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Geoffrey S. Mearns  
2016 Fall Convocation
9 a.m., Friday, August 19, 2016
Student Union Ballroom

Good morning. It is a pleasure to be with you today, and it is a privilege to serve as the president of Northern Kentucky University.

Today marks the beginning of my fifth year, and I am proud of all that we have accomplished together. These past four years have included some significant challenges, but we continue to fulfill the fundamental promises that define our University – to put our students first, to lead with excellence, and to have a lasting impact.

Sue, thank you for your work on behalf of our students and our faculty.

Jason and Justin, thank you for that wonderful performance. The quality of the students and the faculty and the staff within our School of the Arts is simply remarkable.

Let’s give them another round of applause.

Missy, congratulations on this professional honor, and thank you for your presentation today. You now join an elite group of faculty who have changed the lives of countless students. Will all of our previous Milburn Award winners please stand. Thank you and all of our faculty for serving our students and helping them to succeed.

I’d like to welcome our Regents who are with us today:

  • Our Board Vice Chair, Lee Scheben, who is Senior Vice President of Heritage Bank. He is a graduate of the NKU Chase College of Law.

  • Our Board Secretary, Ginny Fox, who served as the Secretary of the Kentucky Education Cabinet.

  • Rick Boyce is a Professor of Biological Sciences and the Director of our Environmental Sciences Program.

  • Arnie Slaughter is the interim Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Business Operations.

  • Andrá Ward is the President and CEO of The Khafre Ward Corporation. He graduated from NKU in 1986.

  • Will Weber is a senior majoring in entrepreneurship and economics. Will is also the President of our Student Government Association.

It is now my honor to introduce our two newest Regents, who were appointed to our Board by Governor Bevin last Friday.

Norm Desmarais is the CEO of Tier One Performance.  Norm has been engaged with our University for many years.  Norm’s wife, Lisa, and Norm’s daughters Cassandra and Katie, are graduates of NKU.

Greg Shumate is a partner with Frost Brown Todd.  Greg has served for many years as the co-chair of our Foundation’s advocacy committee.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Norm and Greg.

I am grateful to all of our Regents for their continued support of our students and for their service to our University.

I also want to thank the members of our NKU Foundation Board. Barry Kienzle, our Foundation Board President, is with us here today. In what have been turbulent economic times, our Foundation has done an excellent job managing the university’s private resources, advocating on behalf of NKU, and strengthening relationships with our alumni and friends. For that, we are all grateful.

To all of our students, faculty, and staff—thank you for joining me today.

This morning, I will talk about our ability to excel even in the face of significant challenges, and then I will talk about our opportunities for future growth and sustained momentum.

As you know, these are challenging times for colleges and universities in Kentucky and across the nation. On our campus, there are many factors that have converged to threaten our capacity to fulfill our mission.

One factor is declining demographics. There are fewer students graduating from high school. In Kentucky, the number of students graduating from high school peaked in 2011.  Last year, 2,000 fewer students graduated from high school in Kentucky.  That’s a decrease of nearly 5%.  Same story in Ohio and in Indiana.  In fact, these demographic declines are affecting college enrollments across the country.  

These declines have created another challenge for us: colleges and universities from outside the region are recruiting here more aggressively than ever before, which means that we must invest more resources to recruit and retain local students.

As the economy improves, fewer high school graduates choose to enroll in college. And some people question the value of a college education, even though study after study has shown that college graduates earn substantially more over their lifetime—a million dollars more—than high school graduates.

And all of this comes at a time when Kentucky continues to reduce funding for higher education. A report released last Spring by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows that, since 2008, Kentucky has cut higher education appropriations per student by 32 percent.

That amount is nearly double the national average.

As a result, since 2009, we have lost $7 million in annual state support. We have also been hurt by the increasing cost of our pension contributions, which have skyrocketed from less than $4 million in 2010 to nearly $18 million this year.

The combined adverse financial impact of these two factors is $21 million a year – about 10% of our annual budget.  And the majority of that impact has occurred in just the last few years.

Notwithstanding these extraordinary challenges, our University continues to succeed. Indeed, we continue to excel. We continue to attract bright students from across the Commonwealth and around the world. And we continue to provide them with a quality, personal educational experience.

