Fifteen years ago I had the privilege of returning to my alma mater as President
– something rare and very special in higher education today. The challenge given to me by the WKU Board of Regents at that time was to achieve a lasting transformation of the University from top to bottom. I was impressed with the Board’s focus. It was very progressive – and equally aggressive – for a Kentucky “regional” institution. And so, together, we embarked on this wonderful journey. The result has been a physical, cultural, and attitudinal transformation of WKU.
Coincidentally, I arrived as the Kentucky General Assembly was debating Higher Education Reform. With the passage of what was known as “House Bill 1 – The Kentucky Postsecondary Improvement Act of 1997” – came a number of substantial changes to higher education in Kentucky. The opportunity was ripe for WKU to emerge with a broader mission and a new vision.
While educating students and providing access to a quality, affordable higher education certainly remain at the heart of what we are about as a Kentucky public institution, what Kentucky needs us to be is much more significant. Kentucky needs its universities to be economic development drivers that respond to the needs of business and industry and to be forces for solving problems and improving the quality of life for all those within our reach – whether within the confines of our hometowns or across the globe in a remote African village.
WKU has shed its regional context. Our vision has changed – no longer are we satisfied with the idea of being a good regional university or even with being “The Best Comprehensive University in Kentucky and Among the Best in the Nation.” Our vision today is to be “A Leading American University with International Reach,” and we are ever focused on the measures that provide points of proof that we are achieving that vision.
During these 15 years we have completed two strategic plans to physically rebuild the campus, significantly increase our enrollment, improve academic quality, and enhance student life. We have just embarked on a third strategic plan, which emphasizes four broad goals: enhancing academic quality, building a diverse university community, impacting the quality of life in our region, and being good stewards of the campus physical plant and our financial resources. We have completed two capital campaigns that combined have raised more than $304 million in private gifts to support faculty, students, programs, and capital projects at WKU. Most importantly, we have created the intellectual heartbeat of Kentucky for elementary, secondary, and postsecondary students through the Center for Gifted Studies, the Gatton Academy of Mathematics and Science in Kentucky, and the WKU Honors College. Our Honors College student academic measures are outpacing those of elite private institutions, and their successes are becoming the means through which WKU is achieving national and international recognition.
We have expanded our reach in Kentucky by enhancing our regional campuses in Elizabethtown/ Radcliff/Fort Knox, Owensboro, and Glasgow. More than 5,000 students are enrolled on those campuses. We have grown our distance learning programs with more than 6,000 students currently enrolled from across Kentucky and from nearly every state in the nation. We have also recommitted ourselves to growing the number of students who transfer to WKU from Kentucky’s community and technical colleges by signing joint admission agreements with KCTCS institutions in Bowling Green, Elizabethtown, Henderson, Hopkinsville, Madisonville, Owensboro, and Somerset. Nearly 1,000 KCTCS students are now jointly enrolled at WKU and are on track to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Our students are more engaged than ever and are gaining experience and knowledge of other cultures and communities throughout the world through study abroad, exchange programs, and global internships and fellowships. Through our Confucius Institute WKU is bringing the Chinese language and culture to elementary and secondary students across our region of Kentucky. And our everincreasing population of international students adds an element of cultural exchange and understanding that is critical to our students’ success in a global business environment.
Our athletic programs are also achieving a high level of success. WKU Football earned the 2002 Division 1-AA Football National Championship and has today emerged as a successful BCS program. Our 19 Athletic teams continue to dominate the Sun Belt Conference in all sports and have achieved national success in Men’s Basketball, Women’s Volleyball, and Baseball as well. Since 2000, 85 percent of WKU student-athletes who have fulfilled their eligibility have graduated.
While the physical transformation of the campus is the most visible change, I am most proud of the shift in academic quality at WKU. We have three new doctoral programs. This year we celebrate 10 years of Mechanical, Civil, and Electrical engineering programs. Our fastest growing college, the College of Health and Human Services, didn’t even exist 15 years ago, and today it is home to our School of Nursing with plans to double its enrollment in the coming year. And something that wasn’t even on the radar for us in 1997, the Gatton Academy, was ranked by Newsweek as the number one high school in the nation in 2012!
This report, 15 Years: 15 Points of Progress, documents the most significant changes at WKU since our transformation began in late Fall, 1997. Our success is measurable. Our achievements are significant. Most importantly, our transformation is a lasting one.
"Gary and I have spoken often about what was so exciting when we arrived, and it was the combination of being able to lead an institution but also participate in this ambitious reform agenda. Over the last 15 years, higher education has performed, and one need look no further than Western Kentucky University to see how that's played out. Our biggest challenge here (at NKU), and I suspect Gary's challenge, is to sustain the momentum against very strong headwinds. But if I were betting on a university president in Kentucky, I'd bet on Gary Ransdell."
— Dr. Jim Votruba, President, Northern Kentucky University, 1997-2012
This fall, Dr. Gary Ransdell is celebrating his 15th year as president of Western Kentucky University. In this View from the Hill segment, Amy Bingham gets some perspective on how transformational life on the Hill as been since 1997.
A Tribute to Dr. Gary A. Ransdell's
leadership at WKU since 1997