need more than 50,000 new qualified health care workers by 2020.
This extraordinary demand for new talent comes at a time when, each year, we are turning away more than 300 qualified applicants to our nursing and allied-health programs primarily due to a lack of space. Our health innovation center will allow us to grow our current programs and add new ones that will help meet the needs of our region, the Commonwealth, and the nation.
Another important strategy to recruit students who will succeed at our University is our expanding partnership with Gateway Community and Technical College. Together, we have designed more than 40 degree pathways that begin with enrollment at Gateway and culminate with a bachelor’s degree from our University. These pathway programs allow us to tailor academic advising and support to our students’ educational and career goals.
Jasper Bichler is a remarkable young man who has taken advantage of this program – a program that puts students first. Jasper graduated from Ryle High School last Spring. While at Ryle, Jasper participated in the Gateway Regional Academy, and he earned his associate of science degree while still in high school.
Because of his hard work, Jasper will begin here on Monday in our College of Informatics – as a junior. And he plans to earn his bachelor’s degree in computer science – in just three semesters.
There are many students like Jasper in high schools throughout our region. That is why, in the last few years, we have enhanced our School-Based Scholars program.
This Fall, more than 1,000 of Northern Kentucky’s best and brightest high school students will take nearly 1,500 NKU classes while still in high school. We have agreements with 26 schools in Northern Kentucky to provide classes to their students.
We are also developing programs to enhance our undergraduate and graduate enrollment.
For example, this Fall, Chase law school will launch two innovative programs. The first is a 3+3 program that allows our high-performing undergraduate students to earn both a bachelor’s degree and a law degree in just six years. Students who participate in this program will save tuition, and they will be able to begin their legal careers a year sooner.
This Fall, Chase will also enroll its first students in a new Master of Legal Studies program. The MLS degree does not enable a graduate to sit for the bar and practice law. Rather, the MLS degree is designed for working professionals in industries that require a thorough understanding of the American legal system, such as human resources, health care administration, or finance. It is another example of our responsive, innovative academic culture.
Our PACE Program is another good example of how we put our students first. PACE continues to offer adult learners a structured, yet flexible pathway to earn a college degree while balancing the responsibilities of work, family, and community. We will have approximately 340 students enrolled in PACE this Fall.
Shannon Lackey is one of those students. After starting a family, Shannon returned to school in 2012 at Cincinnati State. Shannon is the mother of five children, between the ages of 19 and 6. As a father of five children myself, I understand just how challenging that can be.
Shannon earned her associate’s degree at Cincinnati State, summa cum laude, and then she earned the Outstanding Women of Northern Kentucky Scholarship for non-traditional students. It was the fourth consecutive year one of our PACE student has received the scholarship.
Here is what Shannon said about her experience: “The PACE staff is phenomenal and the instructors are all willing to answer questions. I find that there is a lot of support. The staff wants to help students succeed.”
Her goals are to graduate, to pass the CPA exam, and to become an accountant. With her dedication and determination – and with the support of our devoted faculty and staff – I know Shannon will succeed.
We also put our students first by creating a campus culture that embraces diversity, equity, and inclusiveness. Leo Calderon, Bonnie Meyer, Dannie Moore, Kathleen Roberts, Tracy Stokes, and so many others, are working together to ensure that each one of our students is valued and supported and safe.
This year, the number of African American freshmen will increase by more than 10 percent compared to last Fall. Over the last 10 years, the total number of African American students enrolled at our University has increased by 53 percent. During that same ten-year period, the total number of Latino students enrolled here has increased by more than 200 percent.
But these numbers do not tell the whole story. Our students – and what they say about our campus climate – do.
Let me tell you about Marcel Hughes.
Marcel is a senior who is majoring in social work. Marcel says that our University has welcomed him – that we have given him a home and a family.
When Marcel identified as gay during high school, he suddenly found himself living on his own.