How do we do it? We have been able to sustain our momentum in the face of significant headwinds by maintaining our commitment to our strategic plan.

Three years ago, we undertook a comprehensive and inclusive planning process that produced our shared plan for the future.  Through all of the challenges, we have stayed true to the goals, the strategies, and the core values of that plan.

And even with significant financial challenges, we continue to make strategic investments in our students, in our programs, and in our infrastructure. These investments rarely bare immediate fruit. They require persistence and patience.

Fortunately, our faculty and our staff are tenacious. As a result of sustained effort, our strategic investments are paying off.      

The quality of our incoming freshmen class continues to improve. This Fall, based on our preliminary data, our incoming freshmen class has a median ACT score of 25 and a median high school GPA of 3.45.

Five years ago, the median ACT score was 22. Ten years ago, it was 21.2. To go from 21.2 to 25 in just one decade is remarkable.  It is a reflection of the quality of our faculty and our academic programs, and it is the product of our effective recruitment efforts.

This year, we will also see an increase in international students. That number has been in flux in recent years, but this Fall we welcome more than 80 freshmen from more than 30 countries. When you include exchange students, we will have students from more than 70 countries on our campus this year.

We also continue to see measurable improvement in our retention rates. I am proud to report that, based on our projected data for this Fall, our first-to-second-year retention rate will increase by more than two percentage points this year. This Fall, we anticipate our retention rate will be 72%. In 2010, it was 66%.  That’s a six percentage point increase in just six years.

It’s not easy to move the needle when it comes to retention. Nationally, at public, comprehensive universities like NKU, retention rates have improved by just one percentage point in the last 10 years. So our progress is significant.

Retention is our collective responsibility. I am grateful to all of our faculty and staff for their commitment to student success. We are making real progress because of your hard work.

Another important measure of our progress is the number of degrees we confer each year. By that measure, the last five years have been the most productive in our history. Last year, we conferred 2,835 degrees, including more bachelor’s degrees than any year in our history.

Over the last 10 years, the University has conferred more than 27,000 degrees. During that ten-year period, we have the highest growth rate in degrees conferred among all of the public universities in Kentucky.

Let me further illustrate the importance of our long-term strategic investments, first through the lens of our College of Informatics.

Ten years ago, our University created a bold vision for a new college that would create cutting-edge, transdisciplinary programs to prepare our students for the 21st century.

The move wasn’t without risks. For starters, no one knew what the word “informatics” even meant. And how could we create a high-tech college without a high-tech facility?

I suspect that there were some skeptics.

Today, the College of Informatics has become an integral part of our campus, and it has been designated a National Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.

Since its creation, enrollment in the College has steadily increased.  And, over the last six years, the college has seen a 78% growth in degrees awarded.

Informatics students in our Center for Applied Informatics solve real-world problems for local companies and nonprofits. They are developing everything from life-saving emergency response mobile apps to immersive virtual reality games.

Over the past decade, our informatics programs have gained national attention. Our CAI Virtual Co-Op Program received the prestigious Excellence and Innovation Award for Regional and Economic Development from AASCU, and a number of our programs are ranked among the best in America by a variety of print and online publications.

This success didn’t happen overnight. As with any long-term investment, it has taken some time – and a lot of hard work – to translate a bold vision for a new college into a vibrant hub on our campus and in our region.

And the COI is not alone. We are making strategic investments in each of our colleges.

We are developing innovative programs within the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of the Arts. For example, faculty in the college are developing a transdisciplinary degree that will combine traditional elements of animation, such as drawing, modeling, and color studies, with other disciplines, including biology, physics of movement, and computer graphic design.  Other faculty are developing a bachelor’s degree in environmental science that will feature courses in photography, communications, anthropology, and environmental science. And other faculty are developing a Pre-Expressive Arts Therapy Degree that will combine visual arts, music, theatre, dance, and psychology.

There is similar innovation propelling our College of Business.

In January, I told you about our investment in our INKUBATOR program, and I highlighted one of the program’s graduates, CompleteSet. Since then, the total capital raised by INKUBATOR graduates has now climbed to more than $2 million and CompleteSet is part of the current class of Techstars Chicago.

