GEOFFREY S. MEARNS SCRIPT
2013-14 FALL CONVOCATION
9:30 AM, FRIDAY, AUGUST 16, 2013
GREAVES CONCERT HALL


Provost Wells, thank you for your kind introduction.

Dr. Pennington, thank you and your students for another great performance. This ensemble performed at the prestigious Jazz Educators Network Convention earlier this year. They are world-class.

Professor Lipping, your presentation was also excellent. Congratulations on receiving this honor. It is well deserved.

Let's give our students and our faculty another round of applause.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

At the outset, I want to acknowledge Dr. Wells for her service to the university. Last January, Gail informed me that she was planning to return to teaching.

As provost for the past nine years, Gail has played a major role in our university’s progress. She has helped to create the College of Informatics, to increase graduate programs and undergraduate research, to integrate public engagement into the curriculum, and to increase the use of technology in instruction.

On a personal note, I am grateful to you, Gail, for the assistance you provided me during my transition.

When we get closer to the culmination of Gail’s tenure as provost, we will plan an appropriate way to express our appreciation to her. Until then, please join me in thanking Gail for her dedicated service.

I would also like to recognize the Board of Regents, including the new officers: Chair Dennis Repenning; Vice Chair Elizabeth Thompson; and Secretary Nathan Smith. I wish you the best of luck in your new leadership positions.

I would like to welcome new regent Andrá Ward. Mr. Ward was just sworn in as our newest regent, and he is joined this morning by his family and some of his friends. Welcome back to NKU.

I am grateful to all of the Regents for their continued support of me and this university. It is a privilege to serve as president of this university. As I begin my second year, I will continue to honor your trust with my best efforts.

To our staff, faculty and students: to all of you…thank you for joining us this morning.

I wish you and your families a happy and healthy new school year. May this be another great year for our students, our university, and our community. I am grateful for your commitment to NKU, and I look forward to another rewarding year with all of you.

There are two principal purposes for my remarks today. The first purpose is to celebrate the achievements of our university. The second purpose is to provide an update on the plan that is emerging from our strategic planning process.

With respect to our recent achievements, these examples represent some of the many good things happening on campus — all of which make us very proud.

By any measure, this past year was an excellent one for our university. Last August, we welcomed the most academically qualified freshman class in our university’s history.

Applications for admission to this year’s freshman class increased by more than 20% compared to fall 2012. And we anticipate that we will enroll at least 150 more freshmen than we did last year – nearly a 10% increase. Perhaps most importantly, the 2013 freshman class will be the most academically qualified class in our history.

Permit me to give you some context for this achievement. In 2005, the year NKU implemented admissions standards, the average ACT score of the incoming class was 20.7. Last year, the average ACT score had increased significantly to 22.7. This year, we project that the average ACT score of the freshman class will be 23.3.

Our progress over the past few years has been remarkable. It is a reflection of the quality of our academic programs. It is also the result of a deliberate enrollment strategy that has communicated to outstanding students that NKU should be their first choice for college.

This success is also being fueled by a variety of factors. For example, a national organization recently identified NKU as the university in Kentucky with the highest return on investment for students and their families.

We are also increasing the diversity of our student body. Compared to fall 2012, there will be a 13% increase in the number of African-American students in our freshman class. The number of Latino students will also increase this fall.

These results are also the product of increased focus. For example, 23 Whitney M. Young Scholars came to campus for a two-week enrichment course this summer. They took courses in science, math, theatre, and computer science. I taught one class, and Jennifer and I had the privilege of having these young women and men at our home for lunch.
This year, NKU hosted the 2nd Annual Latino College Fair. 128 students from seven high schools from the metropolitan area participated in the event.

We also established a new partnership with the Minority Recruit Program to expand outreach efforts to high school students in Michigan, northern Ohio, and Washington, D.C.

This university will remain dedicated to a campus that is safe, supportive, and inclusive for everyone.