Here is Marcel’s story in his own words: “I’ve learned that difficult times can become great opportunities as long as you believe in yourself and ask for help if you need it. The great experience I’ve had here has definitely been my silver lining. Professors, staff, and administration want to see you succeed. They cheer you on when you’re struggling, and they cheer you on when you reach the graduation finish line.”
Marcel found support through student organizations such as Common Ground and Colors of Pride. He says that he is standing on the shoulders of other student leaders. He now feels comfortable on that perch, because of the faculty and staff who are dedicated to fostering a positive campus climate for everyone.
Our commitment to inclusiveness has never been stronger. But we have much more work to do to create an environment that is welcoming, safe, and supportive for all students, faculty, and staff.
We also have more work to do to stabilize and grow our enrollment. As you have heard, we have a larger freshman class this year. And our retention rates are improving, as well.
But last year, we graduated a record number of students – more than 3,000 students earned a degree or some other credential. That is great news.
Now, we have to replace those graduating students with even more freshmen, more transfer students, and more graduate students.
Our enrollment staff is working very hard. And deans and department chairs are also joining the effort. And so are our faculty.
At my budget address in April, I talked about the critical role our faculty and staff play in recruiting and retaining students.
After my presentation, Joe Cobbs, a Sports Marketing professor, promptly emailed our Admissions staff to ask how he could help. They put him to work as part of our Whitney Young Scholars program.
Each year, the Whitney Young program brings to our campus minority high school students from Louisville for a two-week summer enrichment course. The students take classes in science, math, and other areas. Joe taught two sports business classes this summer.
Joe, thank you for responding to my call. And you are not alone. Faculty from across our campus demonstrate their commitment to the success of our students in ways large and small.
Just ask Cameron Sumner. Cameron graduated in May with a Master of Arts in Public History. Today, she is a Program Assistant in the Teacher Education and Special Programs division of the Levin Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
She says that her success was made possible as a result of the personal education she received here – the kind of experience some other institutions do not provide.
And Cameron says the support she received from professors like Brian Hackett was beyond anything she expected.
Here is what Cameron said about Brian: “I have truly never seen anyone so devoted to his students. He is excellent in the classroom teaching about collections management and care or any number of other things. But he is just as invested in the success of his students. He wants you to cultivate your strengths and turn them into real-world experience.”
When it came time to interview for her job at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, she knew just where to turn for help. She said Brian and his colleagues all pitched in to help her prepare by conducting mock interviews.
Cameron said. “It was so helpful. You just can’t get that kind of one-on-one attention and support anywhere else.”
As Cameron’s story makes clear, we foster a culture where hard work, determination, and individuality are encouraged and supported. At our University, every day, we fulfill our promise to put our students first.
But in an increasingly dynamic and competitive world, the success of our students requires us to fulfill a second promise:
To lead with excellence.
Students come here to learn, and they learn to lead. Each of you, in your own way, helps our students to set their goals, to hone their skills, and to find their voice.
Over the past year, our programs – and our people – have been recognized for excellence regionally, nationally, and around the world.
Just a few weeks ago, Forbes magazine ranked our University among America’s Top Colleges for the seventh consecutive year.
Last Fall, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities gave a national award to our Center for Applied Informatics for excellence and innovation in regional and economic development. The CAI’s virtual co-op program was honored for its success in adapting the traditional co-op education model into an innovative program that provides almost all services virtually. To have this important work recognized by AASCU speaks volumes about our commitment to excellence and innovation.
The National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security have also recognized the excellent work of James Walden and his colleagues within our College of Informatics. The NSA and DHS designated our University as the first institution in the region and the Commonwealth to be a National Center for Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cyber Defense.
This designation qualifies the University for special research grants and scholarships. More importantly, this excellent program will prepare students to help business and government agencies to respond to and repel the kinds of cybersecurity attacks that are increasing every day.
Our College of Education and Human Services is preparing students to meet another major threat to our country’s future – the need to educate our children. Each Spring, we host a national conference that helps train school counselors from across the country to evaluate the effectiveness of intervention programs to improve test scores, to reduce drop-out rates, and to increase post-secondary attendance rates.