Today, I would like to tell you about another investment that is producing extraordinary returns. As part of the $15 million gift from the Haile/US Bank Foundation, we established an investment fund managed by business students. The fund, which was initiated in Spring 2011, began with $100,000, and another $200,000 was added in Spring 2013.

The fund has seen tremendous growth, and it consistently outperforms the market.  In fact, the value of the fund now totals more than $628,000. That is a return on investment.

The College of Education and Human Services actively engages our students in innovative partnerships with local schools and community agencies. For example, Professor Tammie Sherry and Lisa Resing, the principal of Florence Elementary School—both NKU graduates—developed a new approach to teacher education that completely immerses our students in the classroom.

Typically, our students would take classes here on campus and then spend two days a week in the field, observing and helping local teachers. Tammie and Lisa didn’t think that was enough, so they developed something innovative.

Now, students participating in this new program take their classes at Florence Elementary. They arrive on day one at the school and immediately begin to build relationships with teachers and students.  As a result, our students are gaining more practical teaching experience than ever before, better preparing them for the challenges they will face during their career. Florence Elementary students reap the benefits of having two or three teachers in their classroom nearly every day, and the Florence Elementary teachers get the help of highly skilled assistants.

The College of Health Professions has created a Nurse Anesthesia Program as a specialization within the Doctor of Nursing Practice. This program was designed to meet a regional and national need: Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists administer approximately 40 million anesthetics each year in the United States. Like many of our health programs, the Nurse Anesthesia Program has high growth potential and will be an important part of our Health Innovation Center.

Two years ago, the Chase College of Law launched the Lunsford Academy for Law, Business, and Technology.  One of the objectives of the Lunsford Academy is to attract outstanding students. Let me tell you about one of our new Lunsford Scholars, Will Hawkins.

A few weeks ago, Will was part of a team that competed at the Cyber Grand Challenge, a competition sponsored by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – DARPA. The competition sought to create “cyber reasoning systems,” which automatically identify and fix software vulnerabilities. Will’s team finished second and won $1 million dollars.

Will earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Furman and a master’s degree from the University of Virginia.  He has worked as a computer scientist for the United States Naval Research Laboratory.

Will had the opportunity to enroll in just about any law school in the country. But because of the Lunsford Academy, which combines a traditional legal education with 21st century business and technology skills, Will is now a student here at Chase.

Steely Library has recently designed an innovative new tool – an institutional repository. The repository is a place where digital content created by our faculty and our students, including publications, honors theses, and student research projects, can be stored and then retrieved by users from anywhere in the world.

Shortly after the repository went live, Stefanie Kozlowski stored her paper in the repository, and then she added a link to the paper on her LinkedIn profile. Stefanie’s paper was retrieved by one of the country’s leading researchers on addiction stigma. This scholar invited Stefanie to submit her paper for publication in the journal that this scholar edits.

Perilou Goddard said, “The institutional repository is the bomb!”

Of course, these new programs don’t simply create themselves. They are created by the women and men who serve on our faculty. We are fortunate to have so many innovative faculty. Let me share some of their achievements.

This year, Professor Daryl Harris joined Professor Linda Wermeling as a Fulbright Specialist. During these five-year appointments, they will serve as expert consultants for universities around the world. Daryl’s passion for teaching is contagious, and it is an honor to have two faculty representing our University in this prestigious program.  

Professor Abdullah Al-Bahrani wanted to make learning economics fun for his students, so he created a quiz that required students to write a poem or haiku using economics concepts. It has now evolved into a semester-long project where students write song parodies and make economics-themed music videos.

Today, his “Econ Beats” program continues to grow. Abdullah now partners with faculty colleagues in Electronic Media and Broadcasting to make the project more transdisciplinary. His macroeconomics students write the songs, and EMB students produce a video for actual clients. The videos are shared with the campus community, and the one receiving the most votes is entered into a national competition.

Who knew that economics could be so much fun?

This year, Professor Kesha Nelson received the Excellence in Innovation in Teaching Award by the Association of Black Nursing Faculty.  Kesha prepares her students for their challenging careers by developing innovative techniques that include a group psychiatric diagnosis role play project. Her students observe pediatric grief counseling sessions and mental health court and probate court proceedings. They visit homeless shelters and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

They also go on a ride-along with the Cincinnati Police Department.