In addition to freshman, we are also intent on attracting more transfer students, and we are developing new strategies to achieve this objective. For example, we are finalizing a new partnership with Gateway Community and Technical College that will create clear degree pathways in more than 30 academic programs. These “academic road maps” will ensure a seamless progression from an Associate degree at Gateway to the appropriate Baccalaureate degree at NKU.

For both traditional and post-traditional students, we are increasing online and hybrid courses. As a result, there was a 30 percent increase in enrollment in online courses last year, and we project that online enrollment will grow at double-digit rates again this year.

We are not just attracting more students. We are also producing more graduates. Many more graduates.

This past year, NKU graduated more than 2,800 students, including the largest undergraduate class in the university’s history. It was an honor to participate in my first two NKU commencements – and to shake each graduate’s hand.

Speaking of honors, last year, 625 of our undergraduates earned their bachelor’s degree with academic honors. This figure represents a 43% increase in just the last five years.

While this news is very good, we have more work to do. Specifically, we must continue to improve our undergraduate retention and graduation rates. We haven’t experienced as much progress in these areas as we’d all like.

But we are implementing several initiatives that will produce the results that we desire – and the results that our students deserve.

The renovation of the first two floors of the University Center into the Student Success Center is complete. The facility now contains our most important student support activities. This center is more than a shared location, though. Within the center we have integrated the activities of these support offices to provide a seamless experience for our students.

The Student Success Center is anchored by the new Norse Advising unit, which will increase the visibility and availability of advising services for undergraduate students. The unit will also be a hub to enhance academic advising in the colleges and departments throughout the university. The overarching programmatic goal is to link academic advising to career planning.

In order to help our students succeed in those careers, our university continues to adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of an ever-changing job market.

This fall, we are launching a new undergraduate program in "Big Data": the degree is the Bachelor of Science in Data Science. This program is only the second data-science bachelor's program offered in the United States. It combines computer science, statistics, and business informatics to enable people to make informed decisions based on the vast amounts of data generated by our highly networked society. This type of data collection and analysis is a new and expanding industry.

In collaboration with the College of Informatics, our law school continues to develop the NKU Chase Law & Informatics Institute. The law school recently secured a $1 million gift to establish the W. Bruce Lunsford Academy for Law, Business & Technology. This program will focus on developing lawyers who are thoroughly trained in law, business, philosophy, technology, and culture. The Academy will give students the critical technological, financial, and professional skills to compete in today’s global business environment.

In the area of scholarship, NKU’S commitment to research and creative activity is stronger than ever. We are seeing steady increases in the number of undergraduate students who collaborate with our faculty on such projects. Last spring, nearly 600 students participated. I saw our students’ excellent work on campus and on display in Frankfort. I was very proud and impressed. I am grateful to our faculty who participate in this valuable program.

We’ve also developed and expanded initiatives to help students prepare for college.

For example, in the College of Arts and Sciences, faculty in the English department created The Literacy Enhancement Project for Student Success. In this new outreach program, our English faculty visit schools to offer workshops for teachers and to help them develop, administer, and score assessments of their students’ writing.

The Kentucky Center for Mathematics, located at NKU, is another initiative promoting college readiness. Since 2006, this statewide, teacher-driven program has collaborated with math educators in nearly every county in the Commonwealth. Last year, the center supported more than 900 teachers and more than 41,000 students in Kentucky’s schools.

The College of Arts and Sciences has many other programs that support our community. For example, the NKU String Project continues to earn national attention. It received an invitation to perform as the featured group at the prestigious 2014 National American String Teachers Association Conference in Louisville. The String Project is a collaborative initiative that enables NKU music majors to mentor and teach pre-college students enrolled in NKU's Music Preparatory Program.

Collaboration with community partners is also a high priority for many other programs at NKU.

Just as we pride ourselves on giving back to the community, we also teach our students the value of giving to others. One example of this commitment is the Mayerson Student Philanthropy Project. Since 1999, when we began the program with a generous gift from the Mayerson Family Foundation, approximately 2,700 NKU students have evaluated the needs of more than 290 non-profits in our community. To date, the Project has awarded more than $750,000 to non-profits based on our students’ recommendations.

