Votruba pleased with progression

The 2004-2005 school year was one full of many accomplishments for Northern Kentucky University. They include the $54 million in states funds for the Bank of Kentucky Center, the $10 million raised for the Academic Quality and Capacity Initiative and the approval to build a $34 million student union.

But President James Votruba doesn’t want to stop there.

The Northerner had a chance to sit down with Votruba to discuss the progress NKU made this past year and what the university hopes to achieve in the years to come.

What were the university’s goals this past year, and were those accomplished?

Our goals were to sustain our enrollment, certainly, to make progress on our strategic plan and in particular to make wise investments as a result of the academic quality and capacity initiative. That was very important.

We had a major goal to make progress with the general assembly. We felt that with the governor’s support, and support from both the house and senate leadership, that we could some great progress there. This in so many ways was a historic session for us, both in terms of not only the student union and Bank of Kentucky Center, but also the ($6.5 million) that restored about ($4 million) in cuts.

Our goal was to successfully complete the capital campaign that we began about four years ago and that was accomplished going ($10 million) over the goal.

I think by and large our goals have been accomplished. There’s an area that I think I’m still concerned about and it’s the area of retention of students. I think we’re going to see some better numbers on retention. I’m trying to understand the forces that cause our students to not move through to graduation. Because we’re doing what the experts tell us are important to do- first year programs, learning communities, first year advisers, all those kinds of things- and our preliminary data suggests that our retention rates are much stronger and maybe that we had a couple of years essentially in aberration, but I think we’re making progress.

Is retention one of the university’s primary goals for the upcoming years?

Yes, (and) it needs to be that way. NKU has grown about 20 percent over the last five years, and what we want to make sure of is that admission standards is a part of that. NKU academy is a part of that. I got concerned a year ago over what appeared to be our willingness to admit students who were not prepared to succeed here. And this campus historically had been pretty close to open admissions. We started to look at students who had profiles that if you looked at the chances of graduation it was about six percent. A lot of universities solve their financial problems by admitting students who aren’t prepared to succeed and I just didn’t want us to go that direction.

What are some other of the university’s goals for next year and the upcoming years?

I think there are some big decisions coming up here in the next couple months. One will be whether we make a commitment to go to Division I. Another will be beginning the construction on the student union as well as the Bank of Kentucky Center. We’re going to bring in some consultants to help us understand how we integrate the Bank of Kentucky Center with the other developments and foundation up near the U.S. 27 entrance to the campus. That will combine a hotel, conference center, some retail, possibly an alumni office, so that’s going to be big. And we’re going to have to prepare for another general assembly session. We did a lot of celebration as a result of this last session this spring, but the state continues to have a half a billion dollar structural imbalance that is going to have to be covered one way or the other. So the budget that we’ll present to the board next week, for example, will have a doubling of our financial reserves going from two to just about four million in financial reserves so that if we see further reductions it isn’t going to interrupt programs and services that are available to students.

What else are you trying to do to secure more state funding for the university in the upcoming years?

The way we’ve done it over the last several years is we’re going to stay the course on that. That is to link the university with a broader set of economic and social priorities that the commonwealth has. Northern Kentucky as a region is about 14 percent of the state’s overall economy, and that percentage continues to increase. Our argument with the state is that if the state is intent on growing economically and continuing to accomplish progress on behalf of all its citizens, then this region has to continue to grow and mature. And that’s not going to happen without the university growing and maturing also.

We’re still the most under-funded university in the commonwealth. We’re still more tuition dependent than any other university (in the state). Students provide just about 60 percent of the total public funding. We are an outlier when compared to the other universities in that regard. So we’re going to try to get that corrected. Now that we have the Bank of Kentucky Center we can turn our attention to what have always been the number one construction priorities which are a new classroom building and the renovation of Old Science.

Next week we’ll take to the board (of regents) a recommendation to rename Old Science to Founder’s Hall in honor of the generation of faculty members who came here in the early ’70s and really created a culture that ensures that the student is at the center of what this institution is about.

We believe that they really built the university. If you visit another campus like NKU, in general, you would find much larger classes, much more reliance on part-time faculty and teaching assistants, a much greater press to become a research university and divert resources from undergraduate education more to research and graduate studies. This group connected undergraduate students with their work. By naming the building, we want to do two things- we want to celebrate their accomplishments while many of them are still active here at the university, because they deserve that, and it’s important for universities to say thank you. But the other is to challenge the university to sustain those values as we grow larger and as we mature, and if we have more financial challenges that we never lose sight of the values that were front and center as they built this place for the last 36 years.