Community engagement is one of our University’s enduring commitments.  Let me share two examples of innovative community engagement in action.

Professor Holly Riffe encouraged her graduate students in her social work class to partner with local agencies to define gaps in serving the local Somali refugee community. Her students studied the complex process a refugee must go through to resettle in America. The students gained a deeper understanding of how they can educate the community and advocate on behalf of the 2,000 Somalis living in our area.

Karen Brownlee was a first-year student in the class.  Here is what she said about the experience: “I loved working with the community. It was a great opportunity. I don’t know if there are many times in your life where you have something spark like that for you.”

Those spark moments are the very reason why investments in academic innovation are so important. This work is more difficult, and it takes more time.  But it’s always worth it, because it will have a lasting impact on our students.  And, in turn, they will have a lasting impact on our community.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending Lumenocity.  I saw firsthand some of the great work being done by our Informatics faculty and students. At the show, I sat next to Professor Chris Strobel, whose class produced a live-action movie and an animated film as part of the Lumenocity Re-Imagine Project. The 48-minute film featured stylized animated versions of iconic buildings, including our own Griffin Hall. The 15-minute movie featured a construction worker who finds the spirit of music at Music Hall’s renovation and magically travels through the region before finally bringing the spirit to the Taft Theatre so that Lumenocity can live again. CAI Students also presented a real-time virtual reality painting project. It was a wonderful evening that showcased the talent of our students.

David Singleton was born in the South Bronx.  When he was six months old, his family moved to Asheville, North Carolina.

During his junior year at Duke University, David returned to New York and found his old neighborhood ravaged by the crack epidemic of the 1980s. That experience changed him.

David then enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he decided to dedicate his career to social justice.  He served as executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center for the past 14 years. He is now on the faculty of Chase Law, where he has developed a Constitutional Litigation Clinic that places our students in charge of important cases.  Let me tell you about one of his students.

Nicholas Hunt is a rising third-year law student.  He represents the estate of an Ohio inmate named Greg Stamper, who was denied pain medication for a condition that made his skin feel like it was on fire. Eventually, Mr. Stamper was unable to endure the suffering any longer, and he hanged himself. Nick filed suit, claiming that the prison doctor’s denial of care amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.  Three weeks ago, under David’s supervision, Nick represented Mr. Stamper in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.  Nick argued effectively and passionately for his client.  He gained great experience, and he made us all very proud.

These are just a few of our faculty who are dedicated to bringing innovative, life-changing experiences to our classrooms. To you, our faculty, thank you for the work that you do every day to prepare our students for successful careers and to inspire them to lead meaningful lives.

We know that our students benefit from being exposed to diverse perspective inside and outside the classroom.

Our commitment to diversity and inclusive excellence is articulated in the goals and values in our strategic plan, and that commitment has never been stronger. Six years ago, President Votruba established a Campus Diversity Plan Task Force. A year later, our Board of Regents adopted our Diversity Plan.

Since then, we have made good progress. Over the last decade, enrollment of African American students, Hispanic students, and students who identify as two or more races has increased significantly. Collectively, enrollment among those groups has nearly doubled since 2007.

Retention rates for underrepresented minority students are also on the rise. Based on our projected data for this Fall, our first-to-second-year retention rate for these students has increased 13 percentage points since 2011. I am grateful to our faculty and staff for their commitment to ensure that our students – all of our students – are successful.  

These statistics are impressive.  But these numbers do not tell the whole story.

In 2013, when I announced that I was creating a new position – the Senior Advisor to the President for Inclusive Excellence – I said that the phrase “inclusive excellence” expresses our aspiration that our University will measure success by more than counting the number of faculty, staff, and students in different racial or ethnic groups.

Those numbers are important. But to be truly inclusive, we must expand diversity to include gender, religion, culture, sexuality, geography, socio-economic status, and political and philosophical beliefs.

And we have become more inclusive.

In 2013, we created the Office of LGBTQ Programs and Services to better serve our students.  In 2014, we began offering faculty and staff who have domestic partners the same benefits available to all employee spouses.