Time and again, our Mayerson students tell us that their eyes have been opened to community needs. This result isn’t short-term: published research confirms our expectations that our Mayerson students remain dedicated community stewards long after graduation.

In 2012, the Haile/US Bank College of Business established the INKUBATOR. This summer accelerator program provides current students and recent graduates with the resources to turn an idea into a viable business opportunity. This year, the INKUBATOR added two new programs – INKUBATOR Lite and an INKUBATOR Entrepreneurial Team called Norse Express. One of the programs in the Class of 2013 – Touritz – was just selected as one of this year’s eight UpTech companies. In addition to funding, UpTech companies get access to resources from NKU’s Center for Applied Informatics.

Our College of Education and Human Services continues to make a significant impact on our community. One fact will demonstrate this point: approximately 80% of the teachers in the Northern Kentucky region earned either their undergraduate degree or their graduate degree from NKU – and many received both degrees at our university.

Our College of Health Professions also demonstrates a strong connection with community. I’ll share just one example with you.

The Department of Advanced Nursing Studies has just added a concentration for family psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioners. This program was formed in response to the need for more people to care for veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Our veterans deserve the best care, and our faculty and students will provide it.

NKU has a reputation as a great place to prepare for a career in health care. In order to expand academic programs in these disciplines, we believe that a new Health Innovations Center is the best way to address the changes that are occurring in health care.

This Center is the next “BIG IDEA” for NKU – and for our community. This innovative, inter disciplinary center will prepare the next generation of allied health professionals.

In addition to this core objective, we will build a facility that enables students, faculty, and practitioners in various disciplines to teach, learn, and conduct research in innovative and collaborative ways. The goal is to help people make better decisions about their health, thereby improving outcomes and decreasing the cost of providing health care.

While the Health Innovations Center is just a concept, there are several major projects presently underway that will continue to transform our campus.

As you made your way to the auditorium this morning, you saw that the renovation of the north plaza continues. In addition to removing deteriorating concrete, the project will provide more green space and another outdoor amphitheater for our students, faculty, and staff.

We also continue to expand our residence halls. A few months ago, we purchased Lakeside Terrace, which will be converted to a 200-bed residence hall that will open for students in fall 2014.

The expansion and renovation of our campus recreation center is set to begin in January. This project will double the size of the Albright Health Center. We anticipate that this project will earn at least a LEED Silver designation. The water in the new swimming pool will be heated by a geo-thermal system, which will also provide approximately 20% of the cooling for the entire building.

It’s also an exciting time for Norse Athletics. This fall, we begin our second year in D-I. In our first year, our programs were very competitive.

More importantly, our student-athletes continue to excel in the classroom. This past spring, they earned the highest collective GPA in our history -- an impressive 3.15. The highest team GPA was the women’s volleyball team with an outstanding 3.72 GPA in the spring semester.

Our student-athletes also demonstrated the character of our institution by competing with integrity. For example, our women’s soccer team was one of only seven Division I teams in the country to receive the Team Ethics and Sportsmanship Award.

Related to recreation and fitness, you may already know that, for the third consecutive year, NKU was named the Healthiest Employer of Greater Cincinnati by the Cincinnati Business Courier for organizations with between 1,000 and 5,000 employees. This award recognizes NKU's commitment to the health and wellness of everyone on our campus.

Furthering that commitment to the welfare of our people, our campus will become completely tobacco-free in January. As we make this transition, we will provide many programs to support our faculty, staff, and students who may wish to quit or reduce their tobacco use.

With respect to making the campus more beautiful, I want to give you a brief update on a challenge I gave to our facilities staff last fall. You may remember that I offered to provide $50,000 to fund one or more projects that they – the staff – believed would contribute to the ongoing efforts to make our campus more attractive. Their proposals were so impressive that I decided to fund all five of them – and the Board persuaded me to increase the fund to $75,000.

