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Geoffrey S. Mearns
January Convocation Address
9 a.m., Friday - January 8, 2016
Student Union Ballroom

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for joining me for our January Convocation. And thank you for your service to our University and to our students.

It is a privilege, today and every day, to serve as the president of Northern Kentucky University.

Justin, thank you for that wonderful performance. Let's give him another round of applause.

Two years ago at this event, I presented a new five-year strategic plan for the University – a plan that is guiding us to our 50th anniversary in 2018. As we approach the halfway mark, I am pleased to report that our progress has been consistent and measurable.

Today, I will tell you about that progress, and I will talk about some of the challenges we continue to face, here on campus and in Frankfort.

Our strategic plan was built on a strong foundation established by the bold ambition of the women and men who founded our University.  Where others saw farmland, they envisioned a modern, comprehensive university. And they built our University from the ground up.

Today, our University embodies their ambition, their vision, and their spirit. We continue to be a campus that is growing.  We are a university on the rise.  We are proud of what our University has become, and I hope that you share my enthusiasm and my optimism for what our University can be.

That potential is embodied in the goals articulated in our strategic plan, and it is evidenced by the many ways each of you advances those goals each day.


Our first principal goal is student success. Two years ago, we rededicated ourselves to fostering a supportive, student-centered educational environment that promotes academic success, global awareness, and timely graduation.

Our academic standards have never been higher, and our programs have never been more rigorous.  

But student success requires more than excellent academic programs. We must engage students early and often, inside the classroom and out. We must support them when they need us while encouraging them to be independent adults.

Our success is quantifiable.

This Fall, we had a three percent increase in the number of new first-time degree-seeking freshmen.  The average ACT score for our incoming class was 23.7 – the highest in our history.  And our student body is the most diverse in our history.

While we continue to attract excellent new students, we continue to improve our undergraduate retention and persistence rates.  Last year, we implemented a new one-day registration program in the Summer followed by an extensive three-day orientation program just before classes began in August. During these programs, students made new friends, met with faculty and staff, learned about the resources here to help them succeed, and received one-on-one academic advising.

By all accounts, it was a positive change.  Preliminary data indicates that, this year, our freshman Fall to Spring retention rate is more than three percent higher than last year. Simply put, the collaboration between faculty and staff on the new initiatives that improve retention is working.

We also know that engagement outside the classroom positively impacts academic success. Last year, students who participated in co-curricular activities had first-year grade point averages more than a quarter of a letter grade higher than their peers. They were also more likely to return this Fall, with retention rates more than 11 percentage points higher than their peers.

This Fall, we saw an increase in co-curricular engagement through student support programs, as well as the new Campus Recreation Center.  And more of our students than ever are living on campus.  Nearly half of our new freshmen live on campus, and we continue to be near 100% capacity in our residence halls.

There are other programs that are contributing to our collective success.

For example, NKU ROCKS assists first-year African American students with the transition from high school to college. The program nurtures personal growth and exposes students to the many resources we have to offer.  ROCKS features a strong peer and faculty/staff mentoring program, a summer transition experience, a special residential community, and a designated section of our popular University 101 program.

This support is critical to student success, and the numbers prove it.  Last year, the retention rate for the 85 students who participated in this program was 77% – substantially higher than the retention rate of African American students who did not participate in ROCKS.

The transition to college is also more difficult for our first-generation college students.

Last year, more than 50 percent of our incoming freshman class were the first members in their families to attend college. These students can find the adjustment to college daunting. Our Student Support Services helps these students develop confidence, explore majors and careers, and strengthen study skills.

Engaging freshmen to help them succeed and graduate is our shared responsibility.  And all across campus, there are programs that are contributing to our collective effort.

Let me share one creative example.

For the past ten years, the faculty and staff in our theatre program have offered our freshmen theatre students an opportunity to display their talents in their own production.  These students previously had to compete for roles against more experienced upperclassmen.  Many of the students who were not able to earn a role would lose confidence or interest, and some began to drift away from a life in the arts.

But since the introduction of this special First-Year show, retention of freshmen entering the theatre program has increased to 97 percent. That is remarkable.  Let us give a big hand to Ken Jones and all of the faculty and staff in our theatre program.

For our students to be successful, they also must feel welcome and safe on our campus. Our commitment to inclusive excellence and global awareness has never been stronger, as evidenced by the Role Model Award, presented this year to our University by a nonprofit organization called Minority Access.  The Role Model Award recognizes our University as an institution that is committed to expanding the pool of minority scientists and professionals in other fields that are presently underrepresented by minorities.

We are proud to be recognized for our commitment to diversity and inclusive excellence.  To illustrate this commitment, I would like to share a story co-authored earlier this year by one of our students, Danny Ginn.

Danny was raised in Vanceburg, a river town in northeastern Kentucky. He fell in love with our University during his campus tour:  “There were people at NKU who looked very different from what I was used to. I like that. It felt like a new home.”

Midway through his freshman year, Danny began to identify as transgender.

Danny wrote: “I was afraid that coming out as transgender would erode all of the goodwill I’d established at NKU, and that I would be kicked out of my organizations and fired from my on-campus jobs.”

