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WKU Faculty and Staff Convocation - August 24, 2018

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President Timothy C. Caboni's Convocation Speech


Good morning!  Let’s hear it again for the WKU Red Shirts!  What an incredibly talented and diverse group of young men – thank you for getting us started today!  

Welcome to the 2018 WKU Faculty and Staff Convocation.  I’m glad to be with you on this beautiful morning as we gather to officially kick off the beginning of a new academic year. 

I want to extend a special welcome to those joining us via live streaming on our regional campuses in Glasgow, Elizabethtown-Ft. Knox, and Owensboro.  Thanks to each of you for participating. 

As is our annual practice, today we gather as a campus community to reflect on the year past and forecast the year ahead; to recognize faculty and staff award winners; to celebrate our very special Spirit of WKU Award honoree; and to welcome special guests and new members of the WKU family.

We are fortunate to have outstanding leadership from across the commonwealth and beyond who serve on our governing board.  Several are with us this morning.  Please hold your applause as I recognize each member of the WKU Board of Regents with us this morning.  Dr. Phillip Bale, Chair, from Glasgow; David Brinkley, Staff Regent, from Alvaton; Professor Claus Ernst, Faculty Regent, from Bowling Green; Julie Hinson, from Prospect, Kentucky; Stephen Mayer, Student Regent, from Louisville; and Jason McKinney, from Alvaton. 

We have a number of new faculty and staff who are with us for the first time this morning.  If you joined our WKU family at any time during the past year, please stand and let us recognize and welcome you.

I want to welcome Dr. Corinne Murphy, who began her duties as our new Dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences on August First.  Corinne comes to us from West Chester University of Pennsylvania.  She has a Ph.D. in Special Education and Applied Behavior Analysis, and her research and scholarship focus is on persons on the autism spectrum.  She has previously served as a faculty member, department chair, special assistant to the provost and most recently interim vice-provost at West Chester. 

Welcome, Corinne – we are excited to have you in our Hilltopper family!

I also want to take a moment to thank Dr. Jeff Katz, who served as the Dean of the Gordon Ford College of Business from 2011 to 2018.  Dean Katz has decided to devote his time and talents as the Oppitz Endowed Professor of Business and Professor of Management in the Gordon Ford College of Business. Thank you, Jeff, for your distinguished service to WKU.

I want to recognize and thank Dr. Cathy Carey who is serving as the interim dean of the Gordon Ford College of Business; Dr. Cheryl Davis, who is serving as Interim Dean of the Graduate School in addition to her duties as Associate Provost for Research and Creative Activity; and Dr. Dennis George who is serving as interim dean in the College of Health and Human Services. 

Thank you Cathy, Cheryl, and Dennis.  National searches for permanent deans for the graduate school and both colleges will begin this fall. 

Additionally, we will commence a search for a Vice President for Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement with John Paul Blair continuing to serve as Interim Vice President. Thank you, John Paul. 

One of the remarkable things about Western Kentucky University is the number of individuals who have served this institution for either the entirety or the majority their careers.  Ann Mead is one such individual. Ann has made the decision to retire next summer, so we’ll also be searching for an Executive Vice President of Strategy, Operations and Finance this year. 

I am grateful to Ann for her service and devotion to WKU.  Her career in higher education spans more than four decades - the last 24 years here; and not just as an administrator, Ann has also been an instructor for the last decade.  Ann, thank you.  But don’t rest yet, we have a lot of work yet to do this year! 

Finally, I want to recognize Professor Michael Smith from the Department of Biology who began August First as the acting executive director of the Mahurin Honors College while Dr. Craig Cobane spends this academic year completing an American Council of Education Fellowship. Thank you, Michael, for your leadership in this important role. 

We also welcome Dr. Terry Ballman, WKU’s new Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs.  Terry comes to WKU from California State University at San Bernardino.  Terry’s background in languages and her appreciation of the Humanities, coupled with her complete focus on student success, stood out during the selection process.  Terry is fully committed to our mission as a student-centered, applied research university, and that she is herself a first-generation college graduate enables her to relate to much of the student population we serve.  Terry will help lead implementation of our strategic plan and I’m looking forward to working closely with her as we continue to move WKU forward.