Today, we are seeing the results of these projects, including more landscaping at the traffic circle, more campus directories, more planters on our plazas, and aesthetic improvements to the bus stops. If you follow me on Twitter, you saw a photo of some of our facilities staff and me at one of the beautiful new bus stops a few weeks ago.

If you follow me on Twitter.”  Until just a few months ago, I couldn’t even imagine that I would say those words. Change is good for all of us.

As I was saying, I am grateful for the ongoing commitment of our outstanding facilities staff. Our campus has never been more beautiful, because they are great at what they do. Let’s give them a round of applause.

Indeed, all of the achievements I shared this morning were the product of the ideas and efforts of our outstanding people.

I’ve said it before, but I can’t say it too often: our university’s greatest asset is our people: our excellent faculty and dedicated staff; our devoted alumni; our generous donors and community partners; and, finally, our students — women and men who come to NKU not with a sense of entitlement, but with a sense of purpose.

We are fortunate this morning to have a student with us who embodies this sense of purpose – a woman who has learned to take nothing for granted. Before I introduce her, I would like to tell you her story.

Strong, diligent, intelligent, compassionate: these are words that describe Felicity Spicer. Felicity began college at the NKU Grant County Center in fall 2009. She was an excellent student, and she was well known for her beautiful singing voice. But at the end of her freshman year, Felicity was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

She then endured a year of aggressive medical treatments, including two operations. After surgery, Felicity was unable to speak or sing for four months. Her doctors told her that she might never regain her voice. She was also warned that she might not survive her treatment.

Felicity missed an entire academic year, because she was too sick. But she returned to NKU in fall 2011. Last summer, though, the cancer returned, and she went through another round of treatments.

But Felicity did not give up hope, and her condition improved. And on August 16, 2012, Felicity was told she was “cancer free.”

That means today – August 16, 2013 – is her one year anniversary of being cancer-free. Or, as Felicity says, it’s her one-year “cancerversary.” She spent the past year as a special “Hero of Hope” spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society – using her voice to inspire others.

Today, Felicity is on target to complete her Bachelor Degree in Communication Studies in May. Her current GPA is 3.7. This achievement is the product of her hard work and commitment. After graduation, she plans to move to Nashville to pursue a career in marketing and public relations in the recording industry.

And there’s more good news: Felicity has regained her ability to sing. At the end of the program, Felicity will join me on stage to sing our alma mater.

Felicity is here today with her mother. Felicity, would you please stand, so that we may all join in celebrating your “cancerversary.”

Felicity means “great happiness.” That phrase accurately describes how we all feel this morning.

Now, I would like to take a few minutes to discuss our university’s future. It is a future that contains some challenges. It is also a future that is filled with many opportunities and with great potential – including the potential to nurture, to inspire, and to empower so many women and men like Felicity Spicer.

In January, I appointed a committee to help us develop a written plan to meet those challenges and to achieve our potential. Several of the members of the strategic planning committee are with us this morning. As chair of this outstanding group, I can personally attest to how hard they have been working on our behalf. Let’s give them a hand to let them know how much we appreciate their effort.

I want to specifically recognize one member of the committee: Katie Cox.

Ms. Cox is the student on the committee. That means she represents nearly 16,000 people who have diverse perspectives and different needs. She has discharged this responsibility very well ¬¬– with great energy and enthusiasm. And in the lively give-and-take of the committee’s deliberations, Katie never shrinks from the debate. Katie, please stand.
The work of the committee was driven to a great extent by the significant participation of so many members of the university community. The process has been inclusive and extensive.

At the outset, the committee established seven working groups involving more than a hundred faculty, staff, and students. These working groups conducted focused research on specific issues and prepared reports for our use.

The committee held ten open forums on campus. All of these forums were well attended, and the discussions were quite helpful to us.

We also engaged the broader community. We had meetings in large and small groups with elected officials, school superintendents, business leaders, and employers. Our university is a valuable community resource, so our plan for the future must reflect the needs and aspirations of the community we serve.