But that didn’t happen.

Danny wrote: “The news didn’t change anything about my accomplishments as a student. And it didn’t change the minds of anyone in positions to recognize those accomplishments.”

Danny was named NKU’s Freshman of the Year, and he was selected by his peers to be president of our Presidential Ambassadors.  And last February, he was crowned as homecoming Prince.

He wrote: “I’ve been very, very lucky with my experience, and that my college was so welcoming and supportive. No one looks at me like I’m different. These people recognize me for who I am. They respect me.”

I am grateful to Bonnie Meyer and her colleagues in LGBTQ Programs and Services for what they have done to help make our campus a welcoming place. And I would like to thank Danny for his courage.

Our commitment to inclusiveness and global awareness also includes growing our international student enrollment and expanding international education experiences.

Last year, more than 330 of our students studied in 28 different countries. This Summer, our students will have the option to study accounting in Germany, art in Paris, software development in Ireland, economics in Taiwan, and nursing in Tanzania.

Drake Woods understands the importance of international education. Drake is a computer science major, and he was recently awarded the coveted Erasmus Plus scholarship by Babes-Bolyai University, our Romanian sister institution. The award, which is funded by the European Union, extends exceptional benefits to outstanding students studying in Europe.

Drake’s accomplishment is particularly noteworthy because computer science is an under-represented discipline in education abroad. Congratulations, Drake.  And I am grateful to Alina Campan and Marius Truta for their work in establishing our partnership in Romania and for supporting Drake’s application.

Our student athletes also continue to see succeed both in the classroom and on the playing field.

Here is a photo taken during our men’s soccer game against the University of Kentucky in August.  More than 2,000 fans saw our Norse defeat the Wildcats.

But our student athletes’ greatest achievements continue to occur in the classroom.  Last Fall, our student-athletes earned a combined GPA of 3.24.  That is the ninth consecutive semester that our student athletes earned a collective GPA greater than 3.0, and it is the highest collective semester GPA in the history of our University.

And here is another remarkable statistic: last semester, 23 of our student athletes – ten percent of them – earned a perfect 4.0 GPA.

The best example of student success, though, comes when we confer degrees at our commencement celebrations.

We are graduating more students than ever before. Last academic year, we conferred the largest number of degrees and credentials than any year in our history— more than 3,080.  Our number of degrees conferred per year has increased more than 19 percent since 2008.

And just last month, we conferred another 1,333 degrees.

One of those December graduates was an exceptional young woman named Orsella Irambona [Ear-im-bone-uh]. Orsella came to our country from Burundi when she was 14 years old, fleeing violence and genocide. Neither she nor any member of her family spoke a word of English, but they shared an appreciation for the value of education.

Orsella attended our University on a full scholarship with one goal in mind—to fulfill her mother’s dream that she make the Dean’s List.  She did.  And she made the President’s Honors List.

Orsella spoke at commencement. Rather than quote from her remarks, I would like for you to hear from her. Here are a few excerpts from her commencement speech.

Our core mission is to prepare our students for successful careers and for meaningful lives. Orsella is living proof that our mission remains a valuable and virtuous one.


The second principal goal in our strategic plan is talent development. We aspire to increase the educational attainment levels of the region by serving more students, producing superior graduates, and promoting lifelong learning.

One important way in which we contribute to the educational goals of our region is our School-Based Scholars dual enrollment program.  This program, which continues to grow, allows eligible high school students to earn up to 24 college credits before graduating from high school.

This past Fall, 25 high schools participated in our program, and we enrolled more than 1,000 students.  In just the last five years, enrollment has increased by almost 100%.

This year, we created new partnerships with Gallatin County, Newport Central Catholic, and Boone County Early College, and we enhanced existing partnerships by offering classes for the first time at Ryle and Owen County high schools.

Nearly a quarter of the students who participate in our school-based scholars program subsequently enroll at our University.  And those who do, earn higher grade point averages and persist to their second year at a higher rate than their peers.

I am grateful to all of the faculty and staff who make this program successful.  You are helping to improve our University and to enhance our region.

As I announced last Fall, we are also preparing to welcome the Governor’s Scholars Program back to our campus this Summer.

This six-week residential program brings outstanding high school students from across the Commonwealth to our University before they enter their senior year of high school. We will be hosting the program for at least the next three years.

I am grateful to Joel Robinson and the committee that prepared our application for their successful efforts to bring the Governor’s Scholars program back to our campus.

Last month, our provost announced that Kimberly Clayton-Code, a professor in the College of Education and Human Services, and Raquel Rodriguez, an associate professor in the School of the Arts, will serve as liaisons for the program.  I am grateful to Kimberly and Raquel for their commitment to the Governor’s Scholars Program. When these GSP students visit our campus this Summer, they will experience what we already know – that something special is happening at our University.

In order to entice more outstanding students to visit our campus, we continued our Road to NKU program this past Fall.  We travelled again from Pikeville to Paducah to share our success story with students from across the Commonwealth. We traveled 3,000 miles to 24 counties, meeting with 5,000 Kentucky high school students.  This year, we are also expanding our visits to include high schools in Ohio and Indiana.