Congratulations to all the faculty and staff award winners today.  We are grateful for your service and dedication, for your professionalism, and for the manner in which you embrace and exemplify our commitment to being a student-centered, applied research university.  Thank you all, and congratulations. 



I want to begin by acknowledging the year past.  It was a challenging year for our entire community – for all of you and for me. The work we had to do has taken a toll on us. 

It certainly wasn’t how I envisioned beginning my tenure at WKU.  But it was necessary to deal with the reality of the financial challenges we faced, and I’m grateful to each of you.  I can’t tell you how proud I am of the way our campus responded.  And yes, we bent as a university, but we did not break.  And what we have achieved together is a university that is stronger, leaner, and poised for success going forward.

So, given what we experienced, I hope it’s okay with you if I don’t spend any more of our time this morning focused on the difficulties of last year.  Instead, I want us to look ahead, to focus on what we will create together for our students, for our community, for our alumni, and for our commonwealth.  Don’t misunderstand – I know that we will continue to have challenges - which is the norm in higher education at present - but we’ve done much of the hard work to put WKU on a path to a better future.  And for that, I thank you. 


How I Spent my Summer:

Now, to something more pleasant!  I trust that for each of you, the summer included some much-needed rest, relaxation, and reinvigoration.  I’ve enjoyed hearing from many of you about your vacations, about your experiences leading students on study abroad or study away courses, and about the critical work you completed during the summer months.

For those who leave campus at the end of the semester, our staff make this a very busy place during May, June, and July!

 I’d like to share with you this morning how I spent much of my summer.  And don’t worry, this is not a “what I did on my summer vacation” essay, although if you follow me on Twitter, some of this will be familiar to you!

As I began at WKU last year, I set a goal to visit each of the 27 counties in our service region.  This was a priority for me for several reasons.  First, I wanted to know from where our students come, and I wanted to have a sense of the life experiences they bring with them that help shape their time on our campus. 

Second, I wanted to know something about the communities that surround us and how their economies are built, how their people live, and what their challenges and successes are. 

And third, since the commonwealth of Kentucky dedicates a particular service region to each university to steward, I wanted to see for myself how we are serving our region.  You can’t gain that understanding by sitting behind a desk. So, with the help of our Public Affairs team, I embarked on the Big Red Road Trip, and over the course of thirteen days, we drove over twenty-five hundred miles, and visited 31 counties, hitting every county within our service region and making stops in a few more communities from which we draw a large number of students.

In each county, I had focused conversations with local K-12 educators, mayors and county judge-executives, directors of chambers of commerce and economic development entities, small business leaders, and manufacturers.  I met a lot of WKU alumni.  I heard a good bit about what we are doing well, and I heard some about what we aren’t doing or what we could do better. 

With each visit, I began the conversation with three things: 

One, we want to be YOUR university, so let’s talk about what that means, what you need from us, and how we can best serve your community. 

Two, we want your young people to come to WKU, so send us your students. 

And three, please come visit – come to a theater or musical performance, attend a Hilltopper athletic event, visit the Kentucky Museum – we want you to feel pride in WKU as YOUR university and we want you to be part of our community.   

So, let me give you just a few observations of what I learned. 

I was struck in one county when I met a young WKU graduate who serves as the editor of the local newspaper.  As a journalist, he is telling the story about this community losing their last grocery store – quite literally the last two places they have to buy food in their community were closing.  I was touched by what it must feel like for a student from there to come here to the riches of Bowling Green. 

Just one county over I met a judge-executive and economic development director who created innovative opportunities for entrepreneurs to locate businesses to their Main Street area.  This small community has put together a significant fund to fuel investment – something like a revolving loan fund to provide seed money - and they’ve been highly successful at enticing business development and bringing life back to their downtown area. 

Here’s another thing I learned…just to our south in Simpson County, five new companies have located there recently – three are from Japan and two are from Germany – demonstrating that our region truly is an international community.