We have also increased programming that educates and enlightens our community. For example, in April, we hosted our third annual PRIDE Week at NKU, which featured lectures and readings, a Pride March, an Economic Inequalities Summit, and a keynote address by Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that established same-sex marriage as a constitutional right.

We strive to spread this message of understanding and empowerment beyond the boundaries of our campus.

In her role as Senior Advisor, Kathleen Roberts has become an influential voice working with the Council on Postsecondary Education and the Committee on Equal Opportunities to develop a new statewide diversity strategy that establishes inclusive excellence as the core of Kentucky’s higher education diversity work.

In October, our campus will host an inclusive excellence symposium that will provide educators and business and community leaders with the opportunity to engage with national experts on the latest trends in inclusive excellence.

Kathleen is also convening a committee of faculty, staff, and students to develop our Inclusive Excellence Plan 2020.  This plan will guide our institution through our 50th anniversary and beyond.

An inclusive campus culture is everyone’s shared responsibility. I am proud to be a member of such a welcoming university community.

That sense of community has been created and cultivated by our dedicated staff.  Each day, more than 1,000 staff come to this campus with a shared commitment to serve our students – and to support one another.

More than one thousand people. Think for a moment about the range of services they provide. They advise our students about their class schedules and their careers. They manage our resources to ensure that we can invest as much as possible into directly supporting our students. They keep our campus clean and safe and beautiful.

Our students come into contact with dozens of staff members each day.  Our students’ experiences here are determined by their interactions with our custodial staff, with administrative assistants, with painters and electricians, with counselors, advisors, police officers, cooks, roads and grounds crews, and librarians.

And I will tell you something truly special about our University: even during difficult financial times, and not withstanding their diverse responsibilities, our staff members remain dedicated to our mission, and they exemplify collegiality.

Let me give you two examples of their spirit.

A few weeks ago, Dave Bauer and Katie Lovold – and their colleagues on Staff Congress – created the 2016 Picnic in the Park. This was a fun and relaxing event for our staff and faculty and their families.

One of the highlights for me was partnering with Walter Smith from Facilities Management for a game of cornhole against Ken Bothof and Kalin Holland, who played basketball at Western Kentucky University.  Walt and I played hard, but we didn’t win. I learned a lesson that day—never play cornhole against two guys who are tall enough to dunk the beanbag through the hole.

Turnout for the picnic was great – more than 600 people attended.  It was wonderful to see faculty and staff from every corner of our campus come together for an afternoon of fun.    

My second example comes from a conversation I had with Dave just before Thanksgiving last Fall.  Dave suggested that we host an informal breakfast to celebrate our commitment to community and collegiality.  Before the breakfast, he told me about the impact on our employees of last year’s one-time $1,000 supplemental payment.

Dave told me about a staff member who was able to get his car fixed so he could drive to spend the holidays with his family.

Another staff member was thrilled to be able to buy gifts for her nieces and nephews without having to worry about being able to pay her electricity bill.

There was another story that I will never forget.

Dave told me about a staff member who had pawned his wife’s engagement ring in the Summer so that he could buy new tires for their minivan. He wasn’t sure if he would ever be able to get the ring back. But because of the one-time payment, he was able to reclaim the engagement ring. And he surprised his wife by presenting the ring to her during the holidays.

I share these stories to illustrate two points.  First, I appreciate the human consequences of the decisions I make.  I understand the direct, personal impact that these decisions have on our faculty, on our staff, on their families, and on our students.

Second, I value the advocacy of our Staff Congress. They advance the mission of our University.  Will the members of our Staff Congress please stand and be recognized.

I want to thank everyone involved in making our campus so attractive. Those who have played a role in planning and designing our campus. Those who shovel our walkways when it snows.  Those who mow the grass in the blazing heat. And those who keep our buildings clean and comfortable.

Would all of our Facilities Management staff please stand to be recognized.

Now, every day, we are witnessing the emergence of our next advanced facility—the renovation of Founders Hall and the construction of the Health Innovation Center, which will open in Fall 2018. These buildings will support an integrated portfolio of programs to prepare healthcare professionals.