I am grateful to Melissa Gorbandt and her admissions team, as well as Katie Herschede, for their hard work to make the Road to NKU a success.   These efforts were supported by our staff in Marketing and Communications.  I know it is not easy to organize these trips and to coordinate with the high schools.  Thank you for your help.

And my special thanks to the faculty and staff who participated this year. Chris Strobel and Morteza Sadat joined us at Elkhorn Crossing High School to talk about media arts and engineering. Matt Hackett joined us in Oldham County.  Kim Vance joined us in Mason County.  And Ken Jones, Michael Hatton, and Thom McGovern visited five different high schools to talk about our theatre and arts programs.  During a visit to the Youth Performing Arts School in Louisville, more than 200 students were enthralled by their description of the opportunities available to students in our new School of the Arts.

Thank you, gentlemen.

Let me share two more examples of the potential impact of our Road to NKU.

Last year, only three new freshmen from Whitley County High School enrolled at NKU.  Whitley County is on Kentucky’s southern border with Tennessee.

We visited Whitley County High School in October.   A few weeks later, 25 students, along with several teachers and staff, drove three hours to tour our campus.  During this visit, these students had lunch with more than a dozen faculty members.

After their visit to our campus, we received an email from the high school guidance counselor who arranged our visit to their high school and who brought the students here.  In his email, the counselor said that our University had not previously recruited in that area, but by visiting their high school, “NKU [is] finally on our map.”  And he said that his students and staff colleagues were still talking about their visit to our campus.  He wrote, “It’s really not a stretch to say that it’s the best [campus visit] I’ve been on in the past eight years.”

Now, let me tell you about a remarkable conversation that I had during a visit to Woodford County High School in Versailles.  After our presentation, a young woman, a senior, came up to speak with me and Katie.  She told us that she wanted to study neuroscience in college and that she was enrolled in a dual-credit class at Georgetown College. She said she was conducting research and that she was co-authoring a paper with a faculty member there.

We told her about our excellent programs in biology and psychology, including neuroscience.  And Katie told her that, if she were to visit our campus, we would arrange for her to meet with Kristi Haik or Mark Bardgett.

In response, this young woman said, “Mark Bardgett!  Mark Bardgett is on the faculty of your University.”  When we confirmed that yes, indeed, Mark Bardgett is a professor at NKU, this young woman said, “Oh dear, Mark Bardgett.  I’ve read all of his research articles.”

Now, I know that Mark is an outstanding scholar and teacher, but I was kind of surprised that any 17-year old high school student in Versailles had even heard of him much less read all of his articles.

Anyway, back to the story of this star-struck young woman. After we assured her that, if she visited campus, she could meet Professor Bardgett, this young woman asked, “When can I come?  Can I just get in your van and drive there with you now?”

Congratulations, Mark.  You are an outstanding scholar and teacher.  And for at least one teenager in Versailles, Kentucky, you produce more heart palpitations than Justin Bieber.

I share this story for an important reason:  it demonstrates that the quality of our academic programs and the personal education experiences that our faculty and staff provide are the most important factors in recruiting outstanding students to our University.  And that quality and that commitment permeates this institution.

For example, in 2015, our Haile/US Bank College of Business was again named a Princeton Review “Best Business School.”  This recognition is particularly important because it is based on surveys of our students.  They rated us among the nation’s best for our rigorous curriculum, our experienced faculty, our small class sizes, and our flexible scheduling. As one student noted in the survey, at our University “the student is the top priority.”

This year is the fourth that our business college has been included in the ranking. The college was also recognized as a “Best Undergraduate Business Program” by US News and World Report.

Within the college, our INKUBATOR program is ranked among the top five university business incubators in North America for competency development. This 12-week business accelerator program receives applications from students in every college and provides the resources and guidance needed for a successful startup business.

The INKUBATOR has graduated 21 startup teams, and there are 12 more currently in the pipeline. Our University has invested $56,000 in the program.  That investment has in turn produced approximately $1.5 million in additional capital raised by our students and graduates.

One of the first graduates of the INKUBATOR program was Gary Darna.  Gary and another NKU graduate, Jamie Rump, have created an online collectibles marketplace called CompleteSet.

They launched their site in 2013, and they produced a mobile app last year. CompleteSet now has 45,000 users in 41 countries. The company is growing at a rate of 20 percent per month, and it has attracted $650,000 in additional funding. Last month, the company was featured in a five-page article in Entrepreneur magazine.

CompleteSet now has eight full-time employees; five are NKU graduates.  Gary told me that we are the company’s primary source for talented employees.

The companies supported by NKU, through programs such as the INKUBATOR, our Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and our Small Business Development Center, are prime examples of our commitment to talent development.

We are committed to preparing students like Gary and Jamie for a successful transition from college to a career.


The INKUBATOR is the kind of program we had in mind when we articulated the third principal goal in our strategic plan – advancing academic programs that are innovative, distinctive, experiential, and transdisciplinary.

Last month, we broke ground on our new Health Innovation Center.  This facility will allow us to grow our existing programs and to create new ones that improve the health of the people in our community and reduce the amount we spend on health care.