This is why an international focus will continue to be part of the fabric of who we are and what we do as an institution.  Providing our young people with the experience of sitting next to individuals in class who are from other places, who see the world differently, is more important now than ever. 

And yes, we must continue to create pathways for them to go outside of the United States so that they understand what it means to live in a place different from the one where they’ve grown up. 

Making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.

We know many of our students have never been abroad and that some have not been outside of Kentucky.  It’s critical that we continue to provide a broad context to their WKU experience if they are to be successful in our global economy, whether they stay right here or go far away. 

More about our international efforts in a moment, but first, let me finish the point of my Big Red Road Trip. 

We can find examples of great successes and extraordinary challenges in each of the communities I visited.  But instead, let me end with a challenge to each of us.

WKU was built to serve our neighboring counties. As we talk about our mission as a student-centered, applied research university, we must not lose sight of our responsibility – our obligation – and the necessary commitment we must have to every one of those 27-plus counties in and around our service region.  These are the communities from where MOST of our students come.  We can better understand our students if we understand their communities.  We all have to lift the red and white curtain that sometimes surrounds our campus.

So here’s the challenge.

Get off the hill. Get out of the office. Make sure that as part of your work, WKU is genuinely engaged with the communities we were built to serve. 

Now, to the work that’s ahead of us this year and beyond.


Climbing to Greater Heights:

As you know we’ve spent the last several months creating the roadmap that will guide us for the next decade.  Before I talk about the final plan, I want to pause and thank Paula Potter and Bruce Schulte for their leadership as co-chairs of our Strategic Planning Steering Committee as well as the steering committee members. 

I also want to recognize those who served as working group co-chairs and all who participated on the various work groups. If you served on either the steering committee or the working groups, will you please stand?  Thank you for your leadership and for the hundreds of hours spent collectively on this remarkably important endeavor. 

Many more of you participated in this process by attending an open forum and providing feedback – thank you.  This strategic planning effort truly was a bottom-up process and one that required your trust and your participation.  I think that what you’ll see is that your engagement was rewarded with a plan that appropriately represents our shared aspirations for WKU.  What we have created together is our way forward - how we define and how we will direct our future. 

These are and will continue to be challenging times for higher education and for our state.  What we must figure out, given the context in which we are working, is how we define success, how we create opportunities, and how we shape WKU for the next decade. 

I began last year talking about what it means to be a student-centered university.  That theme carries forward and is well-represented in our new plan. 

We’ve titled this plan Climbing to Greater Heights – recognizing that our hill is real in the physical sense and it is symbolic of the journey that is indeed an uphill challenge for many, but one that is rewarding and worthwhile at the top. 

We’ve divided this strategic plan into three major categories: Our Students, Our Hill, and Our Community and Beyond. The Board of Regents approved the plan during their August third meeting. 

Today, as you leave, you will receive a card with a website address where you can review the final document on our strategic plan website.  As we work together to further define success for each strategy and goal, and we will add the metrics and other data by which our successes will be measured. 

I know none of us will see represented in this final document everything we might have hoped would have been included. There were necessary choices and compromises made so the document was strategic and not just a laundry list. But I would like for you to identify the portions of the plan that resonate with you and connect to your daily work. And I ask you: commit to doing your part to ensure that we succeed in those areas. 

Putting this plan into action is the most important part of this process, so this fall we will assemble an implementation team that will be responsible for fully executing the plan and ensuring that we stay on track.

Today I want to outline “Climbing to Greater Heights” for you and highlight a few elements that will take shape immediately.


Our Students:

Students are at the heart of everything we do, and the strategies included in our plan ensure we focus even more aggressively on helping every student we admit graduate from WKU. 

Affordability and access; a diverse student body that is fully prepared for college; persistence and completion; a total commitment to our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion plan; and preparation for career and life are at the heart of the goals we’ve set for ourselves. 