In our region, there is a well-documented need to expand existing programs and to create new programs to educate these professionals. We will incorporate a variety of transdisciplinary academic programs that will allow us to conduct applied research that can be shared with the practicing community to improve the service these practitioners provide.  And we will provide those programs in flexible spaces that can adapt to new technologies and training methods.


This new facility will also reflect our strong commitment to community engagement. Our success is dependent upon our ability to identify and collaborate with many external partners, including healthcare providers, other academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, and businesses.

One important partner is St. Elizabeth Healthcare, which last Fall committed to invest $8 million in the Health Innovation Center to create the St. Elizabeth Healthcare Simulation Center. This two-story comprehensive virtual care facility will provide students with active learning experiences across the continuum of care.

Given our current array of health-related programs and our strategic emphasis on transdisciplinary training, we are well positioned to lead a population health effort that will make a positive difference in our region.

I’m sure there are some who question whether our University and this Northern Kentucky community can achieve such an ambitious goal.

Just as I suspect that some skeptics doubted whether we could transform farmland into a modern comprehensive university.

But we know that with a bold vision, and with patience and perseverance, we can and we will.

We are also investing in intercollegiate athletics. I recognize that some people may question the value of that investment. Again, as with most strategic investments, this investment will take time.

But we are already seeing progress, and we have much to celebrate.

A couple of weeks ago, we completed the four-year reclassification process. We are officially Division I, and our student athletes can now qualify for and compete in national championships. The NCAA committee that approved our transition commended us for our commitment to excellence every step of the way. As in everything we do, we didn’t try to merely meet the minimum requirements. We fulfilled our promise to lead with excellence.

During the four-year transition, and especially last year in the Horizon League, our athletes fared very well on the field and on the court.

But, I am most proud of two things about our student-athletes.

First, our student athletes continue to excel in the classroom. Last Spring, they recorded a cumulative grade point average of 3.24. That matched the highest in our history – which happened last Fall. It marked the fourth consecutive semester with at least a 3.2 GPA, and the 10th consecutive semester with at least a 3.0 GPA. If you look back at our student athlete GPAs through the years, you will see that they have been steadily increasing. At no time in our history have our student athletes earned such academic success.

The second story speaks to the character of our student athletes. Last year, they devoted more than 2,700 hours of community service work for organizations ranging from Habitat for Humanity to Campbell County Schools. Our student athletes are committed to success in the classroom and on the playing field, and they are committed to service in our community.  For that we should all be proud.

There’s one story that exemplifies the character of our student athletes.

Nick Lang is a junior majoring in sports business. He also competes on our men’s tennis team. He’s gotten attention during his career here because he is the only NCAA Division I student-athlete in the country battling cystic fibrosis.

Nick’s story is personal for me and my family.

You see, my wife, Jennifer – she’s one of eight children.  Two of her sisters were born with cystic fibrosis.  Jennifer’s older sister, Mary, died when she was a very young girl.  Jennifer is a carrier of the recessive gene that causes cystic, which means that my children may be carriers of the gene, as well.

Nick was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a toddler. Cystic causes thick mucus to impede his body’s ducts and passageways.

Nick takes about 30 pills each day to aid digestion, and he has to use a nebulizer to loosen the mucus that collects in his lungs. There are days when his body just isn’t as strong as he would like it to be, but you wouldn’t notice.

Nick works just as hard as any of his teammates.  He is one of the fastest players on the team. Brian Nester says Nick smiles more than any player he’s ever coached, and that Nick’s attitude is contagious.  In fact, for months, some of his teammates didn’t know he suffered from the disorder.

Nick doesn’t let cystic fibrosis control him, no matter how much it may try. In 2013, Nick’s older sister, Alicia, who also suffered from the disorder, died as a result of an infection following a double lung transplant. She was only 20 years old.

Nick didn’t let this terrible loss defeat him.  It motivated him.  Against the University of Hartford, Nick dropped the first set.  Then, he rallied to win the next two sets to help his team record a 5-2 victory. Nick said he remembered his teammates cheering him on as he rallied for the come-from-behind win.

Nick said he relished the victory because he earned it. “I don’t give up during a match.  I never will.”

Nick represents his team and our University with grace and courage. Young men and women like Nick are the reason that investing in our student-athletes will always be a good one.