The need for these programs is well-documented.  Last Summer, Janet Harrah, senior director of our Center for Economic Analysis and Development, and Tristan Wolfe, a Haile/US Bank Student Fellow in Applied Business Analytics, conducted a study that estimated that our metropolitan region will need more than 50,000 new qualified healthcare workers within the next five years.

Our health innovation center will include the many outstanding programs in our College of Health Professions, including programs in nursing, radiologic technology, and respiratory therapy, as well as allied health.  The center will also incorporate programs from every college on our campus, including our Chase College of Law.

Our health innovation center will promote economic growth and vitality by enabling us to prepare graduates who earn good incomes, by providing trained talent for healthcare providers, and by improving the productivity of the broader workforce.

This concept has attracted a great deal of attention and interest, including an extraordinary philanthropic investment.  Last September, as you recall, we announced that St. Elizabeth Healthcare will contribute $8 million to our University to support the design and construction of our simulation center, which will include a two-story comprehensive virtual care environment that will give our students extraordinary active learning experiences across the continuum of care.

I am grateful to Garren Colvin, the CEO of St. Elizabeth Healthcare, and our many friends at St. Elizabeth for their extraordinary investment in our facility and for their partnership with us.

The project includes the renovation of Founders Hall. Work on the project began over the holiday break, and we will open the entire facility in 2018 as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.

Another tangible sign of progress toward our goal of academic innovation is the continued growth of our online course offerings.

Last year, more than 18 percent of all student credit hours were earned online. A decade ago, that number was just 2 percent. We have seen steady growth each of the last 10 years, and we are on pace to reach our target of 23 percent by 2018.

The work being done across our campus is truly innovative, and that work is being recognized nationally.

As you may recall, last year we became the first institution in Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati to be designated as a National Center for Academic Excellence in Information Assurance/Cyber Defense. This designation positions us to prepare students to deal with the cybersecurity challenges that businesses and governments face on a daily basis.

Our Master of Science in Business Informatics program is now ranked No. 11 in the country by The Financial Engineer Times, and our online Master of Science in Health Informatics program is ranked No. 9 in the nation by

Informatics students are also helping local agencies deal with serious problems.  Our students have designed a robot called N.O.R.S.E. to assist the Newport police department with many dangerous situations, including bomb threats, suspicious packages, barricaded suspects, and hostage situations.

And N.O.R.S.E. is not the only robot you might see when you visit Griffin Hall.

Austin Lee and his students are using a robot named Pineapple to study how humans interact socially in the presence of a robot.  Austin is developing a class focused on designing interaction for robots. This work will lead social robotics into an exciting future.

While these informatics students are examining the technology of tomorrow, another group of our students have rolled up their sleeves to look into our past – 140 million years ago.

For more than a decade, Janet Bertog has led groups of our students on an annual paleontological dig in the deserts of Utah.  In a rare discovery, they found bones from a Barosaurus—an 85-foot-long, 20-metric-ton, plant-eating dinosaur.

James Ruehlman was one of the students in the group. He said he learned two important lessons from the experience.  First, studying the past helps us to understand the present and to anticipate the future. Second, whenever you are going on a dig in the desert, don’t forget your ChapStick.

Another story from the past year that illustrates the innovative, transdisciplinary work being done at our University came from a dig much closer to home, when students from our environmental sciences program partnered with journalism majors on a soil study in Newport.

They tested eight residential sites near the former location of a lead smelting plant. After the students analyzed the samples they collected, they found that 38 percent exceeded the EPA’s recommended maximum lead level for children’s play areas, and about 90 percent exceeded the EPA’s recommended maximum for urban gardening.

The journalism students then presented the findings in a way people would readily understand.  Their collaborative work was reported in The Cincinnati Enquirer and the Northern Kentucky Tribune.

Dr. Kirsten Schwarz from Environmental Sciences coordinated the project with Professor Michele Day from Communications.  Kirsten articulated our transdisciplinary emphasis; she said: “Scientists struggle to find someone to tell their story in an interesting and impactful way. Incorporating journalism into the study was a logical step.”

Kirsten and Michele, thank you for leading this important work.

Several other students are participating in another noteworthy excavation.

Last May, faculty and students began excavating the site of the former Parker Academy in New Richmond, Ohio.  The Parker Academy, which was founded in 1839, is believed to have been the first co-ed school in the United States to offer integrated classrooms open to all races and religions.  Students from history, geography, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, and public history have come together to retrieve and examine the Parker family archives for the first time in an academic setting.

They are using Parker family papers and unearthed artifacts to piece together a history of how the school was created. Their work will tell the story of a beacon of light during one of our nation’s darkest hours. And that story of tolerance will eventually be part of an exhibit at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

One of the many lessons these students have uncovered concerns the important role that teachers play in educating and inspiring their students.

When I visited the site, I was given a copy of a document from one of the Parker family papers. I would like to read the last paragraph from that document – a letter written by Michael Hendrick Fitch in 1901, reflecting upon his time as a student at the Parker Academy nearly 50 years earlier.

