Thursday, October 9, 2003

At NKU, it's really not about the buildings at all

Laura Pulfer

I thought it was all about buildings. That's what you notice at first if you haven't been to Northern Kentucky University's campus for a while. It used to look vaguely military, spare, gray. Clearly an upstart.

Now it looks big, busy and prosperous. Grown up. A sea of cars on a river of asphalt. More student housing. More classrooms.

Ten years ago, I visited the Highland Heights campus at least once a week to teach an evening class. Most nights, I could park right across from my classroom, sort of like the old airport when you could see the ticket counter from your car. Very convenient to park but not much of an airport until Delta came along and made it a hub, adding flights and lots of concrete.

When James C. Votruba came to the campus from Michigan State University, where he was a vice provost, he told the committee searching for a new president, "This ought to be the major knowledge hub for the region." Big talk.

But after he was hired in April of 1997, his specialty became listening.

He started meeting with students, faculty and community leaders. In his first few months, he met with more than 30 groups, asking what they expected from his university. He met in classrooms and in boardrooms. He ate lunch with the faculty and at the Queen City Club.

Oh, and it didn't take him long to find his way to Frankfort, where they keep the big education money. Meanwhile, he hired three new "gift officers" to raise private funding. He said his goal was to build a "flexible institution that revolves around learners." Founded in 1968,enrollment at NKU was about 11,500 students when Votruba came to the campus. Now, enrollment is about 14,400, "but the demographic has remained the same in many respects," Votruba says. Students still mostly commute and, just as I remember from my years as a teacher there, about 85 percent work 20 or more hours a week. When one of my students said he missed class because his car wouldn't start or his boss made him work overtime, I believed him. When a girl looked as if she were dead on her feet, I didn't suspect it was because she'd been out all night partying. About 40 percent of NKU students are first-generation college, upwardly mobile at an upwardly mobile institution.

Since 1997, the number of international students has tripled to about 600. About 2 percent of students were African-American then. Today, the number has increased to about 6 percent. "Honors students have increased from 150 to more than 400, and 100 percent of our pre-med students were accepted at medical schools," the president says.

He has rewarded faculty early and often. Professors include the likes of Bob Wallace, whose book about artist Frank Stella was pronounced "astounding" by the New York Times, and Jim Ramage, singled out this year by the Kentucky Advocates for Higher Education for his "commitment to students and excellence in service."

You can't have a great university without great teachers, says NKU's president. And he is aiming for greatness.

Scientist George Rieveschl Jr., who donated $1 million to NKU's impressive new $38 million science building, nonetheless said, "It's not the cage that makes the canary sing."

Which simply means the most exciting story at NKU is not about buildings at all.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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