Speaking of important investments, last year’s state budget process also gave us some reason to be optimistic. At our convocation in January, I stood on this stage, and I asked you to make our elected officials in Frankfort hear you. For too long, we have been adversely affected by an unfair funding model. Our campus had been making that case since the days when our students ate from those vending machines in Nunn Hall.  

I challenged you to make them hear you. And you did. You sent more than 4,300 messages to the General Assembly and to Governor Bevin.  You emailed, you tweeted, and you called.  You told them to fix the funding disparity that has impeded our University for at least two decades.

It was the most aggressive advocacy campaign in our history.  And they listened. While the statewide 4.5% reduction in higher education funding forced us to make some difficult decisions last Spring, our long-term budget outlook is a bit brighter because the General Assembly agreed to increase our state appropriation next year by more than $5 million. In addition, state leaders are committed to adopting an outcomes-based funding model, which should reward universities like ours.

The legislative session is another example of what I’ve been talking about today.  When we work together for a common cause, and when we pursue our ambitions tenaciously, we can achieve our goals.

Together, we must now face our next challenge—to increase our enrollment. Notwithstanding our collective best efforts, our enrollment has declined modestly in recent years, consistent with national averages.

I told you about some of the causes of declining enrollment.  Now, I want to tell you about some of the things we are doing to overcome those challenges.

Last month, Kim Scranage presented to our Board a comprehensive plan that includes specific strategies for recruiting and retaining new freshmen, transfer students, adult learners and online and international students.  The two goals of this new plan are simple: to increase enrollment and to improve student success. While those goals may sound familiar, don’t assume that this plan is business as usual. This is an aggressive, creative plan that will involve our faculty and staff in student recruitment more than ever before.

I won’t get as detailed as Kim did with the Board last month, but I want to give you an idea of just a few of the new strategies included in our new plan.

By “swarming the region,” we will increase our visibility by involving more of you in student recruitment.  As Kevin Kirby described it, we will “unleash” our talented faculty and our dedicated staff to help us recruit in local high schools. We will also become more competitive through strategic financial aid offerings, such as a new tuition incentive program.

To increase transfer enrollment, we will create more new pathway agreements with KCTCS institutions and develop flexible pathways for all of our programs.

To increase graduate enrollment, we will expand our programming through alternative delivery modes and enrollment options, such as stackable certificates and alternative credentialing.

To grow our adult and online enrollment, we will explore the possibility of contracting with a third-party partner to grow our online presence.

And to increase first-year enrollment in the long-term, we will design a signature NKU Experience focused on unique opportunities and academic areas of distinction.

Of course, there are other strategies already in place to help with recruitment.  This Summer, for example, we hosted more than 350 of Kentucky’s brightest high school students on our campus for the Governor’s Scholars Program.

These outstanding students had a great experience on our campus.  In the last two weeks, I have received several letters from our GSP scholars.

One young woman wrote: “The community here is unlike any other.  We were welcomed with open hearts and open minds.”

Another young woman wrote: “I hope you are doing well because I am doing great and a big part of that is due to you – because I am a Governor’s Scholar at Northern Kentucky University.  The campus is beautiful.  I could not imagine being assigned to any other campus because the facilities here are so nice.”

Finally, one young man wrote: “Northern Kentucky University is an amazing campus, and it is definitely the perfect host for GSP.  NKU has broadened my college search. Before, I was sure of the college I would be attending next year.  But after spending five weeks at NKU, I’m no longer sure.”

These letters demonstrate the value of our decision to invest in hosting the Governor’s Scholars Program on our campus.

Faculty and staff occasionally ask me how they can get involved with student recruitment.  This Fall, all of you will have a chance to get involved. We will host open forums to present this new comprehensive plan in greater detail. I encourage you to attend. We need your input.  And we need your active support and participation.

Make no mistake—this is our most important challenge. It’s very simple—because we are increasingly tuition dependent, we need to grow.

More importantly, if we are going to achieve our goals of student success and talent development, we must recruit, retain, and graduate more students.

And, most importantly, if we are going to achieve our fundamental mission—to continue to help thousands of students achieve their potential—we must continue to be a magnet for talent and ambition.