“It is well known that these teachers were thoroughly saturated with the love of all mankind, irrespective of race, color, or sex. The brotherhood of man was to them a living principle. These facts were constantly before the eyes of all their students. Those who were impressed by them never forgot them. So that the lesson of the lives of these teachers is that while the intellectual training of our schools is of the utmost value in giving birth to dynamic thought, yet the details of the textbooks fade away as character is formed. The truth that persists is the fundamental ethics of conduct, which fits into that subtle thing called manhood.”

If you were to ask one of our more than 50,000 graduates, I anticipate that he or she would share a similar admiration for you – our faculty and staff – and an appreciation for the lasting impact you all have made upon their lives.


As our strategic plan emphasizes, we aim to have an impact upon many more people than just our students. The fourth principal goal of our strategic plan is to engage with community partners to catalyze regional economic growth and civic vitality.

Last year, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching selected our University to receive its 2015 Community Engagement Classification. We were originally classified in 2006—the first year the classification was offered—and this was our first reclassification year.  This designation affirms our longstanding commitment to community engagement and its valuable benefits to our students and to our community.

Our collective commitment to community engagement can be seen inside our classrooms and throughout our region.

For example, informatics students and students from the College of Education and Human Services have partnered with Strategies to End Homelessness and other social service agencies to develop a mobile app that connects people in need with local emergency shelter services.

The app, called “Street Reach,” allows people to make location-based electronic reports of individuals in need, breaking down barriers between the homeless and social services.   Rachael Winters, a professor in our social work program and the former director of the Emergency Shelter of Northern Kentucky, says the app could become a national model.

Another national model developed at our University is the Mayerson Student Philanthropy Project.  Last month, we celebrated the 15th anniversary of this program.  Since 1999, our University has partnered with the Mayerson Foundation, ArtsWave, the Scripps Howard Foundation, CitiBank, and Skyward to provide experiential learning opportunities for students – and to provide financial support to local non-profit organizations and agencies.

Over the past 15 years, students in our Mayerson classes have invested more than $1 million in 330 nonprofit organizations and agencies. Nearly 3,400 students have participated in the program, and our surveys show that the vast majority of the students plan to remain engaged philanthropically after graduation.

But these numbers do not fully convey the impact that this program has had on the people we serve.  Let me tell you about Leighann Rechtin.

Leighann has received two degrees from our University, and she is presently a “learning associate” in our Ed.D. program.  She was also a staff member here, and she has been an adjunct in the Communication Department for ten years.

Like many of our students, Leighann’s path to a successful career and a meaningful life was not a smooth one.  In her junior year as an undergraduate, she became pregnant unexpectedly.  She then lived at the Madonna House of Northern Kentucky, a home for single mothers.  She lived there with her son while completing her undergraduate degree at NKU.

Years later, a group of students whom Leighann had taught decided to direct their Mayerson award to the Madonna House.  These students had great respect and affection for her, and they had remembered that the Madonna House was a special place in Leighann’s life.  At the awards ceremony, Leighann accepted the gift on behalf of the Madonna House, where she now serves as the president of its Board of Directors.

Leighann recently shared her thoughts about the Mayerson Project and the impact it has had on so many people.

She said, “The Mayerson Project represents so much more than offering a financial gift.  It instills hope and belief in the community – in the connections made between one human’s life and the life of another.”

About our University, Leighann said, “I had no idea what this community would come to mean to me as a single mother in need.  But I am invested because others have invested in me – by sharing a part of who they are so that I am able to do the same for others.  That is what makes NKU and this community special – it is a place that invests in relationships above all else.  When you care about the human being, you make an immediate impact.”

Leighann is here with us this morning.  Please stand so that we may show how grateful and proud we are of you.  Leighann, you have made a lasting impression on all of us and so many other people.


The fifth and final principal goal in our strategic plan is to ensure institutional excellence by strengthening the capacity of the University to fulfill our mission and to achieve our vision.

One of the facilities that demonstrates our institutional excellence is the renovated and expanded Campus Recreation Center.  The construction was completed last Fall, and I am sure those who have been through it will agree that the transformation is remarkable.

The Rec Center is now a LEED Silver facility, and it is one of the most beautiful spaces on our campus.   It features six basketball courts, two racquetball courts, a resurfaced running track, and an aquatic center.  There are also hundreds of weight lifting and cardio machines.

The number of students using the facility has more than doubled since the renovation.  Nearly 7,000 different students visited the Rec Center last semester.  We have also increased our alumni memberships by more than 200 percent, and more than 10,000 campus visitors toured the facility since August.

I sometimes wonder what our founders think when they look at our campus today. When they started their work, our University was just an idea—a dream.  They had no students, no faculty, and no staff.  They did not have a Rec Center.  They did not even have classrooms or laboratories.

They simply had a vision and a determination to create a first-rate university.  And what they created has blossomed into something truly special.

In November, we celebrated their bold vision with the release of Northern Kentucky University: A Panoramic History. The book documents—in beautiful 360-degree photographs by Tom Schiff—the origins, growth, and progress of our campus over the last four decades.

If you have not had an opportunity to look through the book, I encourage you to do so. It is available in our campus bookstore and on Amazon. A Panoramic History is a tribute to generations of faculty, staff, and students who have worked to make our campus a special place.