Professor Lynne Smith provides leadership in literacy education through the Kentucky Reading Project. Lynne has worked with hundreds of Northern Kentucky elementary school teachers to increase student achievement and family engagement in research-based literacy instruction.
Many teachers in the northern Kentucky community affectionately call Lynne the “reading guru.” If you visit any school in the region and tell them you are from Northern Kentucky University, the first question is typically, “Do you know Lynne Smith? I took the Kentucky Reading Project with her, and I learned so much! And my students’ reading scores have increased because of Lynne’s help and mentoring.”
We are also training future generations of education leaders. Graduates from our University are school superintendents in districts all across the Commonwealth.
Last year – just last year alone – we graduated women and men who lead Washington County Schools, Grant County Schools, Shelby County Schools, Nelson County Schools, Owen County Schools, and Pendleton County Schools.
Through their leadership, these graduates affect the lives and futures of more than 100,000 Kentucky students. And our graduates have been named Kentucky Superintendent of the Year for three consecutive years. How is that for leading with excellence?
Each of these accomplishments is a reflection of the excellent work being done by our faculty and staff in the classroom and beyond.
In that regard, I want to recognize the important role that academic advising plays in building strong student leaders. Our advisors help students to understand the opportunities and challenges they face in college. Our advisors help students every step of the way – from registering for classes as freshmen to applying for graduation.
Each year, we recognize academic advisors from across the institution who serve our students – advisors who lead with excellence. This past Spring, Frank Robinson in the Haile/US Bank College of Business and Melody McMillan in Norse Advising were honored with our Outstanding Academic Advisor Award. Let’s recognize Melody and Frank once again for their outstanding service.
Another example of leading with excellence comes from our athletics program.
As you may have heard, we are now part of the Horizon League. This transition to a new conference will be beneficial in many ways. Our fans will be able to travel to many more away games. And the shorter travel distances will reduce expenses. The Horizon League, though, is a more competitive conference, so our student-athletes and our coaches will have to work even harder to continue our long tradition of athletic achievement.
Irrespective of where our student-athletes compete, they continue to excel in the classroom. Last Spring, our student-athletes across all sports programs earned a collective total GPA of greater than 3.0 – that is the eighth consecutive semester they have achieved that level of excellence.
Fourteen of our sports programs earned team GPA’s above 3.0. Our women’s volleyball team led the way with a team GPA of 3.668.
Now, you might be wondering why I shared their GPA with such precision. Why not just round it up to 3.67?
Well, it turns out that I need to be precise. See, every semester I have breakfast or lunch with the team that earned the highest team GPA the previous semester. This past Spring, the competition was very close: the volleyball team edged out our men’s tennis team – by just eight one-thousandths of a point!
Please join me in celebrating the academic achievements of these outstanding young women and men. And let us express our appreciation to the coaches who emphasize the importance of academic excellence.
Now, let me say a few words about two student-athletes.
Last year, 163 individual student-athletes earned a GPA of 3.0 or higher – that is approximately 70 percent of our student-athletes.
Last Spring, nearly one-third of them attained a GPA of 3.6 or better. And 22 of our student-athletes achieved a perfect 4.0.
One of those exceptional student-athletes is Clare Field. Clare was a public relations major, and she competed on our women’s track and cross country teams.
As you know, I have an affinity for distance runners. Last Fall, J.J. Webber won his second consecutive conference individual title in cross country. J.J. is the first athlete in our University’s Division I history to be a conference champion. And now he has done it twice.
Well, Clare Field – another distance runner – is the first student-athlete in our Division I history to be selected as an Academic All American by the College Sports Information Directors. That is academic excellence.
Now, let me say a few words about Rianna Gayheart. Fans of our women’s basketball team are familiar with Rianna – she has been a key contributor to the success of our women’s basketball program during our first three years in Division I.