 First, let me address how we have refined our admission standards to meet the expectation that those students we admit have a reasonable chance of persisting and graduating in four years.  You will remember, last year we made a shift with an initial group of students better served by beginning their postsecondary education at a community college - those students with a Composite Admission Index below sixty, which is a formula calculated using a student’s G-P-A and A-C-T scores. This group of students persisted at less than a twenty percent rate from first to second year, and many fewer made it to graduation. Worse, they typically leave after their first semester with an average debt of four thousand dollars, and that is simply unfair to those students.

What we have begun to do this year is purposefully and strategically shape our freshman class, and the initial indicators are positive.  I’m pleased to report that this entering class has the highest average G-P-A at 3.39, and the highest average A-C-T score at 23.2, of any freshman class in our history.  As we fully implement the student success tactics in our strategic plan, our persistence and success rates will climb. 

At the same time, we must continue to serve our region as an institution of access and opportunity. We must embrace that while challenging our students.  We also must provide support and guidance for them to be successful. It’s not all on them – we play a crucial role in their success. With that in mind, there is another group of students we must help succeed here. 

Entering students with a high school G-P-A between 2.0 and 2.49 persist at a slightly higher rate than those in the group we just discussed. But, without intervention, just under thirty-eight percent make it to their second year. This represents about two hundred and fifty students in our typical freshman class. We are going to admit them. We know they CAN be successful. But we are going to ask them to do some things we know will increase their likelihood of success. And, if we admit them, then we also are committing ourselves to getting them across the finish line.

This year, we will admit these students to our 2019 WKU Summer Scholars program. They will arrive on campus five weeks ahead of the rest of the freshman class.  They’ll take two courses for which they will earn six hours of credit, and they will live in the same room where they will live during the fall semester. These students will begin the fall semester ahead of the game. They will know the campus, they will know their faculty navigator, and they will know their peer mentor.  We’re going to help prepare them for what it means to do rigorous academic work here at WKU - not just in their first semester, and not just in their first year, but for all four years.

This goes hand in glove with something I know is a topic of conversation among you and your colleagues - our move to a first and second year Comprehensive Advising Program

I’ve heard the concerns, and we’ve worked together with deans to address many of those. However, to increase persistence and success rates across the institution, we simply must try something new.  We know from our peers nationally that well executed centralized advising improves first to second year retention. Period.

Advising has to be about more than navigating schedules and course taking.  We must take a holistic approach and help students manage the social, personal, financial, AND academic aspects of college success.  Students will move to advising within their college of choice following the second year of comprehensive advising, but initially, they will have all related advising services available to them in one place in the Downing Student Union. A “one-stop-shop” with a single point of contact to help students succeed.

And none of this precludes the close mentoring relationships our faculty will continue to create with our students beginning as soon as they arrive on campus.

We also must ensure we continue our push to make sure every student who is ready for success at WKU can participate fully in our intellectual community and the total WKU experience, regardless of their family’s economic condition.

Last spring, I announced the establishment of the WKU Opportunity Fund, a focused effort to raise fifty million dollars to support recruitment, retention, and experiences for our students beyond the classroom. Today, I’m pleased to announce the first gift to the WKU Opportunity Fund.  The James Graham Brown Foundation has committed four-hundred, fifty thousand dollars to establish the WKU Center for Academic Resources and Success – WKU CAReS – to support our retention and persistence efforts. 

WKU CAReS will provide sustained, targeted advising for two hundred first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented minority students, and it will serve as the primary resource for academic support with access to mentoring, tutoring, financial assistance, and other barriers that prevent these students from entering or from persisting once they get here.  Martha Sales will direct this program in addition to her work at ISEC and TRiO. 

And speaking of ISEC, I want to recognize and compliment the entire team at the Cynthia and George Nichols Intercultural Student Engagement Center on a remarkable first year for the ISEC Academy.  Their work with 62 first-year students who are underrepresented minorities resulted in a seventy-one percent retention rate from first to second year.  That’s above our average retention for all first-year students for the prior year, and well above the fifty-five percent average for this student population in general.  Congratulations and well done to each and every one of you! 

In its second year, the ISEC Academy is working with sixty-nine students, whom I had the privilege of welcoming to campus earlier this week.

In addition to the innovative practices coming out of the Burch Institute, over time, these programs and strategies will increase the persistence and success rates for all WKU students.