And what is exciting is the knowledge that our best days are ahead of us. This optimism stems from the quality and character of the people this University attracts and retains.

Here are just a few examples.

If you spend time on social media, you may recall the story of Kati Elliott and Officer Phil Liles. In September, Kati lost her wallet on our campus. When she found it, soaking in a puddle in one of our parking lots, Kati was devastated to find that it was empty.

Kati is a young mother, and a nontraditional student.  Like many of our students, she works to pay her tuition, and she does not have any extra money. So the missing $240 really hurt.

Then, Officer Liles showed up.  When Kati explained to him what had happened, she was in tears. Officer Liles was moved by her story, so he offered compassion – he displayed the heart of the people who distinguish our University.  Officer Liles took out his own wallet, pulled out $240, and gave the money to Kati.

His kindness had such an impact upon her that Kati promptly recorded a video explaining what had happened and thanking Officer Liles for his compassion. Her video went viral on social media, and it was broadcast by several news outlets.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is because our University has so many compassionate people like Phil Liles and so many genuinely appreciative people like Kati Elliot that I am optimistic about our future.

In December, I had an opportunity to have lunch with some of our freshmen scholarship recipients. I asked the students to tell me about someone on our campus who is deserving of special recognition.

It was clear their responses were heartfelt. They told me about Wanda Crawford, who helped a student to improve his writing this Fall.  And Rachel Loftis, who was friendly and welcoming to our students.  And Jennifer Gardner, who connected a student with volunteer opportunities in the sports business field.

The stories continued. Pam Wager had encouraged a student to become a leader on campus.  Jonathan Reynolds had shared a draft of his most recent book because he knew the student wants to become an editor.  Gail Wells assisted a student outside class with assignments and projects whenever the student needed help.

Every student readily identified a special member of our University community.  I am sure that, if I could ask each of our 15,000 students the same question, I would hear thousands of stories just like these. Stories like the one Krystal Victor emailed me recently.   

The Fall semester was not an easy one for Krystal, because she suffered the loss of a close loved one. But she wrote to tell me about how her professors—Barclay Green and Gary Walton in English, Katherine Kurk in French, Flynn Ashley in communications, and Mel Peterson in mathematics—how each of her professors responded to her situation.

Krystal wrote that these faculty were, “So understanding and wonderful.  [They made] me remember why I chose to come to Northern Kentucky University.”

Krystal continued: “I am so privileged to attend a school where the teachers want to see me do well, make sure that all students have the equal opportunity to learn, and recognize that things can happen that affect students in drastic ways. I have never been as happy to be a Norse as I have been this semester, and my five professors are responsible for that.”

Krystal, thank you for sharing this message with me.

Now, let me tell you about Mark Douglas.

On Friday, December 11, like so many other seniors, Mark was anticipating our commencement ceremony the following day.  But while others were out celebrating their accomplishment with friends and family, Mark wrote me a letter – a four-page letter.

His words were powerful. “People have been recently asking me what it means to be successful, and I’m having a difficult time providing an answer. Now failure…failure is a subject which I could talk for hours about.”

You see, Mark’s road to graduation was a bumpy one. In 2008, he decided to drop out of college to strike out on his own. A year later, he became one of the victims of the recession. He found himself without a job, with a broken-down car, and without much hope. “Yes,” he wrote, “failure is something I could speak well on.”

In 2012, Mark had returned to our University, but he was considering dropping out for good. His new job was demanding, and he did not have much time to focus on his schoolwork. He was failing every class.

Then he received an email encouraging him to meet with Lisa Shewmon in our Student Success Center. Mark figured that he had nothing left to lose, so he went and told Lisa his story.  Lisa listened carefully.

Mark told me that Lisa then said something that he had not heard in a long time.  Lisa said: “Mark, this situation is rough, but you can succeed.”

So, together, they devised a plan to salvage his semester, and he ended up with A’s and B’s.  After that initial meeting, Mark had regular checkups with Lisa. She showed him where to find a new job that would give him more free time to study—a job he still holds today.

Lisa encouraged him to get involved on campus, and he joined the Phi Alpha Delta prelaw fraternity.  Last semester, Mark served as the chapter’s vice president.

Mark’s letter continued: “Lisa even took the time for my personal life. I remember one time a few years ago where I spent the whole session complaining on how impossible it was for me to get a girlfriend. And through it all, she just listened and supported.”

Last Fall, Lisa encouraged Mark to take the LSAT, even though he wasn’t sure he could get accepted to a law school.  He followed her advice and scored a 156.  That is a very good score.  He says that law schools from around the country are now recruiting him, many hinting at substantial scholarships.

Mark plans to begin law school in August – when he returns from his honeymoon.

He wrote: “I often think about how different my life would have been if I had never met Lisa – if I met someone who didn’t care. And that’s really what made the difference, that someone actually cared about my success, and took the time to show it.”

Lisa is here with us today, and I would like for her to stand and be acknowledged.

Mark is here as well.

Lisa, I want to read to you one final note that Mark included in his letter: “We live in an age which praises professors, but often forgets those in the staff who work to bring out the best in each and every one of us. All too often, the students who Lisa helps never return to say thank you or to show her the fruits of her work. It is, in many ways, and on many days, a thankless task.”