Allow me to illustrate the kind of talent and ambition I’m talking about.  Last Spring, I shared with you some of the stories of last year’s graduates, including Alma Oñate.

Alma was a pre-med chemistry major with minors in biology and history. She graduated in May with a 3.9 GPA. But Alma’s academic success is only part of her story.

When she was young, Alma moved to the United States when her sister, Sandra, was diagnosed with glaucoma. Sandra, who completed her freshman year at NKU, required multiple surgeries on both eyes over the years, and those surgeries created financial hardships for Alma’s family.

In the middle of Alma’s toughest semester, her family lost their home.  Alma’s classmates didn’t have a clue, though, because she kept her positive attitude and managed to keep up with her demanding coursework.

She also managed to keep her multiple jobs, and she continued to perform volunteer work at numerous local organizations. Alma has the tenacity that has come to define this University.

She said that she had to work hard and miss some sleep during her time here. But she said that she lived by a simple motto: “Tiredness is temporary, an education is forever.”

Alma is now a medical student – at Harvard University.

On Monday, we will welcome more than 2,000 new students who have the same extraordinary potential and ambition—and many who may face some of the same challenges that Alma overcame.

I told you about Will Hawkins who decided to come home to Chase.

Let me introduce you to four more of our new students.

I told you about the large group of international students who have chosen to enroll in our University. One of those students is Jennifer Toyo. Although Jennifer is a United States citizen, she was born and raised in the Ivory Coast.  Her mother, Nina, is employed by the State Department as an Education USA Advisor for the United States Embassy in Ivory Coast.

I had the chance to meet with Nina last week, and she told me about Jennifer’s decision to enroll at NKU.  Here is what Nina said about her meeting with Samba Dieng, our Director of International Student and Scholar Services: “After he met with hundreds of students, I was surprised that Samba thought to address me as a parent.  He asked me a question that no other recruiter had ever asked about my priorities for my child in our choices for college.  This helped me see a difference in NKU.”

Jennifer plans to major in biology. This past week, she participated in our R.O.C.K.S. program.  Here’s what Nina said about her daughter: “As an African-American who grew up outside the U.S., I was especially appreciative of this opportunity for her to be mentored into leadership by a community that understands and embraces her uniqueness.”

Samba, thank you for showing the world that something special is happening at our University.

Kayla Combs and Austin Bailey are from Lee County. For both of them, the moment when they first began to consider our University came when I visited their high school in 2014, during our initial Road to NKU tour.

Austin has always been fascinated by computers.  When he heard about our cyber defense team, NKU was instantly on his radar. He eventually narrowed his college choice to two options: one in Highland Heights – and the other in Lexington. He says he chose NKU because of our outstanding CIT program – and because our University community made him feel at home.

Kayla went on many campus tours. But when she visited our campus, her decision became easy: “NKU was the only school where I could actually picture myself being a student.”         

Trayonna Barnes knew she wanted to go to college, but her path wasn’t an easy one.  Last November, she visited our campus with the Boys & Girls Club. It was one of several tours she took – the University of Cincinnati, Bowling Green, Kent State, Ohio University. But Trayonna loved our campus, and she loved the people here. When she returned for a Black and Gold Day, she also met our dedicated admissions staff.

Trayonna formed such a bond with Melissa Gorbandt and Rochelle Shields that she invited them to her high school graduation party. At that party, her family gave Melissa and Rochelle a standing ovation. Then, Trayonna presented trophies to them.  The trophies are engraved “Best Director of Admissions” and “Best Assistant Director of Admissions.”

Trayonna’s family and friends collected dozens of small donations to help her attend our University.  These gifts are proof that it takes the collective effort of many people to enable one person to get a college education.

That’s why we are here – for Trayonna and for more than 14,000 other women and men.

We are here to welcome them. To teach them. To advise them. To encourage them. And, on our best days, to inspire them.

What a remarkable opportunity we have all been given—to serve others.

It’s hard to imagine a more rewarding vocation.

So, over the weekend, I ask that you reflect for just a moment on how fortunate we are.  We have the opportunity to make a lasting impact on thousands of people whom we serve.

Few people are given this special opportunity.

So, let’s count our blessings.

And then, on Monday, when we return to this beautiful campus, let’s go to work.

Thank you.