What you may not know is that Rianna was a double-major in organizational leadership and communication studies. I say “was,” because she graduated over the Summer – a year early. She will take classes this year in sports business and sports marketing to bolster her already strong academic resumé.
Rianna says she would not have been able to graduate early without the support of her coaches, our athletics staff, and her professors. Rianna is especially grateful to Professor Jeff Zimmerman, who she says has helped her every step of the way.
“I absolutely love NKU,” Rianna said. “It’s so cliché to say that, because I remember it from orientation. But I really do. I feel like I’m always here doing something.”
Rianna and her teammates and their coaches just returned home late last night from a trip to Costa Rica. But Rianna and Coach P. have joined us this morning. Please stand so that we can show how proud we are of you.
Like Rianna, Jonathan Webster was always here doing something – doing something to help other students.
Jonathan, was a biology major, and he was hired as a student to be a supplemental instructor. He led tutoring sessions where students could make worksheets, review games, and take practice tests.
Jonathan quickly became a leader in the program. He trained, mentored, and even supervised his peers. He loved helping others so much that he decided he wanted to become a teacher.
Karen Jenkins was the staff member who hired Jonathan in 2011. Karen said, “Students like Jonathan grace your path once in a lifetime, and I’m honored to have been a part of his college career. He has been more than a student worker to me. He has been an inspiration.”
Jonathan credited his experience here: “I never had a bad professor. They’ve all been great.” He said that, while he was sad to leave NKU, he is excited and grateful for the future.
Jonathan is a now attending medical school – at Harvard University. He plans to become a physician and work in academic medicine, so that he can continue to teach while also working with patients.
Like Jonathan, Lauren Wallenfelsz has also committed herself to help fellow students. Lauren was a freshman art major when she happened upon a group of Korean students in the Student Union struggling with their English homework.
Being the servant leader she is, Lauren sat down and began to help them. And she quickly found a passion for teaching English to international students.
At the end of her freshman year, she changed her major to secondary English education. She started taking Korean language classes. Then, a couple of years ago, Lauren started exploring study abroad opportunities. She earned an International Study Scholarship, and she spent a summer immersed in Korea learning more about that country’s language, culture, politics, and economy.
When she returned home, Lauren knew she wanted to do more. Last Fall, she began volunteering to help incoming Korean exchange students. Lauren said, “I loved being involved first-hand with molding the NKU experience for these exchange students.” Lauren also developed our first Korean-based campus organization – the Korean Language and Culture Club.
She spent much of this past Summer – and she will spend most of the Fall semester – as the first student from our University to study at Ulsan University. This young woman made such a positive impression in Korea that she earned a full scholarship from the Korean government to study at Ulsan.
Lauren said, “I was so humbled and honored, I thought why me? Then I realized, if you work hard and give to NKU, the University gives back 20 fold. Without this University and the opportunities it has at the ready, none of this would have happened to me.”
Our students are leading with excellence all around the world.
Paige Durst is another example. Paige grew up in Alexandria, and she is a senior organizational leadership major.
Paige works for an organization called Destiny Rescue. The mission of this Cambodian organization is to rescue the sexually exploited and enslaved, to restore the abused, to protect the vulnerable, and to empower the impoverished. Paige is a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves.
Paige, who is just 20 years old, said, “I don’t let my age hold me back from what I am capable of doing.”
When Paige got the call to go to Cambodia, the staff in our organizational leadership program was there with the support she needed to continue her education from the other side of the world. She said her advisors – and the Student Financial Assistance office – gave her all the support and resources she needed. And Paige plans to continue her missionary work after graduation.
Paige’s story exemplifies how our students lead with excellence. She also exemplifies our third promise:
To make a lasting impact.
In some ways, that impact is tangible – and very visual.
I mentioned two of these tangible examples a few minutes ago. This Fall, we will have a ribbon cutting ceremony to celebrate the grand-reopening of our campus recreation center, and we will have another ceremony to celebrate the ground-breaking for our new health innovation center.