Lisa, Mark may be correct – but today is not one of those days.  Thank you and all of the staff in the Student Success Center for your dedication to Mark and to so many other students you serve every day.

As we embark on a new semester, we have so many people to thank for our individual and collective achievements.  I have identified a few of them.  But I know that there are so many more people who have made meaningful contributions to our success.  To all of you, thank you.

These achievements are a source of pride – and a source of inspiration.  Each step forward gives us increasing confidence that we have the ability to succeed – to thrive.

But I also know that our recent success has required a lot of hard work – and it has come at some cost.  I know that, over the past two years, there is anxiety on our campus.  I have heard about this anxiety – this apprehension – when I have met with faculty and staff in small groups and when I have had private conversations with several of you.

In preparing for my remarks this morning, I reflected on the possible causes of this anxiety, and I spent time over the past few weeks thinking about what I could do to ease that apprehension.

One of the primary causes of this heightened anxiety is the pace and volume of change that we have experienced on our campus over the last three years.  We know that change can be positive.  Change provides us with the opportunity to improve.  But we also know that change can be unsettling.

In order to implement our new strategic plan, each division developed a set of implementation strategies.  Those lists contained many creative and innovative ideas that you contributed during the planning process.  But some of those lists were fairly extensive, and each one of the strategies required you – our faculty and staff – to do something new or to do something differently – or to simply just do more work.

Upon reflection, I did not fully appreciate the stress that this amount of new initiatives would have on our people.  Going forward, in recognition of that impact, I will do a better job of prioritizing new initiatives and communicating those priorities.  Also, as circumstances change, we will do a better job of consciously deciding which initiatives should be suspended because they are no longer an immediate priority.

At the same time as we were completing the new plan and beginning to implement these strategies, there were a significant number of personnel changes.  In addition to a new president, we hired several new vice presidents and a new provost, many new deans, and a number of new department chairs.  I am excited – energized – by our collective capacity to attract outstanding talent to our University.

One faculty member, though, shared an interesting perspective on this same issue.  She told me that, in a relatively brief period of time, she had a new department chair, a new dean, a new provost, and a new president.  She was not critical of any of us.  But she wanted me to know that the pace of these personnel changes has a direct impact on many people – an impact that I did not fully appreciate.  And she was right.

Moreover, many of the new vice presidents and new deans reorganized their divisions or made some personnel changes.  So, all across campus, we have had new people and new plans.  Nearly all of the leadership positions have been filled, so the rate of personnel changes has now returned to a more normal pace.

But what will not change is the enthusiasm and the optimism that these people have brought with them to our University.  Like me, they chose to come here because they were inspired by the traditions of excellence and innovation that have characterized this institution since its founding nearly 50 years ago.  Together with you, we all share a passion to nurture a student-centered university that prepares our graduates to have fulfilling careers and meaningful lives, and we are all anxious to contribute new ideas.

Permit me to elaborate on this point from my own personal perspective.

Nearly four years ago, when I was introduced as your next president, I told you that I was honored to be selected because this institution is on the rise.  And, as you may recall, I teased the members of the search committee.  I said that “our fates are forever linked” – because if I screwed up, the university community would never forgive them.

That was a joke, of course.  But at the core of virtually every joke is a kernel of truth.  And the kernel of truth in that joke was my recognition that I have been entrusted with a special responsibility – a responsibility to ensure that our University continues to grow in reputation and in impact.  It is that sense of responsibility that drives me to explore new ways for us to get better.

I regularly share my perspective with candidates and with new administrators.  I encourage them to embrace this profound responsibility and this commitment to innovation.  And I share this perspective with you today, so that you can appreciate that these changes are the product of a sense of duty to honor the traditions of this institution by ensuring that we continue to reach our full potential.  All of us, working together, want to make our excellent University even better.  To settle for anything less would be a disservice to the men and women whose legacies all of us have inherited.

The second principal cause of anxiety on campus is that change is being imposed upon us due to external factors.  There is increasing competition for enrollment. Given that we have become so dependent upon tuition as our primary source of revenue, this threat is very serious.

Technology is also changing traditional teaching practices.  Some may question whether this technological disruption is conducive to improved learning, but the changes still continue nevertheless.

As a result of these and other cultural changes, our students have increased expectations and needs.   These demands are also changing the nature and volume of the services that we must provide to help our students succeed.

There are many other external pressures on us.  For example, employers have heightened expectations for the knowledge and skills that they expect we will develop in our graduates.  And it seems as if, every week, there is another article that questions the value of a college education, even though the objective data is quite compelling that a person with a college degree will earn much more than someone without that credential.

We are not alone in facing these external challenges; virtually every college and university in America is feeling this pressure.  But knowing that others are wrestling with the same threats does not dispel our anxiety.  Whenever we feel that we are not able to fully control our destiny, it is natural to be apprehensive.

I said a moment ago that, in the future, we will prioritize our new initiatives and adjust our pace of change in recognition of the stress that these changes impose upon each of you.  But given the nature of these external threats, we must all be prepared to respond to them.