To go back to the funding, do you see NKU as a cornerstone for Kentucky progressing economically?

I see NKU as a cornerstone for Northern Kentucky’s progress, and I see Northern Kentucky the region’s progress as a cornerstone for the commonwealth. If you take the Louisville metro area, the Lexington metro area and Northern Kentucky metro together they account for somewhere between 54 and 60 percent of the total state economy. And that means that for the state, what is smart to do is to continue to invest in those three regions in order to grow the economy.

For every dollar that we send to Frankfort in the form of taxes, we get back about 64 cents to this region. Continued economy growth allows the general assembly and the governor to spread resources to make sure that we invest in other areas of the state that may not be as economically as strong as we are. It’s not just about Northern Kentucky; it’s about this region progressing so that the entire commonwealth can progress.

To go back to Division I, how is that study progressing?

I think it’s progressing real well. What I’ve asked the committee to do is over the course of this academic year is to take an in-depth look at the advantages and disadvantages of going Division I and then layout the entire picture for me and the board of regents. I expect that we will ask the board of regents to consider this in July.

I see our option as threefold- one would be to recommi
t to playing at the top of Division II and be happy with our current status. Our teams are competing at the top of that division and doing a great job.

Another choice would be to say we’re going to Division I and just make that commitment right now.

The third option would be to say eventually we do want to go Division I but we need to ramp up our investment in athletics in order to do that. There are two types of investments: one is the annual operating- what it costs to run the athletic programming. We have to have more coaches, more support for athletics, more scholarships, more travel budget, that kind of thing. But the other thing that the consultants are telling us is our facilities are not up to where they need to be. And I think that’s true for Division II, honestly. This campus made the right choice at the time, I think, to invest in academics when it was so under-funded. But the athletics program has suffered as a result and we’ve begun to change that but there’s more that has to be done.

Some people have suggested to me that they really believe this decision has already been made and that we’re just going through the motions and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve worked at Division I programs and I’ve worked at programs that chose to go Division I after being Division II and I’ve got a pretty good sense, I think, of the advantages and disadvantages of that move. It could have terrific advantages for a campus, but you’re going to have to be real clear how you’re going to do it.

Athletics can generate a lot of interest on the part of the community. It can help tie the university and the community together. But you have to go at it the right way and you have to fund it adequately.

A move to Division I can not be done without financial support from the student body. There aren’t enough in the way of gate receipts and private donor support to offset (the costs). Part of the conversation that hast occur, and that has been occurring, is whether students would see this as a value added (to the university). It would probably mean an additional one percent per year (tuition increase) for probably three years to get us where we need to be.

What are you doing to try and damper tuition increases in the upcoming years?

This will be the last year that I anticipate double digit tuition increases, and that’s for two reasons. Seven and a half percent of tuition this year and last year is devoted to two initiatives- the student union, that’s 2.5 percent, and then this year will be the second year of a two-year 5 percent increase for (the) Academic Quality and Capacity (Initiative). And that, in its simplest form, was to ensure that classes remain small, that even though we were growing, that we didn’t grow on the backs of just part-time faculty- we hired full-time faculty members- that we’d invest in academic support services that were important to student success.

In my mind, what distinguishes NKU from most of the other universities, is the fact that you can come in here as a first-year student and you can be in classes of 20, 25 students. Maybe a class of 70 or 80, but that’s a large class here. At my alma matter, Michigan State, that’s a small class. A large class is 1,200, 600 or 300. We had a choice to make, do we knock down some walls and make larger classrooms and hire more part-time faculty or do we protect what we’re doing, even in difficult financial times.

The financial difficulties are both lack of adequate state support but also the spiraling costs of health care and utilities and those kinds of things. We’re looking at a 20 percent increase in health care next year and an 18 percent increase in utility costs. It’s about cost, but it’s also about value- what am I getting for the dollar I’m paying in tuition? If we were only focused on cost, we could get along with no tuition increase next year and this place would not close, but it would be a different type of education. We’ll recommend a 13.7 percent tuition increase this year. I thought we could get it down as low as 12.6, but there’s enough uncertainty in our environment that it’s just risky. If you pulled the 7.5 percent out of the 13.7, you’re down to about 6 percent and that’s the real operating increase for the campus. Because we combine tuition and fees, if you separated in a way that most universities do, you’d pull out of that the 2.5 percent for the student union and you’d pull out 5 percent of that f or academic quality and capacity and you’d be down into single digits.

Next year, unless the bottom falls out of the state budget or something unforeseen happens here that no one anticipates, we’ll be down in single digits and the lower the better as far as I’m concerned.