This Fall, we will also celebrate the release of Northern Kentucky University: A Panoramic Photographic History. The book showcases the evolution of our University – the history, the events, and the people that have been integral in our transformation.
It is a beautiful story of humble beginnings and great promise. The book features archival photographs together with full-color panoramic images taken by Tom Schiff. The book documents our past – and it provides further proof that we are poised for an even brighter future.
This book also memorializes the contributions of the men and women who work so hard every day to make our campus beautiful. From our campus gardens to the green lawns to our pristine hallways, they make a lasting impact by keeping our campus clean and beautiful inside and out. That is no small task. They work around the clock in sunshine and in snow storms so that we can do our work in a safe and nurturing environment.
Last year, the Professional Grounds Management Society took notice. This organization recognized our University with a Grand Award for exceptional grounds maintenance. Let us express our appreciation to our colleagues for their efforts.
Our students are also making a lasting impact on our campus and in our community.
Before Sam Miller enrolled here as a student, he was struggling to find his way.
Sam was abused as a child. He moved around a lot. He lived in Northside. And Lower Price Hill. And Avondale.
Then Sam found the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Cincinnati. There, he discovered a supportive environment – a true home.
Now, Sam will call our University his home.
Sam is this year’s Boys & Girls Club “Youth of the Year,” and he will be a freshman here this Fall.
Sam says he plans to pay forward the kindness he has received by continuing to visit the Boys & Girls Club. He wants to make a lasting impact of his own. Sam’s goal – in his own words: “When I get older, I don’t want to be remembered as just a guy like the rest of the people. I want to be remembered for something positive – for something special.”
Sam exemplifies a new student who has come to our University with a dream – a dream to have a lasting impact.
Dr. Christine Rust is an example of one of our graduates who is now having a lasting impact in our community.
Christine earned her Doctor of Nursing Practice here in 2014. She has been working with a team of nurses at St. Elizabeth to create a whooping cough immunization program that is improving the health of thousands of babies.
Whooping cough is a devastating upper respiratory infection that affects tens of thousands of people in the United States each year. It can be contracted by anyone, and it is often fatal for infants.
Nearly 75 percent of newborn cases are contracted from the baby’s parents, a daycare provider, or a grandparent. Christine realized that, by creating a cocoon of immunized adults around the babies, she could substantially reduce the odds that one of those babies would contract the illness.
She designed a program that has drastically increased the number of employees at St. E’s who are vaccinated from the illness. The program also immunizes thousands of parents and family members.
Saving the lives of young children – that’s a lasting impact.
Permit me to share one final story about a person from our University who has had a lasting impact.
I want to say a few words in memory of Professor Mary Cupito.
Mary was a member of the journalism department. Simply put, Mary was beloved by her colleagues and by her students. After battling cancer for several years, Mary passed away in February.
Shortly after her death, one of her former students, Richard Cracchiolo, wrote an article about Mary. The article was published in The Northerner, our outstanding student newspaper.
In his article, Richard wrote about how, after he was chosen as a community columnist in The Enquirer, Mary gave him the encouragement he needed to write in that newspaper. He had confided in her that he was terrified about not being able to write something meaningful.
In an email to Richard, Mary gave him the confidence that he needed. She wrote: “You were chosen because your personality, you have a viewpoint that most readers have no concept of, and you are a good writer.”
Here is what Richard wrote about Mary in his memorial tribute to her: “If Mary hadn’t said what she did, I don’t think I would still be writing or even if I would have started at all. More often than not, I don’t believe in my abilities, and I underestimate myself. What Mary said to me gave me the courage to do something that I didn’t think I was ready for. She sent me that email two years ago, and I still haven’t deleted it. I probably never will.”
Every week, I hear another inspirational story about one of our students or one of our graduates – a story about how their passion, about how their commitment to service, is having a lasting impact on our community, on our Commonwealth, and on our country. And at the foundation of each one of those stories is a similar testimonial to the commitment of our faculty and staff.