Now, for some shorthand. I want you to leave today with two numbers in mind: eighty and sixty. Taken together these activities comprise our eighty-sixty plan – a stretch goal for our institution to reach an eighty percent retention and sixty percent graduation rate. This will not be easy, but it is emblematic of what a student-centered institution does, and it will push each of us to identify our individual roles in getting more of our students to graduation.

Earlier I mentioned the importance of our international focus.  This past year we paused to assess our international programs with Gordon Johnson leading our initiative to reorganize and reset our international programs and priorities under one umbrella.  Gordon retired on June 30, and I’m pleased to announce John Sunnygard as our new Associate Provost for Global Learning and International Affairs.  He arrives and will begin his duties on Monday.

John will lead our efforts to reinvigorate and reenergize what is a critically important activity for our institution.  In this ever more challenging environment, his charge is to revamp and re-conceptualize our international recruitment strategies. Markets that used to exist have closed, and we must identify the places where we can build new, robust pipelines to recruit international students to participate in the WKU experience. 

He will maintain and grow our remarkable study abroad and study away opportunities for even more of our students, and he will help lead our efforts to more deeply embed an international focus throughout all of our academic programs. 


Our Hill:

You, our faculty and staff, are the lifeblood of this institution.  Our Hill is the section of the strategic plan devoted to ensuring that we have a collegial, healthy workplace; that we are financially stable and can adequately support strategic and institutional priorities; and that we enable and empower all of you to pursue activities that elevate our students, one another, and our region.

First, I want to affirm our commitment to a four percent salary increase pool this year.  All employees hired on or before July 1, 2018, will receive a two percent salary increase on January first and also will be eligible for up to a four percent merit increase.  It is important that we support all of our employees with a reasonable cost of living increase, but it is equally important to reward those employees who are performing at the highest levels.  This balance allows us to do both. 

Second, I want to announce support for the Staff Council’s recommendation to enhance our sick leave benefit to ensure that employees are protected from income loss for an extended period during unplanned, serious illness or injury.  This is a meaningful quality of work-life change that is important to our WKU family, and we will implement it this fall.    

And third, this will serve as a transition year for our budget model.  The model used for the past twenty years no longer works in today’s realities.  The work we’ve done in the past year will result in a new budget model that’s designed both to incentivize and reward student enrollment, persistence, graduation, and research. 

This year we are running the Resource Allocation, Management, and Planning budget model parallel to our current budget – we still will utilize our existing budget methods, but we will mirror the new RAMP model to study the overall changes and implications in advance of full implementation next year. 

I know the rapidity of change in which we’ve been engaged, and the uncertainty this creates, causes unease and stress among many, particularly after last year.  But this work is crucial to our success as an institution, and we must not delay implementation of this new budget model.  This is important for a variety of reasons.  Most importantly, it makes clear and rewards our goals as a university, and it empowers our deans and academic leaders across the campus to be innovative, entrepreneurial, and creative. 

Let me be clear – this new budget model is not a formula that eliminates decision-making. It is a way for us to make transparent for the entire university community how we invest and spend our scarce resources, the true costs of our support and auxiliary units, and where we spend our dollars.  It also creates a strategic investment fund enabling us to fund the portions of our strategic plan requiring new resources. 

This new budget model also will align our internal allocation process with the broader outcome goals set by the state in the new performance funding model.  The point of Kentucky moving to a performance based funding strategy for all universities was to incentivize change at the institutional level.  There will be winners and there will be losers in the state based upon institutional performance, and we must do everything in our power to shift our internal priorities and funding strategies in ways that set us on a path for success. 

We’ll continue to communicate with the campus about this new budget model throughout the year.


Our Community and Beyond:

I began today discussing communities that surround us. We cannot be a successful university without elevating the region we were built to serve.  WKU should be a lighthouse, attracting and building a talent pipeline that supports our economy.  We must leverage our international reach in ways that compliment and grow our local communities.  We must respond to the growing workforce demands around us by providing educational programs relevant to the regional and statewide economy, and we must engage our alumni and others to partner with us.