The third primary source of the anxiety on our campus is the product of the financial challenges we continue to endure.  Over many years, we have reduced operating budgets.  We have had to eliminate some vacant staff positons, and we have not been able to replace all of the vacant full-time faculty positons.  Two years ago, we had to lay off full-time staff members.  In short, all across our campus, our faculty and staff have been asked to do more with fewer resources.

Moreover, as a result of significant financial constraints, including pension contribution rates that are rising at exorbitant rates, we have not provided sufficient recurring salary increases to our faculty and staff.  Since 2008, there have been only three recurring raises: 3% in fiscal year 2009, 3% in fiscal year 2012, and 1.5% in fiscal year 2014.

Last Fall, the Board of Regents also authorized a one-time, supplemental payment of $1000, but we must do more.  And we will.  I will also do a better job of communicating my appreciation for your contributions and the support you are providing every day to our students.  I am grateful for your service and your sacrifices.

I also welcome your thoughts on how we can tackle these challenges together.  I value your input and your constructive suggestions.

There is one challenge that we can overcome right now.  And, I need your help, once again, to succeed.

In the next two months, we have a window of opportunity to address a problem that has hampered the growth of our University for more than 20 years.  That problem is inadequate and disparate state support.

Over the last two decades, our University has grown at a pace that far exceeds the other comprehensive universities.  This chart illustrates the point.

Simply put, we have been producing the talented women and men who are growing our state’s economy and who are enhancing the social and cultural vitality of our region.

Notwithstanding our extraordinary growth, there has been no proportionate increase in our state appropriation, and there has been no adjustment in the relative shares of state support among the comprehensive universities.

Here is a chart that illustrates the consequence of inaction in Frankfort.  It relies on a very simple calculation: we have divided the state appropriation received by each comprehensive university by the number of undergraduate degrees conferred by that university.  As you see, this simple calculation shows a substantial disparity in funding among the comprehensive universities.  If our University were to receive the average amount of funding per undergraduate degree as the other institutions, we would receive an additional $19 million per year in state support.

Some of my colleagues criticized this calculation, claiming that it was too simple – that it did not account for a variety of other factors.  I acknowledged that this methodology was not perfect, so I asked them to join me in creating a more sophisticated formula.  They declined my invitation.

But, fortunately, in November 2013, as a result of our persistent advocacy, the Council on Postsecondary Education passed a resolution directing the CPE staff and the universities to develop a comprehensive funding model.

For more than 15 months, the university presidents met with several Council members and with CPE staff to develop this model.  The discussions were often difficult, and we had to make some significant compromises before we could arrive at a consensus.  But the CPE eventually settled on a reasonable methodology.  And what that methodology proved is what we have been saying all along:  that our University receives far less state support than the other comprehensive universities.

According to this CPE formula, our University is entitled to $10.7 million more in annual state support just to bring us to the average funding level of the other comprehensive institutions.  And this number does not fully account for the actual size of the disparity, because this formula discounts non-resident students by 50%.  If non-resident students were treated the same as resident students, the disparity would be more than $2 million larger.

Two months ago, the CPE submitted its biannual funding request to the newly elected Governor and to the General Assembly.  I am pleased that the CPE has included in its request a specific recommendation that our University receive an additional $10.7 million annually to address this substantial disparity.  This step is a very significant one.  It is one that we have requested for more than a decade.  But our work is not yet done.  We must now persuade Governor Bevin and the General Assembly to act on this recommendation.

Since November, I have been meeting with people who are interested in assisting us.  I presented to the NKU Foundation Board.  We held an open forum for faculty and staff here in the Student Union before the holidays.  I met with the Staff Congress and the Faculty Senate, and I have begun individual meetings with faculty and staff in each college.  These meetings will continue over the next few weeks, and I have two meetings scheduled this month with large groups of students.

There are two purposes for these meetings.

First, I want everyone to know that we have an extraordinary opportunity – a window of opportunity – to address a challenge that we have endured for far too long.

Second, I want everyone to know how they can help, if they truly care about the future of our University.

Our friends at the NKU Foundation have created a website.

It is called “Invest in Success.”  If you choose to visit this website, you will find that there is a very easy way to add your voice to our advocacy efforts.  Simply by entering your zip code, the website will generate an email that, with one click, will be sent to Governor Bevin and to your respective State Senator and State Representative.

Our Northern Kentucky legislative delegation is very well aware of the significance of this issue.  But please remind them – please remind your elected representatives – that they must now deliver for their constituents – for all of us.  Make them hear you.

I believe that Governor Bevin and his staff also appreciate the importance of this issue and how they have an opportunity to transform how higher education is funded in the Commonwealth.  They are sympathetic, but they face many competing financial obligations.  So, make them hear you.

We attract students from virtually every county in Kentucky, and our graduates live and work in communities all across the state.  These elected officials also need to know about our cause.  From Pikeville to Paducah – make them hear you.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a privilege to serve as the president of Northern Kentucky University, and it is an honor to be an advocate for you and for our students.

Please join me in this effort.  Our cause is right, and it is just.

Please, make them hear you.

Thank you.