But since I joined this community three years ago, I have become increasingly concerned that there is one external force that is constraining our capacity to serve more students – that is limiting our ability to enhance the economic and civic vitality of our community and our Commonwealth. That powerful headwind is declining and disproportionate state support.
In the past, more than 50 percent of our University’s budget was provided by the state. Last year, only 26 percent was provided by the state. That is the smallest percentage of any of the comprehensive universities in the Commonwealth. If we received comparable funding on a per student basis, we would receive an additional $10 to $15 million more per year.
In the past few years, this lack of adequate and proportionate state support has been compounded by an extraordinary increase in the size of our KERS pension contribution. In 2010, our University’s KERS pension cost was $3.9 million. This year, our University’s KERS pension cost will be $14.9 million. That is an increase of $11 million in just six years.
Notwithstanding these extraordinary financial challenges, from 1999 to 2014, our University still managed to grow the number of bachelor’s degrees we awarded by more than 84 percent – an increase much, much larger than any other public university in the state. And, as I mentioned a few minutes ago, last year, we awarded more degrees and credentials than in any year in our history.
But this growth cannot continue without adequate and proportionate financial support from the state. Unless we receive the funding we need to attract and retain outstanding faculty and dedicated staff – people like you – we cannot serve our students as effectively as they need and as well as they deserve.
We have reduced expenses as much as we can. And I know that you and your families have sacrificed a great deal.
Enough is enough.
So, for two years, I have been advocating for a fundamental change in the way state support for higher education is allocated to the public universities in our Commonwealth.
The current approach defies logic and common sense. There is no relationship between enrollment and outcomes. If we were to decide not to enroll 2,000 new freshmen this year, we would still receive the same level of state support. And, notwithstanding our significant growth in degrees conferred, we have not received any proportional increase in state support. This approach makes no sense. That is why I have argued that we need a rational, strategic funding model that aligns the state’s investment with the outcomes that we seek.
Over the last year, it is apparent that our position is attracting a lot of attention. Our arguments are getting some real traction, and our cause is gaining significant support.
But, there are some folks who are fighting to preserve the status quo. They defend the current system, because it benefits their respective institutions. They use the political process to preserve an antiquated funding approach – to preserve an historic relic.
In the next six months, notwithstanding this opposition, I believe we have a window of opportunity to jettison this antiquated approach and implement a new model – one that rewards objective performance, not politics. A new model that puts students first.
As we continue this campaign, we will enlist a small army of supporters.
Over the past three months, I have met with virtually every member of the Northern Kentucky legislative delegation. Republicans and Democrats. House and Senate. To a person, I believe they appreciate the importance of this effort to their constituents and to our community.
I will ask you – our faculty, our staff, our students, our alumni, and our friends – to reinforce this message. In the days ahead, we will tell you how to become involved – how to communicate with our elected officials.
I have also been meeting privately with legislative leaders from other areas of the state. In the next few months, we will urge our students from outside our region to get involved. We will urge them and their families to call their elected representatives. We will wage this advocacy campaign from Pikeville to Paducah.
This effort will not be easy. And, as I have learned over the past two years, this effort will not always be pleasant.
But I know this: the change that we are seeking is in the best interests of all students and families and taxpayers in our Commonwealth. Not just our students. It is right and it is just for all of the people of Kentucky.
And I believe this: when a cause is right and just, we can and we will prevail.
So, let me conclude with this personal pledge to you – to all of our students, our faculty, and our staff: I will continue to demand that we receive the financial resources that we need to serve our students – to support their ambitions, to help them achieve their dreams.
I cannot guarantee that I will succeed.
But I can promise you this – I will not stop. I will do all in my power to deliver a result that you deserve.
That is my responsibility.
And that is my commitment to you.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is a privilege to be your president. And it is an honor to be your advocate, because I have great respect and great appreciation for the contributions you make to our students and to our University. Thank you very much.
Have a good day, and let’s have another great year.