One of the most pressing concerns I have encountered since arriving last year relates to the thousands of open jobs here and across the commonwealth and the great need for an educated workforce. 

While it’s true that many of those open positions don’t require a bachelor’s degree, a significant number do.  This is a labor market issue, with a misalignment between labor force preparation and open positions – specifically those in high demand fields such as Advanced Manufacturing, Business and IT, construction, healthcare, transportation, and logistics. 

We’ve taken a very close look at our regional campus performance and the constituencies they were built to serve, and, more importantly, the economies they were built to support.  This fall, we are launching a Workforce Administration bachelor’s degree program that’s designed specifically for adult learners who have earned an associate of applied science degree. 

This one hundred percent online program will allow individuals to complete a bachelor’s degree in fifteen months.  This degree is connected to four areas that are in tremendous demand, particularly in the regional markets we serve in Owensboro, Elizabethtown, and Glasgow, and it aligns well with the Governor’s expanded Work Ready Scholarship initiative.  This high quality online degree completion program is a pilot for us and will be available to adult learners across the commonwealth for seventy-five hundred dollars.  That tuition is the lowest per-credit-hour rate of any four-year institution in the state. 

This effort absolutely matches our institutional mission, and it will help support individuals who want to complete their degree and go to work in the communities where they live.  It also will serve the needs and demands of the Kentucky economy by moving more adult learners into the workforce.

Philanthropic support continues to be the difference maker for us at WKU.  Our alumni and friends have a great passion for this institution, and they demonstrate it over and over again, with generous support for our students, for our faculty and staff, and for our programs. 

I’m pleased to report that the past year brought record levels of giving to WKU – with a new high of forty-five million dollars in private support raised in 2017-18 – the most we’ve ever raised in one year in our history. 

And I’m most proud and grateful that another all-time record level of giving came from you, our WKU faculty and staff.  What does it say about our Hilltopper family that in what was one of our toughest years ever, you gave back more than one point one million dollars in private support to WKU?  That represents an all-time high of seven hundred fifteen faculty and staff donors contributing.  Wow!  Thank you.  (lead applause)



Climbing to Greater Heights is intentionally broad in some areas, but every goal and strategy is about helping our students succeed; creating a stable, rewarding, and healthy work environment for our campus faculty and staff; and elevating the communities we serve.

We’ve covered several major areas of emphasis for the coming year, but there are many more goals and strategies included in the plan that we have not discussed today. During this year, we will bring more of them to the forefront of our campus conversation.

Before I close, I want to take a moment to discuss why the WKU Experience remains necessary and relevant. We certainly want our graduates to leave us with good jobs and successful careers. But in our topsy-turvy world, our students need an education that stretches and challenges their assumptions, that pushes them and supports them, and that inspires them to think differently about the world around them.

The WKU Experience must create in them crucial habits of mind: a willingness to question systematically; a reliance on reason and evidence; a constant striving to be well informed; a tolerance for divergent views. This is so much more than getting them ready for work. We must remain steadfastly committed to preparing them not just to make a good living, but to make a good life.

Finally, as we think about who we are and who we aspire to be, I often hear references to our desire to be nationally prominent.  And I agree with those aspirations - I want us to be a national leader among our higher education peers.  But perhaps the way I see us achieving that is a little different than you might think. 

I want Western Kentucky University to be best known for how we change students’ lives.  The best way to develop a national reputation for ourselves is not to talk about striving for a national reputation. Rather, it is to do locally what we were built to do.  So, the story I want told about this year is that we focused like a laser on the things that will help our students succeed, that will help our campus community succeed, and that will help our region succeed. And when we do that exceedingly well, national recognition will come. 

As we pursue our goals and think about how we focus our daily work, let’s all keep in mind our immediate charge – and that is to focus everything we’re about on our students, on our hill, and on our community and beyond.

Thank you for the tremendous honor of serving with you, and thank you for all that you do each and every day.  Have a wonderful day and an outstanding year.  Thank you.


President Timothy C. CaboniWKU President Timothy C. Caboni



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