The committee also circulated a lengthy on-line survey. The responses to this survey were very impressive. Approximately 1,000 faculty and staff completed the survey. Nearly 2,000 students did so as well. And do you know which segment of our student population had the largest number of survey responses? Our seniors. Those men and women who will be graduating very soon remain personally invested in the future of our university – their university. That fact is impressive and inspiring.

For a couple of months, the committee has been working very hard to distill all of this information into a comprehensive, yet concise strategic plan. We will distribute the draft plan to the campus and the community on September 1. I ask that you review the draft and share your feedback with the committee. We will provide many opportunities for you to do so.

Today, I will highlight a few of the central themes and important elements. Some of the elements will be new for us, but many will be consistent with our institution’s long-standing commitments and our fundamental mission.

For instance, our paramount institutional goal will continue to be to promote the success of our students. In that regard, though, we will emphasize the importance of lifelong learning. It is not sufficient if we simply enable our students to get a job right after graduation. That’s good. But we must give them the skills, the values, and the character to have fulfilling careers and meaningful lives in an increasingly dynamic and competitive world.

In order to prepare our students for this world, we must set and maintain rigorous standards in all of our programs. We must consistently assess our students’ progress towards clearly stated goals and objectives. And, we must evaluate our performance, both individually and collectively, with constructive candor.

In the planning process, our students said that they want us to demand excellence. We have, and we will. We must also demand excellence from ourselves in everything that we do.

Prospective employers and community leaders told us that the so-called “soft skills” were no longer merely desirable “extras” in the hiring process. Rather, these skills – as opposed to content knowledge – are now the critical factor in distinguishing a new hire from a mere applicant.

Therefore, in addition to content knowledge and critical thinking skills, we must promote and develop other skills – such as communication, leadership, and professionalism – across the entire curriculum. We must also expand the variety and number of experiential learning opportunities for our students. These practical, real-world opportunities enable our students to develop important relationships and valuable skills, while they apply content knowledge to current issues.

The strategic plan will also call for our university to be an innovative leader in transdisciplinary education and inquiry. Transdisciplinary teaching and learning expands and extends upon the principles of interdisciplinary studies by fostering a holistic approach to solving the problems that arise at the intersection of business, science, law, and culture. Prospective employers increasingly want graduates who have been taught in this fashion, because they are more innovative and more creative.

The strategic plan will expressly encourage new and enhanced collaborations with those employers. These partnerships will enable our university to identify and strengthen our academic programs. We will maintain and support a comprehensive portfolio of programs. But all of our programs must strive to be distinctive through a combination of innovation and impact.

With respect to our collective impact, the proposed plan will call upon us to enhance our university’s commitment to community engagement. This attribute has become a part of our institutional DNA. The broad array of such activities provides educational value to our students while fostering economic development and community vitality.

Going forward, our university will also work more closely with our education partners to prepare all of our children for college. It is in our institutional self-interest to do so. More importantly, it is our professional obligation.

The proposed plan also recognizes our obligation to serve both traditional and post-traditional students. We will continue to grow residential housing opportunities for traditional students. And we will increase campus activities that engage our students.

But we will also improve the services we provide to post-traditional students, such as students who transfer here from other colleges, adults who attend part-time, and returning veterans. Last year, 47% of the men and women who received an undergraduate degree from NKU were 25 years of age or older when they received their diploma. That fact distinguishes our institution. It’s also a fact that makes us proud.

In order to serve a diverse student population, the plan emphasizes the importance of using technology to improve access and educational outcomes. We shouldn’t fear the changes that technology will bring. Rather, we must continue to embrace technology as a tool to help us serve our students even better.

To achieve the goals articulated in the plan, we must invest in our most valuable asset: our outstanding people. So, the plan calls for us to create more intentional and more comprehensive professional development programs for our faculty and staff. In my opinion, the plan that will emerge from this process will be a very good one. It will build upon our strengths, while promoting innovation and creativity.