What is the university doing to promote and expand diversity next year and the upcoming years?

That is a priority for the campus, it’s a priority reflected in our core values and it’s reflected as well in what employers say they want from our graduates. They want what is referred to sometimes as cultural competence. They want students who are graduating who can look across at their own experience and understand the world from different perspectives.

We’re going to create a new position within academic affairs, an associate provost position, that will focus on diversity and multiculturalism as it relates to the curriculum and as it relates to the recruitment and retention of faculty and students.

We’ve made some great progress over the last few years. If you look at the number of tenured track African American faculty members, that number has grown considerably over the last several years and certainly this past year.

We continue to have a challenge related to retention of African American males and I want to focus our attention on that as well.

We’ve really made some good progress in recruitment of faculty and staff, and my hope is that we continue to make that progress.

Some people think that, at times, the universities will be accused of indulging themselves in political correctness, but the reality is that our students have got to live and work and be citizens in a world that is very diverse, very multicultural.

One of my concerns is that I think we need to pay more attention in our curriculum to the Middle East. I don’t know how you can be an adult and a citizen and understand what’s going on on this planet without understanding the role of religion and oil and colonialism and all the things that kind of come together in the Middle East.

All that comes back to the issue of diversity. Diversity is never and end in itself, I feel. It’s an effort to create an academic climate here that is the best that it can be for producing graduates who are prepared to live and work in a world that is diverse.

So you’re not only looking towards local cultural diversity, but also world diversity?

We’ve had historically a good bit of focus on strengthening our African American enrollments, recruiting a more diverse faculty (and) we’ve included now in our attention a population that is growing dramatically in this metropolitan area and that is Hispanics.

What our responsibility is to that population and how we more effectively reach that population is a place where we’re going to spend some time and attention.

Then the main goal of next year is the retention of students?

I think there are several goals. I think goal number one will be our continue to focus on retention. Goal number two will be to continue our private support throughout the region and along with that, goal number three- another successful legislative session. That will be key for us.

Recruiting and retaining not only students of color, but also faculty and staff of color is going to be important.

If you think of universities as having three goals- we teach students and produce graduates, we engage in research and other forms of creative and scholarly activity and hopefully involve undergraduate students in that as well, and
we apply knowledge and partnership with the community to help address community concerns. There are three areas of community concern that NKU is really focused on. One is supporting economic development, and we have a new associate provost who is focused on helping us support the growth of industry in this area, business and support entrepreneurship and just grow the economy, that’s number one.

Number two is supporting strong partnership with P-12 education. We’re going to announce shortly a new initiative with UC and Xavier where all three of these universities will focus on expanding college readiness and work with the high schools to help test high school junior in terms of their readiness for college.

The third is support of local government effectiveness. What we have are local government officials who are confronting a very bewildering array of decisions that they have to make. One of the ways that we can support that is to have experts in those areas that can go in and sit down with the local city council or county commissioners and say, ‘Look, can we help you address these issues?”

Going back to studying high school students and their readiness for college, how does it benefit the university even if only a portion of them go to NKU?

Of course, the obvious is that the more students who are prepared to succeed in college, the less remediation that we’ll have to do here. And about 90 percent of our total student body is from this metro area, so there is a self-interest. But beyond that, if this region is going to strive, we’ve got to have more young people going on to college and completing college.

Right now Kentucky as a state, for every 20 students who start high school, three of those students will graduate from some form of post-secondary education. And that number ought to be five or six.

If Kentucky is going to compete in a knowledge-based economy, more Kentuckians are going to have to go to college, more are going to have to complete college, more are going to have to go on graduate school and engineering and technology and information sciences- some of these areas. We think we’ve got an important role to play there.

So it’s not only to see if students are ready for college, but also to prepare them and have them gain an interest in college.

What you will find is that one of the major stumbling blocks – lack of sufficient preparation in mathematics is probably the number one problem for entering students. Not only here, but at other universities. Writing skills is another deficiency, and then there’s study skills, time management, those kinds of things. When you’re on a campus like this where it’s primarily a commuter campus, the distractions are numerous. Every student who comes here, comes with a dream. You don’t come here without a dream and you don’t come here without hope. You don’t get out of bed without some level of hope. People have to have hope about their lives, about their family’s lives, about their future, and hope is the foundation on which you build a future. We have 14,000 students on this campus, and every one of them came hopeful and came with some dreams about what they wanted to accomplish. But not all of them came with the preparation to move close to those dreams, and that’s what we’re trying to impact. I’m not na