But a good strategic plan without successful execution is a meaningless exercise. It is the combination of planning and execution that will distinguish our university – that combination is what will make us exceptional.

Therefore, we have already begun to prepare for the implementation of the plan. We have developed a preliminary list of implementation task forces that must include people from several different divisions. Last Friday, in a meeting with the academic deans and vice presidents, we also discussed the need for all colleges and units to prepare to align their strategic plans with the university’s plan.

Successful implementation will require discipline. We must focus on the specific strategies. We must constantly assess our progress. We must have the courage and tenacity to persist, even if some of the initial outcomes are not what we anticipate. And we all must have the courage to change and to grow.

I will have more to say about the implementation of the strategic plan at our January convocation, after the Board of Regents has approved the final plan at its November meeting. I will just add one final observation.

As you read the plan, you may feel tempted to see if it adequately represents your discipline or your unit. I ask that you resist this temptation. Instead, please look for all of the ways that you – each one of you – can contribute even more to our collective ambitions – to our success.

In higher education, we often talk about shared governance. That term embraces an important attribute of university culture – that faculty and staff share in the authority to manage the activities of the institution. That principle is important, and we will honor it.

But I believe that we should articulate this value in an additional way. As we contemplate our future, let’s recognize and embrace our shared responsibility. As you review the proposed plan, please accept your individual responsibility for contributing to the collective goals of our university. And let us pledge to work together constructively to achieve those goals.

Permit me now to close on a personal note.

For me, this past year has been extremely rewarding.

It has been the most exciting and rewarding year in my career. During my first year, I have had the pleasure to meet and work with faculty, staff, students, and alumni, and so many friends and partners in our community. You have empowered me with your ideas, and you have inspired me with your passion.

You have also graciously welcomed me and my family. On behalf of Jennifer and my family, thank you for your hospitality and for your generosity.

On a personal level, though, it has been a difficult year. Last August, when I spoke at this convocation, I did so within 24 hours of attending my mother’s funeral.

A few weeks ago, as I was beginning to prepare these remarks, my father died.

As you may know, my parents committed their professional lives to education and to public service. My parents believed that every person has the right to a quality education – a quality public education.

My parents believed that education is the foundation of a vibrant economy and a just society. They believed that education is the foundation of a stable democracy. They believed that education is the foundation of a nation that is secure and free. They believed that education is the foundation of a life that enables one to appreciate beauty and to recognize truth.

And my parents believed that education has the power to transform one’s life and the lives of one’s family. They believed in the transformative power of education, because education transformed them – and education transformed the people they then taught, mentored, and served.

My mother and father were also engaged, supportive parents. In fact, for as long as I can remember, I spoke to my father the day before every major event in my life. Before every exam. Before every race. Before every trial. And before every speech.

I would ask for my father’s advice. And, if he couldn’t be present, I asked him to think of me when that event would be taking place.

I wasn’t able to speak to my father last night.

But as I prepared for this day, I reflected on the many lessons that I was so fortunate to have learned from him and from my mother.

I reflected on the fact that each one of us has a small group of special people in our lives. People who have shaped who we are. People who have encouraged us. People who have inspired us to believe that great things are possible – possible with ambition, with planning, and with hard work.

I also reflected on the men and women who made it possible for us to teach, study, and work at this university. Only 45 years ago, these men and women had the audacity to embrace a bold dream. They believed that they could transform this place where you sit and where I stand today. They believed that they could transform farmland into a modern, comprehensive university. And, today their ambitious dreams have come true.

Finally, I reflected on the obligation we owe to these men and women – our parents, our teachers, our mentors, and our predecessors here at NKU. I believe we have an obligation to honor their efforts and their memories with a sustained commitment to achieve our individual and collective aspirations.

For now it is our time.

It is our time. It is our time to honor their legacies. It is our time to fulfill our dreams.

On Monday, we begin a new academic year. A year that has great promise for each one of us – and for our students. Let’s go to work.

Thank you. Thank you, very much.

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